Guest Interview by Lisa Niedermeyer
Lisa: Hi Ryan, tell us a bit about your background as an artist, cinematographer, and Steadicam operator.
Ryan: Hi! First off thanks so much for talking to me and being interested in my work as a technician and operator! I have been working for the last 11 years at EMPAC, the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center on the Rensselaer Polytechnic campus in Troy NY. Everyone who works here covers a wide range of technical fields, but I primarily work in the video department covering everything from install and documentation of work, to video design, color correction, and A-Cam/Steadicam operator. EMPAC has given me a wealth of experience working directly with artists to achieve their cinematic goals and introducing them to modern technologies that can help them achieve their vision. So much of the artistic process, in my opinion, is trial and error, and what I love most about my job is being able to funnel the thousands of events and production I have been part of into any given project to get it where it wants to be. I sometimes refer to myself as a Sherpa, someone to share the load and provide guidance as we tackle figuring out the work together.
I have been operating Steadicam for about 10 years now on various productions at EMPAC, freelance work, and touring performances. I was lucky enough that EMPAC has its own rig here that I was able to work and learn on before I got my own rig for myself. Working almost exclusively in the arts has given me a great opportunity to learn how to utilize the equipment in non-traditional ways, especially in its relationship to body, movement, and dance.
I finished my own MFA in 2016 after four years pursuing my MFA part-time. My work exists in multiple mediums, but often pushes against the technology that I feel surrounded by in my professional career. Building upon themes of memory, emotional compartmentalization, and home, I build large scale installation works that incorporate film, sculpture, and diorama into a unified narrative. I am interested in exploring what the images are we make mentally to try and preserve and organize our experiences for future reference, and the grey area between what is “real” and imagined.
Lisa: You worked closely with Kinetic Light during our creative residency at EMPAC in Nov 2018 as part of the video team. Part of why I reached out to you for an interview is because even well in advance of EMPAC Kinetic Light had experimented with how to capture wheelchair choreography in compelling ways that provide a visceral experience for both disabled and non-disabled audiences. We have tried the traditional 3 camera set up for live dance performance, motion capture, 360 capture, go pro, etc. It wasn’t until I felt your Steadicam footage that my stomach felt the magic I feel in person when Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson dance together. Please share with us about your experience during the residency, what knowledge share was exchanged between the video team and the artists?
Ryan: As an engineer, I find it really exciting when artists are so open about discussing their process and have a clear vision of what they want to achieve with the work. When Alice and Laurel were explaining the previous methods they had used and their reactions to it, I was instantly trying to churn out ideas of how we could capture the work in a way that felt more like what they wanted and respected their way of viewing. As an operator, we constantly are thinking about the gaze of the camera and how the decisions we make reinforce the experience of the viewer. We had great conversations back and forth about camera placements, movement, and locations. It was very educational to hear from them how many ideas I came up with that they had already tried before, and just didn’t work. Not only did it not work, but they were so precise in their explanation for why it didn’t capture the look, focus, and attention to the subjects that they wanted. I recognize my own inexperience with trying to think of cinema from a disabled gaze, and it was an honor to be taken to school on the way that I look at documenting. Gaze is a common discussion in film narrative, but I find it really intriguing that Kinetic Light is also questioning the concept of gaze in its literal physical location and ways of movement. Not only is this interesting in the context of filmmaking, but as an operator it is very empowering to be recognized for how much our bodies and input into the frame makes drastic changes to the conceptual goals of a work.
Lisa: I observed some creative capture experiments/hacks, for example strapping a camera onto the sternum of Laurel Lawson to explore point of view. Can you share some of what you felt was really successful and what was tried but didn’t work so well?
Ryan: I was really intrigued about the use of the 360-degree camera, and what was and was not working as a way to view the work. Sometimes the notion of immersion and “being there” can feel like a great way to include the viewer in the visceral nature of performance, but in actuality has a way of distancing ourselves from the experience. I often feel more like a voyeur, stepping into a void to observe what is around me, rather than immersed and part of the experience. To me, the motion of the Steadicam and its playful presence in the space helps us feel the flow and beauty of the movement, to fly alongside.
I also thought that our decision to include a top-down camera really helps pay homage to the intricacy of the choreography in the work. The nature of the raked ramp and the speed of Alice and Laurel I found made it harder for me to experience the weaving geometric patterns that are so prevalent from the aerial view of the work. It wasn’t until I was operating cameras for the live documentation that I got to see the birds eye aerial view, and I found myself constantly mesmerized by how precise their spacing and timing were.
Lisa: You have major mileage in on the Steadicam in particular with your Charles Atlas work. Tell me a bit about what you have learned over all this time in terms of capturing dance in a compelling way. If you have developed a philosophy or approach you would like to share here.
