Monday, March 28, 2011

Counting Swans

A juicy argument has emerged among the cast and crew of Black Swan over who did most of the dancing that we see from the protagonist on screen: Natalie Portman, or her dancing double Sarah Lane.

According to Contra Costa Times, director Darren Aronofsky has counted.

He declares Portman the clear victor. The article in question borrows the following Aronofsky quote from Entertainment Weekly: "I had my editor count [...] There are 139 dance shots in the film. One hundred eleven are Natalie untouched. 28 are her dance double Sarah Lane. If you do the math, that's 80 percent Natalie Portman."

Sarah Lane, meanwhile, has maintained that "95%" of the time you think you see Portman dancing on screen, it's really Lane.

Those appear to be very different numbers.

So one of them must be lying, right?

Mmmm, not necessarily.

If I had to guess, I'd say both numbers are accurate. I know that seems strange, but if you pay close attention, you'll notice they're counting different things: Aronofsky is counting shots, but Lane is counting total screen time.

If you've watched much film, you will have noticed that shots -- the length of time the film goes before there's a cut -- vary a bit in length. You might get a long take of 1 minute, as a camera bounces back and forth between two actors, or as it lingers on a dancer's movements, followed by a 1-second shot of a facial expression.

If it's true, as Aronofsky himself has stated, that digital images of Portman's face were dubbed over Lane's performance for "two complicated longer dance sequences," then it's entirely possible that Lane is the dancer for 95% of the on-screen dancing time, while Portman is the dancer is the vast majority of shots.

I'm not saying that's in fact what happened -- merely pointing out that the two apparently-contradictory statements aren't necessarily in conflict with each other. It's possible for both to be true.

Scholars call this behavior -- making Portman look like she did no dancing by focusing on screen time, or like she did lots of dancing by focusing on shots -- framing. Depending on how you frame information, you can change the way your audience perceives it.

One great example I like to use is from the California gubernatorial debates between Schwarzenegger and Angelides. The challenger, Angelides, argues that Schwarzenegger has raised tuition at UCs and Cal States so much that a four-year education now costs thousands of dollars more. The Governator replies that he only increased tuition by less than something like 10% a year, on average. Anyone doing the math would find that they were both right -- it's just that one of them used scary dollar figure totals, while the other one used an average yearly percentage.

I'm used to seeing these framing and reframing moves in politics, but it's quite refreshing to see them among artists who once worked together. Fascinating, even.

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