Final Project and Reflection

Over the course of this class and this semester, I feel like I have been on a journey in which I have evolved as a filmmaker.  This semester was most likely my busiest one yet, in all aspects, but especially when it came to production.  From shorts spanning a variety of genres in Cinema Production class, to creating a full episode of sketches for Elon Tonight, to promotional videos for LiveOak, to a documentary for my seminar “Ordinary People in the Struggle for Change,” this year has been moving at lightening speed, with deadlines after deadlines and shoot dates consuming most weekends.  Though my schedule was been eventful indeed, I would not change a thing because of all that I learned.  I am grateful for each project, each shoot, each editing session, and each critique and workshop we have done this year.  I got to work with some great people, and met many new talented people in my classes.  I feel like I have really expanded my network of people to reach out to for projects, which certainly makes me a better filmmaker.

The intense schedule has made me more diligent, more detail-oriented, and even more passionate as a filmmaker.  The experimental films have been particularly beneficial to me because they have made me focus more on meaning and visual quality.  I have gotten down to the foundation of filmmaking and visual storytelling, and have gotten stronger as a director (getting actors to convey the story), a cinematographer (making every frame count) and an editor (knowing what to choose and how to arrange it to best serve the story).  Documentary work has made me better able to find stories in every day life, and to choose characters who make stories dynamic.  I think I have improved at casting this semester and have new knowledge I can apply to future casting work.  I have also met and been inspired by numerous theater and music students at the school that I would love to work with again.

This semester, I became much more willing to play around and experiment with the work, rather than being so nervous about messing up that I would constrain myself to playing it safe.  Through this experimentation came work I am very proud of.  I learned a lot about lighting just through trying different things.  I have a broader skill set than I did starting out.

I have also gained confidence in my abilities.  I know I have a long ways to go, but it’s important for me to remember that I can never please everyone and people will respond differently to my work.  The most important thing I have learned is to work hard, take criticism with grace, to not get frustrated, and to carry on no matter what.

Watch our final project herehttps://vimeo.com/81228457

Narrative Film: Harvest

Our latest project was to produce a narrative film.  My friend and fellow group member Delaney is an aspiring screenwriter, so she spent time writing a short script that was artfully assembled.  Our film is the story of Oliver, a young man who has too much responsibility at home, and his new friendship that blossoms after meeting cheerful Gwen at a community garden.  The garden is Oliver’s oasis.  He must deal with so much darkness at home, and our short shows him finding a bit of light in his life.

Working with actors on this short turned out to be a terrific, positive experience.  First, however, we had to cast and schedule actors, which turned out to be very difficult.  We had first, second, third and fourth choices for our parts.  Initially it seemed as though no one we contacted was available.  We had hoped to shoot over two days, but this was causing a plethora of issues.  Most pressing was the fact that we could not find a Gwen that was free when our Oliver was free.  Eventually, John Henry, who ended up playing Oliver and had been our preference from the beginning, said he was free on Saturday.  We figure this could work, but all of our Gwens were booked—until we found Bronte.  We found Bronte almost out of the blue, by talking to our acting friends and looking at cast lists.  However, I could not imagine a more perfect pair for our two protagonists.  Luckily, we had the part of Phoebe cast from the start and just had to let her know what day and time.

All of our actors were an absolute dream to work with.  They were enthusiastic and energetic all day long.  They took the script very seriously, did in-depth character work, and gave quality performances among all the stopping and starting for set ups.  All three of them were basically new to on-camera work, but I think they did a beautiful job of giving very authentic performances.

Each actor responded well to adjustments that Delaney gave them.  One thing we all saw the importance of on this shoot was making sure the actor feels good about their performance.  Even if we felt we had a successful take, we would check with the actors to make sure they felt they gave their best work. Doing this kept their mood positive and showed them that we respect their craft, as well as made sure we got the best possible take.

Bronte had a natural ease and light about her that she brought to the character.  John Henry was full of spark that he translated into his characters emotions, making him dark and troubled yet still likable and relatable.  Our actors were polite and had great chemistry on and off-screen.  They all said they had a great experience and would like to work with us again, so I look forward to future collaborations.

Watch here!

Review: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

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And those hats are fantastic.

