A new Manitoba-shot video released this week is the result of artists and musicians finding creative solutions for problems that COVID-19 has made for the entertainment business.
On Oct. 19, 2020, just as COVID-19 numbers in Manitoba were beginning to rise to frightening levels, a small video crew, a producer and five dancers from Winnipeg made the trip — all in their own vehicles — to the Chroma Ranch, a special-effects facility near Ile des Chenes that was also used in 2020 during the shooting of the upcoming Liam Neeson thriller The Ice Road.
The dancers performed to the single Respect the Gift, by singer-songwriter Adrian Sutherland, who was at home in Attawapiskat First Nation, on the western shore of James Bay in northern Ontario.
The dancers’ backdrop was a bluescreen, which would play a large part in the editing and animation work by director Justin Stephenson, who was providing input from his house in Toronto and would later edit and put the final touches on the video.
Blue and green screens are common in film and TV shoots as they allow animators and editors to replace the background with other images. In Respect the Gift, the dancers are replaced by silhouettes and the background constantly changes with vivid graphics.
It’s easy to believe the distances between all those involved in the video would be an obstacle but Stephenson says the situation instead proved to be a great opportunity.
"I would say it wasn’t more difficult. In fact it was easier because I didn’t have to spend the day on set," he says with a chuckle. "When they sent me the footage it was perfect. They really captured something special with the dancers."
It was a rare opportunity for the dancers, Holly Plett, Jolie Lesperance, Kika Lacerda, Maribeth Tabanera and Marvin Joseph Barawid (aka Majo), to put their talent to use during 2020, a year when artists from all disciplines were kept off stages to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"It was exciting to be able to work on a project, being a creative right now, with everything going on," says Tabanera, a streetstyle dancer who is also an intern co-ordinator for the Seven Oaks and Maples Met schools in Winnipeg and, in her spare time, a DJ. "My personal dance practise has mostly been indoors by myself."
She mostly improvised her dance at the film shoot because she wasn’t sure how much dance footage producers would need.
"I didn’t pre-choreograph my dancing prior to it but I’d listened to the song over and over again," Tabanera says. "As soon as they started rolling, they said they were going to play the whole song, so just give ‘er.
"Thankfully there was another dancer there so we got to switch back and forth because it is really exhausting to go straight three-and-a-half, four minutes of super-intense dancing."
The initial plan for the video was to have just one dancer perform in the video, but it wasn’t long before Sutherland and his creative team decided to use many dancers of different styles, says RoseAnna Schick, a Winnipeg publicist who produced the video.
"Each performance ended up so unique and spirited, and we are really grateful for the talent that each of them brought to this project," she says.
Stephenson spent the next three months editing the video — "there was so much footage," he says. That put his animation skills to the test, mixing the "dialogue" between the music, the dances and the video design.
"Each dancer did between three and five takes from the entire song, and it was lining those takes up with the song, picking the best moments for each dancer and then editing the entire music video together based on those best moments," says Stephenson, who has worked on animation for many films, and was the animation director for Secret Path, the 2016 film about residential school survivor Chanie Wenjack that was directed by Gord Downie.
"They all had very different takes on the music, which I think is a strength of the video."
While some of the background graphics have a retro look from the psychedelic era, Stephenson added diamond-shaped graphics that would be seen on a star blanket — a gift of honour among many Indigenous people — after discussions with Sutherland, who is Cree.
"This piece is coming from Adrian. His work resonates from where he’s from in Attawapiskat in northern Ontario," Stephenson says. "He’s a very strong leader within that community. It was really important to incorporate some kind of Indigenous graphic scheme as well. The idea of the star blanket came out of that."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.