Darkness Falls: Realizing the Visuals for Dance Series 'Flesh and Bone'

"I enjoyed that vérité style for this series. It was very liberating—but I think only possible with the Alexa," says DP Terry Stacey.
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Soon after Adam Arkapaw shot the pilot for Starz’ Flesh and Bone, cinematographer Terry Stacey happily found himself signing on as DP for the remainder of the season.

“I feel Adam [Arkapaw] and I share a common aesthetic, both coming from a feature [film] background. For A-camera, Adam went with the ARRI Alexa—which also made the most sense to me because of its proximity to a film camera resolution, and for its latitude and rendition of skin tones. Also his choice of older Super Speed primes, with their high contrast and a cooler feel, made sense for this project,” says Stacey.

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Claire and the American Ballet Company

Regarding the additional artistic and technical possibilities afforded by today’s digital tools, he says, “To be honest, I still think in terms of 35mm film and I try to capture what I can on the day. Obviously, it’s great to be able to play with color saturation, contrast and so on in post, but I feel that what I see on the monitors is pretty close to what will be on screen. We had no [digital imaging technician] and I enjoyed that vérité style for this series. It was very liberating—but I think only possible with the Alexa.”

The eight-episode first season, which premiered Nov. 8 on Starz, follows Claire, a young ballet dancer with a troubled past, as she joins the ranks of a prestigious ballet company in New York. The gritty, complex series explores the dysfunction and glamour of the ballet world.

In addition to Claire and a few non-dancing actors, the show includes a company of 22 professional dancers. Executive producer Moira Walley-Beckett explains, “I didn’t want to fake it. I didn’t want to have body doubles. I didn’t want to have actors who could dance a little. I wanted dancers, and I wanted to be able to put the camera anywhere. I wanted to watch them sweat and bleed and suffer and soar.”

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Claire (Sarah Hay) and Paul Grayson (Ben Daniels), artistic director of the ballet company

Walley-Beckett, who previously served as a writer and executive producer on Breaking Bad, has extensive experience in the sphere of professional dance. She started dancing at 3 and continued through her 20s, including some years on a professional level. Her experience gives the series a realism that helps drive the narrative. “Coming from my background on Breaking Bad, authenticity is everything—dramatically, character-wise, story-wise. And in terms of the ballet component, that’s something that I wasn’t willing to show without full verisimilitude. All of it is true.”

The cinematographer notes that when all of a show's elements come together—the story, the writing, the characters—it’s easy to find the right cinematic style. He describes the tone of Flesh and Bone as “very moody, with a high-contrast look and an invisible lighting style to stay naturalistic and often pretty harsh.”

His style on Flesh and Bone, he continues, was “to light a room and then have that scene play out to give the actors freedom to move around the space, in and out of shadow. We also used a lot of handheld camera work with a great operator [Oliver Cary], which added to the mood and tension. Going with [lens] flares, too, also made sense for this series.”

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Executive producer Moira Walley-Beckett (at right), with Stefan Schwartz, who directed episode 3

He shot the series’ numerous dance sequences on the big stage at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, as well as on a variety of other sets at Steiner Studios at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. “I did transgress in the dance studios at Kaufman, which was rigged with fluorescents and looked great. But the more I shot there, the more I missed the drama of harder light and having the windows blow out. So we rigged 20Ks on truss motors and moved them through the huge arch windows. I think it kept things alive and added mood to the story.”

Of shooting on a stage, Stacey believes the challenge is in remaining small and keeping lighting and camera styles consistent with location work. “I would always visit the real location and see how the light changes throughout the day and then try to mimic that on stage. The luxury of the stage, of course, is that you can create your own constant sunlight, and pull walls and such. And then there’s always that stylized overhead shot that contradicts everything I just said. But if it’s right for the drama, then it’s worth it.”

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The cinematographer described another challenge inherent to extended shoots, an artistic challenge hidden in the routine of everyday production: “On a series, you may come back 20 times to the same apartment on the stage. Discovering how to approach the scene to keep things fresh and alive can be really hard, and it’s too easy to say, ‘Oh yeah, the 35mm from that corner looking into the windows always looks the best.’”

Stacey typically finds location work the most enjoyable to shoot, perhaps because of his background shooting documentaries. “I always think of all those tremendous 1970s on-location movies that still hold up since they’re so real and visceral. Sure you have limitations—space, and losing daylight—but there’s urgency and a real truth that is unbeatable. And it’s great to see ceilings! So much of stage work is done with rigged soft-top light. It especially made sense for the mood of Flesh and Bone,” Stacey adds.

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