How we made "Human"

Updated: Nov 30, 2019

I remember when Selkie first came to me with the core idea for "Human." She described a woman-- suffering and unseen in her suffering by the people around her, bound with straps on her wrist. "As she discovers she is bound," Selkie tells me, "she is pulled back and lifted into the sky. As the woman learns to work with the binding and dance, the people who did not see her before take notice and flock towards her."

My first thoughts were panic. Hundreds of extras? Cranes? Street closures? This sounded expensive. But as Selkie painted the picture I immediately got hooked and knew we had to find a way to make it happen. We built out the concept together, realizing how powerful it would be to watch her (Selkie) react to the people around her... the people who would ultimately climb up to her and pull her down.

We knew we had to make it.

But... where?

Los Angeles is hardly an easy place to get a street closure, yet alone get hundreds of extras without going through an expensive service.

But then I visited my mom in Salida, CO. She had just moved there from Ohio. I fell in love with the texture of the town and brought pictures back to share with Selkie. We agreed it would be a great backdrop for this story, so we called some contacts in their local government to see what it would take to shut down some streets for the film. They were enthusiastic and we ended that phone call committing to a date. May 15th. (It was February at the time).

Looking back I remember being scared when they offered up a date. Selkie and I exchanged glances -- "Are we really doing this?" We took the leap and said, "BOOK IT!", and bought our flights while they would still be cheap.

This video was a huge increase in production value from our past films. I knew the first thing I needed to do was create a rough animatic in order to get collaborators on the same page. An animatic is a preliminary version of a movie, using storyboards and soundtrack.

I asked my friend Molly Burke to create some rough sketches for me which I could animate.

Here it is. You can see some specifics changed over time, but the core ideas remained the same.

The actual choreography for the film was created after the animatic.

Choreography happened in steps.

In previous films, we have used aerial hammock and aerial silks. The story we wanted to tell with Human demanded a different apparatus-- the straps. These are not your average straps. They are a custom apparatus that Selkie had made. And the are HARD! Trust me, I got up there and played with them a bit under Selkie's supervision.

The beginning of choreography was simply play. Selkie explored ideas. Mark and I captured them.

From hours of initial exploration, we found a ton of cool shapes and interesting transitions. But aerial, for us, is not just about cool shapes. It's about telling a story. We captured hours and hours of footage, and reviewed it, looking for images that evoked the emotion and journey we wanted to tell.

Below are three visually appealing choreography ideas. But only two of them made it into the final choreography. Can you spot which ones?

Upon finding the neck balance (pictured below), we knew that we wanted the choreography to build to this pose which would happen during the lyric, "I'm no prophet or messiah, should go looking somewhere higher."

I snapped this image during one of our rehearsals and ended up using it in a deck that I built which explained the project. This look book helped us communicate our vision and our company to professional collaborators we reached out to in Denver and Colorado Springs, who drove hours to work on Human with us.

After we came up with a consensus about the sorts of silhouettes that evoked our story and their relative order, Selkie worked on the choreography, filling in the holes. Even up through days before shooting she was working on it.

Also... Selkie's straps have harnesses around the wrists. So getting out of them is not as simple as just jumping down. Whenever Selkie was ready to get down, we slid a box beneath her so she could rest her weight on it while removing the straps. Sometimes we just used Mark instead...

Once we got to Colorado, Selkie started training in the high altitude (the elevation is about 7k feet and the air is very thin which makes this crazy apparatus even tougher!). One of our sponsors, Max Air, provided supplements that helped us all cope with the altitude change. Mark Wildman assisted Selkie and captured video for me of her rehearsals, while DP Beth Napoli and I did our final scouts for the shoot, and came up with our shooting schedule.

Planning from afar...

was hard.

We had a lot of logistics to figure out and we were only going to arr