BATTLE OF THE YEAR
Live from Planet B-Boy
Battle of the Year was filmed in Los Angeles and in Montpellier, France, where BOTY takes place each year. "This was a global production," says Glenn S. Gainor. "We brought over 75 people from around the world to the south of France for BOTY. We're the first Hollywood production to ever shoot in Montpellier. Europeans in general really embrace b-boying as an art form, so it was a great experience."
Many of the cast members had never been outside the United States before. "They were in awe," Gainor says. "Everybody who made this film grew through the experience and you can see that in the film as well. There's a great sense of sincerity when they look around and realize how far they've come."
Located on the coastline midway between Italy and Spain, Montpellier is an ancient French city studded with medieval architecture dating as far back as the 10th century. It provides a stark contrast to the b-boys' training ground in Southern California.
"The film goes from a very barren detention center outside of L.A. to this gorgeous old city," says Lee "It really communicates the diversity of this culture. Visually, both locations are stunning. The detention center has its own distinct history and then going to Montpellier and being surrounded by French history was just stunning for us all. I loved seeing the b-boys make that transition."
To ensure absolute authenticity, Gainor approached Thomas Hergenrother, founder of BOTY, and asked for his support in making the first real b-boy feature film. "I knew that as the president of an organization that helped legitimize b-boying, he would make sure we represented it in the right way," says the executive producer. "Making that part of the shoot happen was a global operation. We had help from Paris, London, Tokyo, New York, Germany and Austria. The teams came in from Israel, Korea, Russia, Kazakhstan and America to compete at BOTY."
The filmmakers flew in Russia's team, Top Nine, to compete in a battle sequence with the Dream team before the competition started. "We also put together a phenomenal group from Korea and flew them to Montpellier to dance in the film," says Gainor. "And we have Vagabond, the No. 1 b-boy team in France, just as they were in the Battle of the Year."
Lee says he was ecstatic when he learned they would be able to shoot during the actual competition. "There's no event like it in the world. The energy and dynamic can't be reproduced. When we filmed the dance battles, I literally could not sit in my chair. I was jumping up and down because seeing these guys memorialized on film for this huge audience in 3-D blew me away. It made total sense to go there and it's another way to differentiate this film from other urban dance films that take place in the 'hood."
The completed film combines footage that was specially staged for the movie, as well as live scenes from the actual event. "We were able to shoot in the stadium a few days prior and mixed it with footage from the battle," says Lo. "Shooting the real BOTY is one of the most ambitious things I've seen done in a studio film. We had no control. The people in that stadium weren't there to watch us shoot a movie. They really couldn't have cared less about that. They just didn't want us to get in the way of their event."
With just 15 minutes to film the Dream team on the stadium stage, everything had to be perfectly timed. "We had to have all five cameras and the dancers primed and ready," says Gainor. "All the rehearsing and all the technical work paid off, but I was incredibly nervous when we finally got our guys on stage. They were in formation and nothing was happening. The crowd was going insane. Our guys were just standing there. I ran up to the first assistant director and I screamed, where's the music? He looked at me and he said, 'four, three, two, one.' And then the music hit. It was that precise."
Lee and his director of photography, Michael Barrett, used Sony's F3 3-D cameras for the majority of the shoot. During BOTY they also used the new Sony TD300 for the first time in a feature film. "The F3s are terrific cameras," says Barrett. "Their sensitivity is incredible. We were often surprised by how little light we were able to use. The TD300 was irreplaceable because we often didn't have the physical space to put a crew. During BOTY, we had very few places to put our cameras, but you could just throw a TD300 on your shoulder. We had a guy hidden behind a speaker who got really terrific footage."
The filmmakers worked without storyboards and Barrett was constantly improvising the best ways to capture the action. "I had seen rehearsals, so I had some idea of what was happening," says the cinematographer. "Every shot had at least three cameras rolling, and in the arena, we had as many as five. We would try to get a wide shot and two close-ups at the same time in the dramatic scenes."
Filming the competition at BOTY was like making a 3-D documentary, Barrett adds. "It was just fantastic. We were in the front row for one of the most exciting competitions I have ever witnessed. That sequence is phenomenal. To be that close to the dancers is an experience you just can't imagine. You have to see it."
Lee was given a crash course in the art of 3-D filmmaking at The Sony 3-D Technology Center, which was founded to train and nurture filmmakers in the latest in 3-D developments. "This is a second generation of 3-D films," he notes. "The first generation was really about experimentation and refining the technology, as well as maximizing the novelty of it. But it's no longer just about throwing stuff at people. It's also about the depth that you can produce in the world that you're creating.
