Meet the artists behind Overview Effect

Overview Effect choreographer Brandon Ramey and cinematographer Michael Butler joined Ballet Memphis for an interview to discuss their creative collaboration, editing process, safety precautions and much more. Be sure to watch Overview Effect starting March 4th at 7pm CST on our website, YouTube and Instagram.

Our Interview Q&A w/ Brandon and Michael:

How did the idea of Overview Effect come to fruition?

BRANDON: It all began last season, before COVID. Steven asked me to do a site-specific work in the studio for a live audience about tiny dances. At that point in time, we had no idea how prophetic that was going to become. That all across the world dancers would be quarantined in their homes, dancing on tiny 6 ft by 6 ft squares of marley. As soon as we realized we were entering into this whole new paradigm and that live performance as we knew it was shutting down, we had to quickly pivot to a new model. Forethoughtful of Steven, he instead asked me to make a piece about the future.

We’re going through something very difficult, all of us individually, nationally, globally, so he wanted to give people something to hope for, something to look forward to with this piece. He asked me to make it about the future and it begged the question.. Who’s future? My future, your future, our future, how big of a future can we look at?

Since this is not just an epidemic, but a global pandemic, I felt like the piece had to try and encompass all of that. I was researching astronauts who had seen the earth from space and had this incredible feeling, this sense of unity, that we’re all just living on this tiny little marble suspended in a great, big void. That our fates are not so different from one another. They referred to it as this Overview Effect. I was very much trying to evoke this feeling through choreography and through Michael’s brilliant videography. That was the genesis of what I was trying to accomplish with this piece.

When you first heard about Overview Effect from Brandon, what did you think?

MICHAEL: I didn’t really know what to expect in the beginning. The first thing Brandon told me was that he had seen my rotating shots of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra for Ballet Memphis a few months back. He gave me a few notes about what he wanted, then I got to thinking about how I was going to film this. It just really clicked. The most important part to me was that Brandon came to me and said “Hey, I want you to do what you do.” He gave me free reign to get in there, and it was awesome to be able to help tell this story for him.

It’s easy to see what a dancelike capture this is of Overview Effect. How did you work together to essentially choreograph the videography?

BRANDON: I had laid out some floor plans at a couple of places I thought would be captured best or where I thought Michael should be. Then we also did a take where I let Michael respond to the choreography naturally with his experience as a cinematographer. I think every single time we used what Michael shot of him responding intuitively. It was great to work with someone who could look at what I was doing and say “yes, I see what you're going for, but this is how we could do it better.” He amplified everything and it was really incredible.

MICHAEL: It basically was a dance. We went through it a couple of times and Brandon was placing me where I needed to be. I started to pick up where the dancers would be at certain moments then was like “let me just get in there and work my way around; just grab my shirt if I’m in the way or move me to where you need me to move.” I'm essentially dancing the opposite direction of the dancers the entire time. I learned certain moves and where I needed to be at certain times. It’s basically just trying to get as close as possible, stay out of the way, dance in the opposite direction, and stay in motion the entire time.

BRANDON: His shots evoke the most incredible sense of movement.

How do Overview Effect differ from others you’ve choreographed in the past?

BRANDON: The first big difference is contrasting it with live performance where there is an audience of hundreds of people packed into a room. We say “you sit over there and we’ll go over here, dance for a bit, then you’ll clap at the end.” The fact that we don’t have a live audience is an opportunity to say what if the viewer weren’t static. Instead of being relegated to one stationary point, what if they were able to join the choreography and engage in it in a way that wouldn’t be feasible if we had a live audience. We were given a silver lining opportunity to explore dance and have it less separated as viewer and performer and have it be more engaging and cooperative.

Some of my earlier pieces for film that I was filming myself, I was still trying to emulate the idea of viewer over here, performer over there, There’s this fourth wall we aren’t going to break. We threw all of that away with Overview Effect and went into a completely different atmosphere and world that Michael was able to capture. It’s unlike anything I've ever created before or seen.

It’s also the longest piece I’ve ever created, so getting to create a piece that’s longer than other short-forms I’ve done was a challenge to think how I was going to keep changing this without losing continuity, maintain interest and make sure the story is moving forward.

MICHAEL: It’s amazing. I’m behind the scenes editing and continue to get lost in it even still. It’s just a different way of seeing ballet. It’s more of a spectator thing where you sit back, the dancers are on stage, they do their thing and you go home. But to be able to be a part of it, as if you are right there in the mix, it takes ballet to another level we haven’t seen in Memphis before. I was able to showcase Brandon’s creative genius and how ballet can be portrayed in a totally different way and it can be so immersive. That’s what I was going for the entire time, something that no one else had ever seen. I still get lost in it, watching the entire thing over again and to be able to share that to a broader audience is amazing.

Brandon Ramey, Choreographer
Instead of being relegated to one stationary point, what if [audience members] were able to join the choreography and engage in it in a way that wouldn’t be feasible if we had a live audience.

