“Here’s the Sporting Event Down by the Gym”: Bill and Turner Ross on Contemporary Color at Tribeca
Last year, David Byrne — capable of developing a deep enthusiasm for and knowledge of seemingly anything — held four concerts at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Ten color guard troops from across the country performed routines to songs written just for them by ten artists; performance highlights include Byrne himself, St. Vincent and Tuneyards. The Ross brothers’ Contemporary Color is a documentary of this unusual performance that refuses to just be a concert movie. The film regularly skips away from the arena altogether, lurking backstage with waiting performers or cutting back to individual performers seen, in dreamy almost-flashbacks, in their hometowns. Performances themselves are captured from a variety of angles, with much impressionistic distancing: several times, surimposed layers of a close-up of the performer over a wide shot of the auditorium, that placed over a medium-shot of the performer on stage, prove tricky and stimulating to unpack. I spoke with the Rosses this morning; their film premieres tonight.
Filmmaker: There’s a supergroup of camera operators on this, drawing upon a network of documentarians that are contemporaries of yours. Can you talk about what each person was specifically tasked with doing? There’s obviously someone at the back of the auditorium doing something like a conventional master shot, there’s some floaters backstage, there’s some people following particular characters.
Bill: We knew we were going to be shooting up in this region in New York, and we wanted to try to source locally. Most of the people that we’ve met along the way, a good portion of those folks are based up here, so we had an awesome pool to grab from.
Turner: These are folks that we met either in college or when the first movie came out, like Robert [Greene] and Sean [Price Williams]. We wanted people that had made their own films, so that we would give them a very specific game plan — “this is what we need,” a sort of checklist — but if that wasn’t interesting we trusted their instincts to say, “OK, this isn’t working.” The “event team,” as we called it, was responsible for the choreography of the show — so an eye of god shot up high, three shooters on the floor, some dolly track stuff. Then we had some glamor positions on stage and side-stage, and then we had some verite positions backstage, in the arena and the seats.
So someone like Robert: awesome at verite, following stories. We’re going to throw him backstage and give him free rein in certain environments, like where all the kids are warming up, where the staff is going to be, all the moving parts — just go and find a story. Amanda [Rose] Wilder, who is really good at following intimacy in small environments, we put her in the dressing rooms. Jessica Oreck, who’s great at process, we threw her up in the hallways where people would be coming and going, being seated, where there’s a lot of process. Sean, who’s great at finding pretty things, we put him backstage, where the kids come and go, and he was trying to grab little things that he found beautiful. Wyatt Garfield, who’s normally a DP, we put him as the eye in the sky with a 1000mm lens.
Jarred Alterman, who we’ve credited as DP, really put all the technical shit together for us, because he’s technical-minded. Bill and I aren’t, so while we could think all this up theoretically, he put all of that into practice and was the lead man on the event team. He was usually center floor and did all the tracking/dolly shots. Down here with him was Chris Keohane, a friend of ours from college who’s a real good technical shooter and really able to follow — he’s like a spiritual dude, you know? So he can find the beauty on the floor with the kids and the flags. We had Michael Palmieri, who’s an awesome docs shooter but who also shoots a lot of commercial stuff. We had him on the floor to find story, but also beautiful imagery from the choreography and the performance, and he absolutely crushed that. Then we had Steven Bognar, who’s shot all kinds of documentary stuff, and he had a couple of nights to do some loose stuff. He was also the lead on our TV news crew, which follows an on-site reporter [in segments broadcast live on the Jumbotron], and we had Steve be the news cameraman, because he’s so utilitarian — he can do all that stuff — but he can also run off with a lens and capture beautiful imagery, so he was kind of a floater.
Bill and I just did a little bit of everything. We put the people that we could trust in those positions, but we also knew that we needed to cover everything as well — to make sure that the language was ours, or at the very least that we understood what needed to happen in all of those scenarios so that we could give those simple directives, so that then those director-shooters could then take over. So he and I were all over.
Bill: We sort of put the pressure on ourselves to say, “OK, if everybody else fucks up, we could still make a movie with what we shot.” That’s crazy, because that’s not technically true, but that was the thought process anyway.
Filmmaker: Did you guys have walkie-talkies?
Turner and Bill (in unison): No.
Filmmaker: So you’re just floating for two hours and regroup afterwards.
Bill: That’s how we wanted it. Much like a sporting event: here’s the chalkboard, here’s the game plan, now go. I don’t want people to check in or get interrupted —
Turner: And I don’t want you to ask.
Bill: Yeah. Just tune in with what you see and go and follow it.