"Dance is a natural genre for 3-D, there's no doubt about it," he continues. "There have been a lot of 3-D dance movies made, but none that showcase the sportsmanship of b-boying. The 3-D creates a sense of dimensionality that enhances the story of these kids and what they go through. The audience will be immersed in it. With multiple cameras rolling at all times, we had so many wonderful angles to choose from."
Barrett, who also shot Texas Chain Saw 3-D and A Very Harold & Kumar 3-D Christmas says there is nothing gimmicky about the way the technology is used here. "It feels like you walk up to the screen and into this world. Dancing by nature is a spectacle and the 3-D heightened it. We've got guys performing incredible feats with their bodies, things you can't imagine are physically possible. When you see it in 3-D, it's absolutely astounding."
The production brought in three top choreographers to work with the b-boys: Dave Scott, and brothers Rich and Tone Talauega. "Dave Scott has worked extensively in movies, on projects including You Got Served and Stomp the Yard," says Vinson. "Rich and Tone are known for live events. We were introduced to them through Chris Brown. They have been creative directors on some of his shows. They are all very disciplined guys who run a tight ship and they were incredibly inspiring for the dancers."
The trio created dance sequences that embrace and elevate b-boying. "It is an intensely physical discipline," Gainor says. "They have to develop their neck muscles, their arm muscles and their shoulder muscles to an extraordinary degree. It takes real athleticism, stamina, talent and passion to excel in this art form. Everybody in the film brought their creativity to it. You're really experiencing the authentic dance."
The dancers and choreographers had six weeks prior to shooting to prep. They continued rehearsals and training throughout the shoot for sequences that include the show-stopping finale, in which they perform a complicated and dangerous dance routine blindfolded. "That's never been done before," says Vinson. "You can imagine how much rehearsal and timing it takes to get something like that right. It's the Dream team's secret weapon."
Dave Scott was eager to be involved in a project that he thinks will change the way people look at b-boying, but he was always aware that there would be certain unavoidable challenges. "This is a dance style that is very individualistic," he points out. "Our job was to make it more of a team sport without taking away the dancers' personal style. It's a whole new hybrid from of dance. In addition, the competitions are huge productions, almost like a circus. We had to come with something that is like a hip hop, b-boy, Broadway production number."
The choreographers also had to instill some of the discipline that more conventional forms like ballet require into the b-boy dancers. "In the script, the Dream team starts out as a motley crew of cocky kids whose egos keep getting in the way," says Scott. "And that is what we had to deal with in real life. I got grey hairs trying to unite these guys. But, as in the script, they slowly started to work together and become a family who help each other out."
The Talauega brothers were attracted to the idea of b-boying as sport. "This script had all the right ingredients," says Tone. "The story is timeless. The script is raw and comes from the streets. The fact that it is structured more like a sports story that a typical dance movie made us relate to it right away."
The brothers worked closely with Scott to turn the boys into a unified team. "In front of the camera was exactly like what was going on behind the camera," says Rich. "The dancers are so used to trying to stand out. During rehearsals, one guy would go off and start spinning on his head when we were doing something else. Another guy would start soloing while we were trying to work together, so it was a headache to get them all in the same frame of mind. So many worlds came together in this and it was our job to make them all one world."
Rich Talauega spent time working one-on-one with Chris Brown to transform him into an authentic b-boy. "Chris is a sponge," the choreographer says. "His dance talent is completely natural. He watches something and then does it perfectly the first time out. It's like he downloads it into his head. He is fearless and willing to try anything. Give him enough time, he will do it better than you!"
Benson Lee is extremely proud to have helmed what he believes is the first feature film that does justice to hip hop culture. "In my opinion, Battle of the Year features the best urban dancing ever put on film," Lee says. "We have a great story with really phenomenal actors in a movie that will appeal to a wide audience. It has some really important, universal themes and the dancing is not only for young people.
"It is the first real showcase for b-boys in a narrative film," he continues. "We have some of the best b-boys from around the world representing a whole era of world class b-boying. I want more people to want to learn about the art of b-boying. I want to help it transcend that worn out image from the '80s. It is a dynamic and powerful form of dance. It is a sport. It is an art.
"And for the kids who get involved, it provides them an opportunity to shine. Some of them would never have had that chance to leave their neighborhoods and this has allowed them to see the world. It's amazing."
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