Behind the Scenes of ‘Fabulous Femininities’
Crafting Empowering Stories
Every so often, a video production brief crosses our path that simply demands our attention. It’s one of those rare instances where our skills and expertise perfectly align with the commissioner’s vision. Recently, we were presented with such an opportunity by the University of Leeds School of Performance and Cultural Industries.
In essence, the brief entailed creating a feature-length documentary – a somewhat unconventional request within the realm of higher education. This venture required extensive travel across the UK, a tight production schedule of 6-8 weeks from start to finish, and a production company with a well-established track record in the documentary field, ideally boasting broadcast credits – credentials we proudly possess. Moreover, the challenge was to tackle a niche and occasionally controversial subject matter, presenting it to a broader audience in a manner that was both sensitive and engaging – something we were more than up for.
Enter the Fabulous Femininities project, which we embarked upon in early April, fully aware of the impending deadline on June 12th. This timeline was non-negotiable, as our lead academic, the wonderful Prof. Jacki Wilson, had organised a research symposium on the project for colleagues at the University, partner institutions, and an audience of about 100 enthusiastic burlesque performers.
The project’s overall structure had been meticulously planned long before our commission. Our approach involved conducting initial interviews with six performers in their homes. These interviews were designed to provide insights into the profound significance that burlesque performers attach to the creation and design of their costumes. We sought to capture not only how costume empowers and enhances their performances but also delved into the nuanced aspects, such as its role in message-driven acts and its integration into the performances themselves.
Ideally, a documentary project involves building a rapport with contributors well in advance of actual filming. This familiarity ensures contributors are comfortable with the crew, facilitating open and candid discussions when the cameras roll. Given our tight schedule, we anticipated limited interactions with our contributors, and budget constraints dictated that we would have only one filming day with each of them. Consequently, we opted to conduct initial online interviews and meet-and-greets. This approach also allowed us to explore potential narratives within our contributors’ stories.
Prof. Jacki Wilson and her research associate, Adele Bertrand-Mason, had already identified the performers we would be interviewing. Early on, it became evident that we were dealing with a group of extraordinary individuals, willing to share their stories and viewpoints on camera. These preliminary interviews also helped shape the documentary’s narrative. While costume remained a pivotal element of their performances (and hence, the film), there was also room to delve into other facets of burlesque, including the associated stigma, media narratives, empowerment, creativity, community, politics, and even its commercialisation.
Getting The Story Right
With our contributors entrusting us to communicate these aspects, we felt a profound responsibility to present a clear, objective, and fair narrative, void of any intent to exploit or judge our contributors. There were several discussions around the creative approach, but we felt that a fly-on-the-wall format seemed to best lend itself to the project. We’d spend a day with each performer, filming a key interview and immersing ourselves in their daily activities. We strategically scheduled filming on performance days to capture pre-preparation, rehearsals, nervous anticipation, and the actual shows themselves.
Projects like this demand a production team with a different skill set than those required for advertising and marketing shoots. Documentary production necessitates mobility, constant awareness of the surroundings, and the ability to blend into the background. With these considerations in mind, our on-location team consisted of just a few key members: a producer/director, Jon Lees; our academic experts, either Jacki or Adele; and a documentary specialist, director of photography, Paul Daly. With this compact team, we could quickly schedule and travel between contributors who were all spread out across the UK (Birmingham, London, Bath, Huddersfield, and Newcastle). Filming took place over a concentrated three-week period, and we were profoundly grateful for the warm welcome we received from our contributors and the broader burlesque community.
In terms of technical execution, documentaries produced in this dynamic, rapid format sometimes overlook aesthetics. However, we believed that, given the importance of aesthetics in burlesque, our film needed a distinctive visual style beyond a mere “point-and-shoot” approach. We opted to shoot the majority of the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio. This format slightly crops the image vertically on each side, focusing the audience’s attention on our contributors’ narratives and showcasing their costumes more prominently. During performances, we widened the aspect ratio to 16:9, eliminating the crop and offering viewers a broader perspective, enhancing the cinematic experience. Additionally, we introduced a touch of film grain during post-production for both aesthetic value and to impart a cinematic ambience.
Despite the intensive post-production workload and the stringent deadline, the narrative took shape relatively smoothly. We created individual edits for each contributor, grouping soundbites by specific themes, which were then combined to form a comprehensive narrative. Separate edits were crafted for performances and rehearsals and eventually integrated into a working draft edit during subsequent editing rounds.
Music, a critical element of burlesque performances, posed logistical challenges. Our budget couldn’t accommodate licensing individual tracks for each performer. We faced the dilemma of using copyright-free music (infeasible, as performers’ acts were synchronised with their chosen music) or incorporating ambient music captured during filming. In the end, we opted to minimise the use of music throughout the documentary, reserving it for moments where its impact and resonance would be most profound, such as the final montage. The footage underwent colour grading by our Director of Photography, working in collaboration with our post-production team.
Various edits were produced:
- 52-minute feature-length edit
- 20-minute featurette, suitable for short film festivals
- 2-minute trailer for promotional purposes (as shown above on this page)
- 6 x individual Story edits (one for each burlesque performer)
The documentary was completed and approved two days ahead of the deadline, and the response at the symposium was overwhelmingly positive, leading us to consider a wider release. As a result, it will be featured at numerous film festivals throughout the UK in 2023/23. Stay tuned to our LinkedIn page for further updates.
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