Turner: It was like, “You are here for a reason, because we absolutely value what you do and trust you as a director and a shooter, now just go do the thing within this little paradigm.”
Filmmaker: How much time did you have to walk around Barclay’s and familiarize yourself with the layout before you started shooting?
Turner: Bill, Jarred and I did site visits.
Bill: Weeks before, even months before. We were able to visualize it.
Turner: It was very technical, and we had to work with a huge event team that was planning the show, which is why we brought on Jarred as well: we just couldn’t speak that language with the lighting designers.
Bill: Abigail [Holmes] was awesome.
Turner: She was the practical lighting designer for Stop Making Sense, so she’s been around. She’s done a lot of shows, but also worked with shooters before. So she was planning the show, which was an enormous undertaking in and of itself, because you’re not normally planning a floor stage flow with lighting that has to be bright enough but also has to be intimate. Then she had to factor in us shooting and lighting for lenses.
Bill: She would work with Jarred if it was like “Bring this up half a stop, bring this down half a stop.” She’d be cool about that. God, just thinking about all of this stuff — I hadn’t thought about all the inner workings.
Filmmaker: I thought while watching it that this had to be your most organizationally complex movie.
Bill: Big time. Normally it’s just the two of us. Having to sit in meetings and negotiate: “This is what we want.” Then they’ll come back and be like, “You can’t have that.” And you’re like “OK, will you meet us halfway?” “OK, so you can have your camera two feet over this way, but you can’t have it over here.”
Turner: The basic theory and process were the same, but there was just so much technical shit that we had to maneuver through. Also, it was so compact. Normally we stretch these things out, so all the production and theoretical approaches, we had to smash down the amount of time, in an environment where we had to negotiate space and hand off so much of the responsibility to other shooters.
Bill: But once the camera started rolling, we were flying off like we normally do. So, after all those conference calls and meetings, in the end it felt just like any other shoot. Organization wise, it was a lot.
Filmmaker: Did you propose or consider using your beloved Panasonic DVX-100?
Bill: Yeah, but that thought passed quickly.
Turner: There were a number of caveats. One, we simultaneously produced the content for the screens in the show, which had to be of a certain resolution. Also, the financiers and production, for distribution purposes, wanted to shoot in 4K. While we eventually brought the film to a look we’re happy with, our DVX was not going to fit. Also, you can’t put a 1000mm lens on that DVX. It was also time for an evolution. We shot those first three films with that same look, that same camera, and we wanted the opportunity to break away and start a new language — within the same conversation, but different — and the visual shift was helpful.
Filmmaker: You had to go to all the schools when the musicians went, and then shoot the hometown sequences. How was that scheduled?
Bill: The show was in June.
Turner: I think we started shooting in December, so we had six months of lead time, because we ended up handing off all this stuff at the end of May to edit the interstitials for the show [which are shown on the Jumbotron between numbers]. We met the kids, introduced the teams, met all the artists, went to rehearsals, capturing content but also doing research and casting. Every time we went with one of those teams or shot one of their competitions or practices, we were shooting stuff, taking it home, and saying “Where are our cameras focusing? Who do we want to pick?” Because when you have hundreds of people, you can’t tell hundreds of stories. You can tell a group story, but we also wanted some intimacy, which means isolating a kid or two or three from each team. Then we would shoot those weird sequences where you see a girl performing on the street or something.
Bill: Also, during the actual show, we didn’t have to spend the first half running around going “Who’s great?” We were just like “OK, follow them.”
Turner: It helped with our event shooters, giving them some directives like “Don’t cover. We don’t want coverage of the team, we want you to get the sense of this thing but also focus in on this one person who we can use as an in and out.”
Bill: And they’d be used to the camera, because they knew what we were doing.
Turner: In the end, the film is primarily composed of the event itself, which was four shows.
Filmmaker: In terms of the for-stadium videos, I assume you were given certain guidelines.
Turner: It was actually super-collaborative, and that was a great boon. We developed those alongside David and his team developing the shows. They knew they wanted interstitial videos during the performances, because you had a lag time between performances of three to five minutes. It would help fill the void and also help people understand where they were, so it was pretty loose. Bill and I came up with this scenario where we would take people on a journey of discovery: “What the fuck are we looking at? Who’s a part of it and what do people think about it and where does it come from and how do these kids feel about it?” By working with them to build that into the show, it created an arc for both the film and the show.
Bill: We wanted those interstitial videos to be your standard, corporate-looking documentary thing. The whole idea of the film is that we never leave the arena, it’s happening in real time, so in a sneaky way the camera could pan over and you could get context or story without leaving the arena.
