“Find Beauty and Magic in Everyday Life”: DP Carolina Costa on Fancy Dance
Since the disappearance of her sister, Jax (Lily Gladstone) has been taking care of her niece Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson), both of them desperately hoping for her return. When she’s been officially declared “missing” for two weeks, CPS shows up at Jax’s door, leading to a dogged fight for her to keep caring for Rokii. The feature debut from writer-director Erica Tremblay, Fancy Dance explores womanhood and Indigenous identity through one family’s fractured ties.
Cinematographer Carolina Costa talks about shooting the film, including a singular motto the team adopted during the shoot.
See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Costa: Erica Tremblay and the producers had heard my name through other producers, and because I was recommended they reached out to my agent Grant Illes at WME, which is the same agency that reps Erica (the director of Fancy Dance). I’m not exactly sure why Erica hired me, but I think it’s because we connected quickly in our first meeting. I think she sensed that I really cared about this story. Whatever it may be, I am so thankful that she hired me. We truly became collaborators in this journey, and also close friends.
Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?
Costa: Our philosophy for shooting Fancy Dance was, “find beauty and magic in everyday life.” In the same way that we wanted to explore their beautiful relationship, we also didn’t want to escape from the dark world around us. We couldn’t close an eye to the reality of indigenous women the same way the system does. The camera is entirely subjective, it’s always with the characters, and for that reason a lot of the sets had to be lit in a way in which the camera and the actors could dance freely. The framing is precise yet not precious.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, or photography, or something else?
Costa: Andrea Arnold and Robbie Ryan’s collaborations were our guidance! Films like American Honey and Fish Tank were the spirit of the camera and how honest they felt.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Costa: I really love the scene in the corn fields at night. This is when Roki and Jax’s relationship breaks down. It always breaks my heart to watch it — this scene was technically difficult since we were in an actual corn field in the middle of nowhere, and our lighting package was tiny. Erica and myself had previously decided which scenes would have “moonlight” and which ones wouldn’t. The moonlight wasn’t just a stylistic choice but heavily important for the narrative and even more for their community. As the cinematographer, getting the lighting right for this scene was a sign of respect to their history and their ancestors. Our crew and resources were limited, so we had to be really specific when picking our tools.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Costa: We shot with an ALEXA LF and the ARRI Signature Primes. We knew that we wanted the large format for this story — the idea was to have the camera close to these women, feel their presence, and put them in the center (metaphorically and literally) and still be able to see the world around them. The Signature has a beautiful rendition on skin as well as faces that are also important for us. We wanted the cinematography to represent the indigenous people sharing their stories.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Costa: I wanted the lighting design to feel real, so we wouldn’t disconnect from the story. That being said, we made some stylistic choices. On a lot of the scenes, it was about hiding the lights, so the camera could move 360° with the actors.
Another important element was the color blue and all the different shades of blue that were incorporated in the lighting. Blue is the color for when Sapphire and Jax connect in the strip club, but also the color of the light at Jax’s porch. Since blue many times represented “safe,” we found ourselves exploring how to differentiate the interior night lighting, since it’s all lit with warm practicals. For the family home, we filled the shadows with green and blue and for the man camp, we added red, making these spaces “dangerous” and/or “uncomfortable” for Roki and Jax.
I also love the scenes in the strip club! We wanted the lighting to be raw and rough, so we just enhanced what the club already had and picked our colors. Both lighting and camera should not romanticize the women there, nor should they represent the ‘seated man’ perspective. Instead, the camera is always at their eye level, looking at them as human beings and not just objectifying them.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Costa: The final scene at the powwow was always a tricky one to execute. We only had one night, it’s our very last scene, and the title of the film. Being able to tweak it minimally between all the different angles was of essence. We considered having a balloon light or a condor with a big source, but every solution felt wrong for our story. Eventually, we decided to light the entire space with construction working lights.
I dreamed of those lights and then suggested them, but it wasn’t until after scouting a real powwow and seeing one of those that we knew it was the right choice for us.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Costa: Our colorist Raphaëlle Dufosset is a true artist, she really made the film “grow” during color. Her talent was so necessary to make this film become what it is — because we had so many locations, we were always on the go.
Filmmaker: If possible, could you fill out the below information about your film’s cinematography?
Film Title: Fancy Dance
Camera: Alexa LF
Lenses: ARRI Signature Primes
Lighting: HMIs (2.5K and 4K), 1k and 2k tungsten, litemates, astera tubes and DMG dash light
Color Grading: Davinci Resolvea