A dancer's upper body shines brilliantly. Another's torso is cooler, glowing only in spots on the skin. Captured with heat-sensitive photography, ORA has a mesmerizing effect, as sensual and dignified as the modern dance it shows.
And it's all thanks to technology restricted by the U.S. military.
The 15-minute film – which will screen at Montreal's Festival du nouveau cinema this week before being released in theatres – was directed by Philippe Baylaucq with technology that is as groundbreaking as the dancing is quiet and unassuming. ORA, produced by the National Film Board of Canada, was shot not with light, but using high-definition infrared thermography, which records heat fluctuations in the tiniest of increments. It was also filmed in 3-D, requiring a difficult synchronization of cameras that can work only without light. And the film was recorded in Dolby 7.1 surround sound, a first for the NFB.
But ORA also hinged on using restricted technology and required the go-ahead from U.S. defence contractor Lockheed Martin.
"Directors generally don't take no for an answer," Baylaucq says. "So I said, 'If these cameras exist, I'm going do my best to convince somebody to let us use them.' But I didn't know where to start."
During a two-year residency at the NFB in Montreal, Baylaucq had experimented with infrared technology, which has been used by artists including Bjork and Robert Lepage onstage and in opera productions. Shooting without light has also been done before, notably in Radiohead's video for House of Cards, where images are formed by shooting lasers at target surfaces.
But standard-definition infrared thermography isn't sensitive enough for what the director had in mind for ORA. And images from commercially available thermography tends to be brightly coloured, creating a psychedelic, Peter Max look, as seen in medical imaging. Baylaucq wanted higher-definition cameras that could shoot in black and white, so that the images could be refined and subtly coloured afterward.
He found the solution almost by chance. One company representative let slip in an e-mail the name of another company that works with such high-definition cameras, and as one contact led to another, Baylaucq finally reached the California-based engineer who had developed the equipment he needed.
Arn Adams, who had developed the technology for the company Santa Barbara Focalplane, was intrigued by Baylaucq's project. But his company, owned by Lockheed Martin, was restricted by the U.S. military on how the technology could be used.
Baylaucq admits to "certain misgivings" about using the technology, which was developed as a tool for warfare, even though the beauty of ORA is how it utterly transforms the cameras' purpose. Still, permission had to be secured from Lockheed Martin and military channels – as well as dance, production and directors unions, which had to agree to shoot on U.S. soil.
"[ ORA]fast-tracked through some fairly major hurdles," Baylaucq says.
ORA was shot in Vermont, near the film's Montreal production base. The shoot had to be close because it required massive floor-to-ceiling sets made of heat-reflecting aluminum panels, which were constructed and shipped by truck from Montreal.
Other difficulties ensued. The cameras had to be continually cooled by liquid nitrogen so they wouldn't heat up themselves and disrupt the pictures being captured. They are also entirely computer-dependent, allowing for only 2½ minutes of footage to be shot before data is downloaded to hard drives. This meant that the dancers, wearing next to nothing in a cool (and therefore non-heat-emitting) Vermont warehouse, had to stop every two minutes.
"It was really something of a slog, because it was stop-start, stop-start," Baylaucq notes.
But he adds that technicians who work with the military technology were excited by the fact that artists were using the cameras in an entirely new way.
"[The cameras]are like just about everything else in our lives," Baylaucq says. "Most things, most prototypes, come from some kind of military application, and then it trickles down to the domestic market. These cameras simply haven't trickled down yet. They eventually will."
ORA will screen at Montreal's Festival du nouveau cinema Thursday and Friday, preceding Wim Wenders's 3-D dance film Pina. In December, it will be shown with Pina in cinemas in Quebec. A theatrical release in English Canada is still pending.