Had you envisioned creating something of this magnitude that such a wide audience will be able to see?

BRANDON: It speaks very much to the nature of the piece. The whole concept of the piece is that we can be together, not necessarily the same but still together. I think this opportunity to share this virtually expands the audience. I have family out of town and in other countries that have been enjoying our other virtual performances. It’s wild to think I can share this piece about the global community as far as the internet can reach, practically globally. It’s very simpatica with what the piece is trying to convey.

Also, making a piece about the future that will last until the future is pretty incredible. My wife is pregnant and as one of the dancers in the piece, I will one day be able to say to Marty, “That bump in there is you”! A piece about the future I’ll one day be able to share with the future, it’s very rewarding.

MICHAEL: It's a weird time that’s been demanding on everyone. With everything going virtual, you have an opportunity to reach out beyond your normal audience. You reach into homes of people who couldn’t afford to see ballet or people who didn’t even have ballet on their radar. It becomes a piece that’s accessible to everyone. There could be some little girl or boy that sees this and now they want to do ballet. It really speaks to where we are. Even in a really trying time, we can still reach the world and inspire so many during a time when so many uninspiring things are happening.

Why is art now? Why is dance and cinematography so important during this time?

BRANDON: If everyone in the world can look at something and say “wow, that’s really beautiful. That moves me someplace deep down inside,” then that is a common ground, a shared experience from which we can generate more common ground. We are more alike than unalike and I think the arts speak to that in everybody. In a world and nation that is so divided, the more we can generate common ground, the more that can spread. My ballet isn’t heart surgery or a vaccine, but I hope the arts act as common ground for our community that can spread into other areas of our life and around the world. It’s the first step in a long chain of steps that hopefully lead to something better for everyone.

MICHAEL: I totally agree. The arts are so important and I hope that’s something we never lose. Tapping into our creative side is amazing. The things that you can do with it! It brings everyone together. As far as cinematography and videography goes, it is everything right now. It is our new normal and it keeps us grounded so we know what’s going on in the world. It lets us know that the world is still going and there are still people out there.

This pandemic proves who’s determined to be creative, to adjust and defy the odds with quality material. That’s what I try to do with each project. I took the pandemic as a challenge to gain new skills, work with new people, and it’s been amazing for me. I think with everything going the way it is, we see the need for a virtual presence and huge demand for videography. This is the time to utilize that and keep the reach as far as you can have it.

How did taking the necessary health precautions play into the choreography of your performance?

MICHAEL: I wore a mask the entire time while filming, so I’m used to wearing a mask by now. Because the filming was one take for the most part, I’m moving backwards and dancing opposite for 10-20 minutes at a time. I had to sit down and catch my breath a few times. I definitely got my cardio in! It’s just something you have to adjust to and make the best of every situation. The end goal was to make sure I told Brandon’s story the way he wanted it told and that’s hopefully what I did.

BRANDON: Absolutely. As for safety precautions, the dancers get tested weekly. We’ve had no occurrences where a dancer has come back with a positive test due to the safety standards we keep in the studio. Socially-distanced class, sanitizing the bars, between takes, and whenever we’re not filming, the dancers are required to put their masks on. There is limited partnering in Overview Effect, but the pairings are just one-to-one to limit the exposure for the dancers.

How did the creative process work with two artists from different fields coming together for the first time?

MICHAEL: There were about eight angles we captured and had to choose from. Brandon went through and watched every second of every clip and selected what he wanted, and that really made it great. It was nice to work with someone who knew what they wanted. He was an amazing director. To know what you want as an end game is incredible.

Each time I filmed, I actually went a different direction so we could cover up anything we didn’t like. I also love how everything was set to a song. I typically set my product videos to music and everything is timed to the beat. If people pick up even the smallest little details, someone far across the room that is timed to this beat, as well as the choreography, it just makes it so much more amazing.

BRANDON: Michael is a really musical editor. That can be frustrating for dancers if cuts or emphasis happen off the beat or non-musically. Michael intuitively was immersed in the music and made all of his cuts being very sensitive to the fact of that musicality. He made it a really smooth process. Like he said, we had eight different angles that we were choosing between and all eight of them were fantastic. It was an embarrassment of riches.

This partnership was much more of a collaboration in the process from choreography to filming. What was it like to bring two different creative artists together and develop something of this magnitude?

MICHAEL: This was our first time working together, so coming in as a cinematographer, you have to take direction, learn your role, and work as a team. It’s all about the final product. Brandon was the same way. I love when creatives come together and can work within a space and coexist. It just works better that way when you know what you want to do and know its about the final product.

BRANDON: For me, directing Overview Effect, I needed to recognize what I didn’t know about cinematography. I very much relied on Michael’s experience and the filmographer's eye to help me constantly. He was great about guiding the process to make sure we came out with the strongest end product. I was so grateful to work with someone who was so experienced and met me in the middle, complimenting what I was trying to do so wonderfully where my level of knowledge stopped and his began.