Ryan: I have learned a lot working with Charles Atlas and I consider it a huge honor to glean from him how he looks at dance and framing. With that project, TESSERACT, I also had the pleasure of working the amazing choreographers Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, whom I credit a lot for how I have developed as a Steadicam operator. It was through them and their welcoming of me as a non-dancer to share the stage with them that I built confidence in my own body and movement, in order to better inform my performance as an operator. So much of dance is reflected in the art of Steadicam. It is incredibly important you be able to understand and digest choreography quickly and have a developed spatial awareness to yourself, the rig, and your subjects. As an operator you also have to learn two sets of choreography at once; both your body and the eye of the camera.
Traditionally we also try to use a much wider lens on Steadicam to help us easier achieve a stable and solid horizon, which means that in order to get close up moving shots that convey momentum, I am often right in the thick of the dance and movement. As an observer watching the interaction of the dance and camera, it often feels like one unified performance. I like to think of my work as trying to incorporate the camera into the dance, rather than trying to think about it as strict documentation.
My personal philosophy always stems from trying to understand the choreographer’s relationship to the body and focus on what parts of the choreography and dance I need to focus on. Some like to explore the dance from a more intimate perspective that traverses the body in a tighter frame, while others view the choreography as the entire body, and we try to frame the entire dance to stay always within the frame. I try as much as I can to let the movement of the dance pull and push the camera into a space that feels natural, reinforcing the idea that the camera is a dance partner, not an inanimate object.
Lisa: I loved watching you move with the dancers when you were capturing. I think of the wheelchairs as perpetual motion machines and you with the Steadicam were very similar – no brakes, never completely still. I imagined for myself what it felt like to wear the Steadicam. Can you please describe the equipment and what it feels like to move with it, use a metaphor if you can.
Ryan: The Steadicam is a one of a kind tool in film. In my experience, there is absolutely nothing that compares with it to provide freedom of operation and improvisation. The framing is directly related, connected, and tied to every movement of your body. While this requires a lot of practice to master and feel creative with, it enables you more than any other tool to at any moment have control over the camera. It transcends other forms of operating where the muscle memory of its use takes over and you no longer are paying attention to it, you are just reacting and the camera follows.
I always compare the Steadicam to holding a 25-pound toddler out at arm’s length for minutes at a time. This is the extreme of it, and when operated correctly you rarely let yourself get into those kinds of positions, but the Steadicam is not something I would describe as cozy and comfortable, it is a laborious task to wear it and to manipulate it into the positions that place the weight correctly on your body and spine, and avoid the areas and movements that fatigue you and burn you out.
I too felt the similarity between the chair and the Steadicam, both apparatuses that we use and allow to become extensions of our bodies. The Steadicam complements the nature of the choreography, and it allows us to really feel like we are part of the momentum. What really fascinates me about Steadicam is how it can be such a physical and strained tool to operate, yet the finished result can be something that feels so disembodied and effortless. The camera becomes a floating eye that viewers can relate to on a visceral level and see themselves in, yet hopefully, in the end, my personal presence as an operator is not felt or present. Despite how much of my body goes into making the frame, the viewer still finds it easy to assume the gaze of the camera as their own.
Lisa: There was a moment when you expressed the urge to be in the dancers custom wheelchairs, to have that experience as part of your learning. Can you describe this disability cultural literacy moment for you as a non-disabled person learning that the dancers experience their chairs as their own bodies (rather than a device, prop or extension of their body)?
Ryan: It was a huge opportunity for me to address and understand my preconceived notions of gaze and the “norms” of how and why I frame things as an operator. I am ashamed to say that in the years I have been doing this I have never really considered an ableist gaze as one of the things to consider when working with artists. I think it is well known at this point that we all could benefit from straight white males taking a step back and listening, so I really appreciated how open and willing everyone on the production was to giving me the time to digest everything they were showing us and hopefully being able to contribute in what ways I could.
As a Steadicam operator, I am really interested in how people interface their bodies with equipment as a natural extension. Since so much of what we were doing was trying to capture the feeling of the chair, I felt like it was impossible for me to understand without at least trying to experience the gaze that Alice wanted captured. I wanted to know what the sharp turns on the ramp, the vibrations coming up from the decking, and acceleration felt like so that I could better understand what I was trying to capture. I really appreciated that the environment in the space was welcoming enough that I felt like I could ask these questions, and educate myself through the experience.
Lisa: In a dream scenario we get to play together again, what would you want to explore with Kinetic Light?
Ryan: I would really love to try and do a single take Steadicam shot that focuses specifically on how we could choreograph the camera to become part of the dance world that Kinetic Light is creating. How can we include the camera, and in what ways, to make it a viewing experience that really brings people into the movement and flow of the language that Kinetic Light is using in its dance? Can we move beyond the idea of documenting dance, and instead think of how we can choreograph a camera to become part of the work itself? How can we create dance film that challenges the norms of cinema? I think it is an incredibly interesting and important question that I would love to be part of figuring out. It was a pleasure working with all of you and I really appreciate your continued interest and respect in what I do! Thanks to Ashley Ferro-Murray, the curator of Theatre & Dance at EMPAC for making this happen, and to the EMPAC team I have the pleasure of working with on a daily basis!
Lisa: Thanks for taking the time Ryan, it was great chatting with you.