Turner: So we shot them as if they would be things you would see on the Jumbotron at a sporting event. Then we had our buddy John Wilson edit them. He has a great sense of humor, so it took this dry sporting event thing and gave it a little something weird. They worked for the event — I think they helped land people there — but then they also gave us these ins and outs in the film, so that we didn’t feel claustrophobic. Because if we’re going to base the whole film in this one space in real time and never leave, then we need ways to get in and out. So we could go in and out through the video board, we could go in and out through the kids’ thought processes, and give people a little breath from the space.
Filmmaker: Is it actually in real time? There’s a few places where you can futz with it if you need to.
Turner: It’s actually shorter than the show.
Bill: The cheats are like, if we go backstage in the middle of a song, we’ll come back 30 seconds later having cut out a minute and a half.
Turner: And as well during the interstitial videos and the timeouts.
Bill: I think the show may have run maybe a little under two hours, and our film is 97 minutes. So we cut 20 minutes out.
Filmmaker: Do you want to talk about the crazy overlaid-layers shots?
Turner: It was a conversation that we had early on. It was something that I kept seeing when we were shooting. There’s an interesting visual tradition there in the layering of images that we could see in ’70s music videos.
Bill: We shot for it.
Turner: So theoretically, the idea was, we have this massive space. And you can’t just focus on the stage. You have to focus on the stage, the floor, the audience. So how can we compress that space, how can we put the kids and artists together?
Bill: And show the scale and the intimacy at the same time. So that was the thought, but the genesis of the thought I’m really having trouble with.
Turner: When you’re watching it, it’s almost like an abstraction. You see flags waving in front of your face, you see lights coming down. Optically, when you’re in the space, you’re having a really layered experience.
Bill: It was stuff we always wanted to do in the previous films, but it wouldn’t make any sense to do that. But with music, you have a little bit more room to play. At one point in my life I thought I wanted to do graphic design, and I think this stems from just wanting to play with imagery.
Filmmaker: Graphic design — all the teams and numbers have customized, hand-drawn fonts and titles.
Turner: We wanted it to seem like a sporting event or the back of a baseball card. Everything has this design-y element, like you’re watching late ’70s NBA finals. Something tactile; we didn’t want to make it this glossy thing, we wanted to create this interface where it brought the scale down, like you were watching high school sports, but also something glamorous.
Bill: Like you’d turn on cable access in a small town and here’s the sporting event down by the gym.
Turner: [announcer voice] “Tonight, brought to you by Stroh’s and Marlboros. Taste the flavor.”
Bill: Stroh’s would come up in doing research for what these graphics should look like. They had a great graphic design department.
Turner: They would probably be on the page next to Winston cigarettes in a certain era.
Filmmaker: So you were looking at magazines from the ’70s?
Bill: Broadcasts, mostly. Old basketball or football games.
Turner: From the late ’70s to the mid ’80s, from the NBA Finals to Wrestle-Mania, or early Monday Night Football. It just seemed like something that wasn’t so high-end yet. You could relate to it, and that relatability is kind of awesome, and it has this handmade graphic quality. It’s also just another layer. The layering of the images is one thing, but the theoretical layering of the show is what the whole movie’s about — breaking down the layers of this space. Some of that is in actuality, like layering images, and some of it is just composite layers of this thing.
Filmmaker: How did you go through all of the footage from your different cameras?
Bill: DIT and an assistant editor. We went through all the footage ourselves, over and over again. Initially, leaving sync out of it, I just went through everybody’s footage one by one and found all the moments — something that was true and looked good and spoke to that moment. I marked those regardless of where they came in the performance. So in that way it was much like our other films: we go through all the footage and say, “OK, this is good.”
Turner: Then it was a major wrestling process to get from there, which is our traditional language, to the functional language of the performance, and then back again.
Bill: Then building the entirety of the performance and then saying, “We want this to be about the show, not the show.” So building on the idea that there are people shooting the show, there’s a production going on, but we want it to be about the arena and the people putting on the show.
Filmmaker: How did you handle the audio POV, as you’re going from the master sound to the sound of the performance in the various other spaces?
Bill: I think it was a lot of fun for [Lawrence Everson, sound designer/re-recording mixer] to do it seemingly in real time. He was very playful: “OK, now we’re back here. How far back in the arena are we? How much reverb do we put?”
Turner: The awesome thing was that because this was a bigger production, this time we got to — he’s always done our final sound mixes and final sound design, but we never have him on site. We never work with a sound guy. This time, he was able to be there at the performances with a whole sound team and record his own library of sound. So he spent a whole month just constructing this environment from all of this raw sound, and make sure it makes sense as we move through space in an auditory sense.