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Stephen Poliakoff, the British playwright, director and scriptwriter, is known for rich, layered, character-driven television series such as SHOOTING THE PAST, PERFECT STRANGERS and THE LOST PRINCE. Having previously only ever worked with film, Poliakoff was reluctant to accept digital acquisition for his latest project, DANCING ON THE EDGE, a tense and disturbing account of the experiences of a black jazz band in 1930s London. However, cinematographer Ashley Rowe, BSC, shot tests with ALEXA and convinced the director of its overall image quality and low light advantages. Producer Nicky Kentish Barnes had other reasons for choosing ALEXA; she shares her experiences here.

What were the factors that pushed DANCING ON THE EDGE towards digital acquisition?

Well, Stephen has never shot on digital before; he’s only ever shot film, so he desperately wanted to stay with 16 mm. He also likes to shoot quite a lot of footage on his projects, and on this production we had two cameras running most of the time, because there weren’t many scenes where it was just a couple of people in a room. When you have a 12-piece band that you’re taking around with you everywhere, you haven’t got the luxury of working with just one camera, so we generally had two, if not three. For that reason shooting film was a bit of a non-starter for me, financially speaking, but it took a lot of persuading for Stephen and we did loads of tests.

Thank God that Ashley, who is such a brilliant cameraman, embraced it. I think it’s all about how the cameraman makes the tools he has available work for him. A lot of digital stuff doesn’t necessarily look all that fantastic, but the images Ashley got with the ALEXA were quite incredible.

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Once you were actually up and running, did shooting digitally bring any advantages to Stephen?

Even though film would have been Stephen’s first choice, I think that digital freed him up to shoot an enormous amount of material, which suited his approach. When you’ve got the pressure of the days and the schedule, pressure about film stock would have been an additional worry. Shooting digitally also freed him up in terms of working with the actors. I wouldn’t necessarily say that Stephen is now a complete convert to digital, but given what Ashley achieved with the ALEXA, you couldn’t get much closer to perfection in terms of making a move to a different format. My impression was that it helped with the lighting as well, because even though it was a period piece, we could just pop outside and shoot something quickly in low light, without all of the equipment that’s normally necessary. It allowed us to be very responsive.

Were there other benefits to shooting with ALEXA from your perspective as producer?

I have to admit that at the outset I was fairly anti-digital as well, even though I knew that’s what we had to do financially, because I’d never had the experience before and I wasn’t convinced that we’d be able to get the look and the quality required for a period drama like this. Digital can sometimes seem a bit too glossy, but Ashley knew exactly what he was doing. I’m sure that it must be quite a different way of lighting, working in this format, but he was able to get exactly the look we wanted. From my point of view it couldn’t have been better because I was in such great hands.

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The camera package was extremely flexible and light to carry around, and allowed us to travel with less lighting equipment. The fact that we had second units going off and shooting other things with small packages of the same cameras and lenses made it all very user-friendly and efficient.

Was the on-set image workflow also efficient?

We had a DIT on set with us who was checking the footage for any issues, which was a great safety net because there was an occasion when he spotted something and we were able to re-do the shot later that same afternoon. If we’d only noticed it after we’d finished that day and left the location, it would have been so much harder, especially when you’re shooting a period piece at lots of different locations and under such time pressure. These are very intense dialogue scenes, so they’re not easy to go back to. Working with the ALEXA gave us immediate access to our images, which is a tremendous help when you’re having to move so fast.

DANCING ON THE EDGE is currently airing in the U.S. on Starz, having been broadcast in the UK earlier this year. It was shot with ALEXA cameras provided by Aimimage and ICE Fim, London, recording ProRes 444 to in-camera SxS PRO cards.