Backstage Truths

Last weekend, the long weekend, I was surrounded by people saying things like “frame,” “BTS,” “room tone,” “boom operator,” and many other film-related jargon that was completely foreign to me.

I was an extra in a short film called Souls that Balance. The title, taken from the first line of this poem, intrigued me from the start, and it was great fun to make my first foray into the acting world with such a great team of people and what seems like an incredibly creative script. To qualify that statement, I should hardly call what I did acting since all you can see is the back of my head, but still. I was on a film set!

A few brief observations from the weekend about acting and film-making:

  • Long days, early mornings
  • Details matter – like, every single detail in every single shot matters. I have so much more appreciation when I watch films now.
  • A lot of waiting around. I can see how people on a film set can get really close in a short amount of time, because you’re all waiting around together in the same space. The community part of it was the highlight.
  • I think there’s a tendency to glamourize actor’s lives and the work they do, but after this experience, I didn’t see any glamour—just a lot of work. Saying your line over and over again as if it was the first time. Or saying the line perfectly but having to redo it anyway because some detail was out of place, or the camera angle was slightly off. Requires a lot of patience and concentration.
  • It’s all about the light. One of the other extras who’s involved in the Vancouver acting community told me she immediately knew how serious the production was by the lighting equipment on set.

Seems like so many things/professions depend on the light. Photographers, painters, lovers. This film experience made me think of the Impressionists who made light their subject. Sure, they painted boats and people and gardens, but the subject of their paintings—what they were after—was how the light fell on the boats and people and gardens: how our perception of things depends on when and how we are seeing it.

Monet. Bathers at La Grenouillère (1869)

Take Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series for an example. Over thirty paintings in total, different seasons, different times of day. As the Wikipedia entry states, the cathedral provides an interesting juxtaposition between a solid, permanent structure and the evanescent quality of light.

When the light is right, you just know. I knew when I was in New York City and took this photo. This was my favourite picture from the whole trip, all because of the light. No touch-ups, no Photoshop, no nothing added to it. Just sun and sky and stone kissing at 1047 Amsterdam Ave in Morningside Heights.

Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, NYC. Charlene Kwiatkowski 2011.

On the subject of Impressionists, Degas’ ballerina paintings similarly convey the unglamorous work that goes on behind-the-scenes (BTS) of anyone who performs. While he also painted ballerinas performing on stage in front of 19th-century bourgeois Parisians, many of his pieces show ballerinas in rehearsal—training, stretching, and yes, waiting. In this way, Degas’ works give outsiders a view from the other side, behind the curtain where it’s all work, fatigue, and routine. And some critics didn’t like this “backstage pass” so to speak because it wasn’t pretty. But it’s true.

Degas. Monsieur Perrot’s Dance Class (1875)

Degas. The Dance Lesson (1872)

Degas. Waiting (1882)

Degas. The Mante Family (1880)

In response to the painting directly above, The Mante Family, critic J-K. Huysmans wrote:

What truth! What life! How all these figures hold the space, how exactly the light bathes the scene, how the expression of these physiognomies, the searching look of the mother whose hopes rise when her daughter’s body unbends, the indifference of comrades for well-known weariness, how these are etched out and noted with the perspicacity of an analyst at once cruel and subtle.

This makes Degas a realist, or a naturalist to use the artistic term.

Degas. Rehearsal (1879)

Rehearsal (1879) says it even more. I love the way Robert Herbert writes about it in his book Impressionism, my go-to guide for painters of this style:

Here [light] models the dancers in reverse, and stresses the artifice involved, that is, natural light is made to seem artificial in the fiction of the picture, as it is in actuality: it is the artist himself who took the colors of his palette and made up the dancers’ masks. ‘Light,’ that is, artists’ paint, reveals backstage truths, the hard work and ugly grimaces which cannot be seen by spectators at a performance. This is–again!–the work of a naturalist. ‘Oh! all the things in the world, as long as one sees them from behind!’ wrote the Goncourt brothers.”

What backstage truths have you encountered, whether it be in the performing arts or other industries?

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2 thoughts on “Backstage Truths

  1. Oooooohhh, I love the Impressionists!!! My gallery has a large collection of paintings (including Rouen Cathedral). Lovely post 🙂

    I have been on a few film sets so I can totally understand where you’re coming from. It was endless takes and getting the smoke to billow about at the right angle and people joking around. Very unglamorous. I like the way you link it to Degas.

    • Thanks, yeah the Impressionists are great! Probably my favourite style. What gallery do you work at? I’ve heard the Musée d’Orsay in Paris has a good collection too which I’ll have to visit one day.

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