I took our most recent task to watch a movie made before 1975 as a splendid opportunity to watch a classic: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)This film is obviously a cultural icon.  In fact, 2 classmates dressed as Butch and Sundance for this past Halloween.

The film did not disappoint.  First, let’s explore the cast.

In terms of attractive people, Butch Cassidy really hit a homerun.  Paul Newman as Butch, Robert Redford as Sundance, and Katharine Ross as Etta; it was almost too much to handle.  Katharine Ross is absolutely lovely.  I knew she looked familiar but it wasn’t until I looked her up on IMDb that I realized I recognized her from The Graduate, as the equally stunning Elaine Robinson.  Just as I was angry with Dustin Hoffman’s Ben for initially mistreating Elaine, I become upset every time Sundance does not show Etta the respect she deserves.  Still, I got the sense that Sundance appreciates and cares for Etta as being a strong woman, even if cultural norms for the time did not allow him to directly express it.

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She can do no wrong.

Newman’s Butch and Redford’s Sundance have an easy, enchanting chemistry.  As the brains and the brawn, the thinker and the shooter, they effortlessly trade banter and witty barbs.  And of course, they are ridiculously handsome.

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Handsome #1.

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And Handsome #2.

The plot is almost reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde, which had come out two years prior.  I saw similarities as both movies feature people who seemed to be outlaws by default, because they like the rush and the fun.  Both films feature two key players, who have become iconic couples.  And both films of course, end with a fiery blaze and immense violence.  Yet, I root for Butch and Sundance much more than I did for Bonnie and Clyde.  These two cowboys seem to be good people who were smart and funny.  They commit their robberies without bloodshed, chatting with the train workers as they rob them.  Butch avoids violence and they never hurt anyone until, as in Bonnie and Clyde, their situation takes a turn for the worse and they are forced to resort to violence.

As with most older films, the pacing is rather slow.  There are long, drawn-out chase scenes and the men likely spend half the movie fleeing on horseback.  Still, I don’t believe the slower pace hindered my enjoyment of the film.

The film starts in sepia tones, showing old Western slides.  The first scene remains in sepia, conveying the look of an old Western.  The movie then transitions into pleasing color as the men ride through beautiful Western landscapes and through towns that look as though they sprung up yesterday.  I think the choice to add sepia tones helps establish the Western genre.

The camera movement is alternately funny, disconcerting, and sophisticated.  There are several long moving shots that seemed to be on a dolly, such as when the men would ride through on horseback.  These movements look quite modern and add a pleasing aesthetic to the action sequences.  There are several zooms that I would describe as silly, such as when Butch crashes into a bull pen and the camera zooms right into the bull’s angry eye.

The sound design is dynamic, as there are diagetic sounds serving the story, as well as nondiagetic soundtrack music that have questionable success.  I found it to be alarming when there was music with lyrics playing beneath the action and we could see the actors’ mouths moving but could not hear their words.  I did find the sounds of horse hooves really added to the tension, as perspective was incorporated.  You could tell how far away the posse is from catching up to Butch and Sundance by how close the galloping sounds.

Overall, I would highly recommend Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to anyone looking for a fun classic.  The film is an interesting mix of Western, comedy, action and drama.

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Documentary: It’s Alright, Baby

Click here to watch:

It’s Alright, Baby: Documentary

For our first major foray into documentary, Cappy, Delaney and I wanted to explore the life of a talented musician living in a small town, whose career path was based on music.  Finding a subject was certainly a major challenge for working with the “truth” rather than with the narrative structure.  There were no topics or subjects that jumped out to us initially.  But upon questioning what could be a dynamic topic in the local area, the idea for interviewing a musician sprung forth.  We explored a few bands before finding someone who would work with us.  I reached out to someone I worked with previously who lives in Burlington and he suggested a band we could contact.  After calling the musician twice, he never responded.  I clearly got the message he was not interested, but also learned that documentary can be full of false starts so it is good to get a head start on researching and contacting potential subjects.

I then saw that a musician named Micah McCravey had performed at the Front Street Public House in Burlington the week before.  Going out on a limb, I looked him up and contacted him to see if he would be interested.  To our great surprise, he responded immediately and said that he was.  Throughout the whole process, Micah was very flexible and pretty much willing to comply with whatever we asked.  He sat down for a long interview with us and let us attend one of his shows.  I feel fortunate that we found someone who was so easy going and not picky about our work.

Another huge challenge we encountered was with our interview.  Micah was a bit nervous in front of the camera and tended to speak pretty quietly, forgetting to tag the beginning of his responses with some form of the question we had asked so viewers could know what he was responding to.  In a narrative film, you can just cast who is best for the part and direct actors until they deliver lines and give a performance the way you want.  Obviously, in our situation, it was not that simple.  We needed to stay truthful to Micah and who he was, and work around the fact that we cannot control every variable or aspect of his personality.  Still, we did our best to get solid responses.

Micah is an incredibly talented musician.  We had previously watched his videos on YouTube but they did not even do him justice.  It was very enjoyable to listen to him play, and he was certainly much more at ease when performing rather than in front of the camera.  We attended one of his band’s (Extended Hill) shows in Mebane, and a challenge we encountered here was dealing with the crowd.  We were at a pub, so naturally some people were intoxicated and a few would come up to us to ask us about our cameras and just sort of ramble on.  Still, I think we appeared very professional and were able to deal with these encounters appropriately, as it did not affect our work.

This documentary has been a great learning experience.  I loved working with Cappy and Delaney.  I feel we worked very well together and had a natural ebb and flow that allowed us to cohesively share production tasks.  I feel I have gained a much better understanding of choosing a subject and eliciting good responses.  I am very glad to have met Micah and have thoroughly enjoyed working on this project.

Review: An Officer and a Gentleman

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For a recent Screenwriting midterm, we watched An Officer and a Gentleman and then answered questions about the story structure.  Since that is the last film I watched and it remains a cinema classic, it only seemed fitting that I review it for my narrative film critique.

The film was nominated for several Academy Awards and Golden Globes.  In both shows, Louis Gossett Jr. won for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and “Up Where We Belong” won Best Original Song in a motion picture.  The title was very familiar to me and I knew the film was one of those cult hits, similar to Top Gun.  This film is also what made Richard Gere a star, and gave Debra Winger a Best Actress nomination.

Overall, the acting is impressive.  The film was made in 1982 so it had a fair amount of 80’s cheese, such as the one song used for the soundtrack of the entire movie, some superfluous karate moves, and a few other details that felt disingenuous.  Richard Gere as Zack Mayo delivers a moving performance despite elements of cheesiness.  He is a believable loner and plays tough but wounded with a great deal of truthfulness.  At the turning point of the film, and when he loses his best friend, we see very real, gut wrenching emotion.  Louis Gossett Jr. as the tough, seemingly malicious Gunnery Sergeant Foley makes for a perfect villain.  He is back-breakingly tough on the soldiers and employs a wide range of un-politically correct insults to put them in their place.  By the end of the film, he shows just enough vulnerability to make us believe he has the potential officers’ best interest at heart, though I still would not want to meet him.  Debra Winger is talented in her role as the female lead, but I would say that her true accomplishment was taking a stereotypical, rather flat and uncomplicated female role and adding layers and depth.

I found that the story seems to skim over the development of some of the relationships, such as between Zack and Sid, Zack and Paula, and Sid and Lynette.  Zack and Sid go from chatting in line waiting for haircuts to being inseparable best friends.  Sid proposes to Lynette and we have seen them have only one serious conversation.  When Lynette turns down his marriage proposal, it sends him into a deep depression from which he cannot recover.  There are presumably many elements at work here—his changing career path, the guilt he feels about his dead brother—but it does not seem that we have gotten enough depth from his and Lynette’s relationship to see why this would be so upsetting.  Still, the actor David Keith delivers a great performance as Sid.

The cinematography combined with the art direction serves the story well.  Once again, there are some stereotypically 80’s camera movements but overall the lighting and camera work fit the story.  The story begins in a dark, dingy apartment with shadows consuming Zack.  The ending images are off Zack carrying Paula away from a contained, dark factory and into blinding light.  The early flashbacks show Zack’s childhood with an orange tint indicating oppression and heat, with vulgarity in action and color.

Overall, I would recommend this film if to anyone looking for a fun throwback film like Top Gun.  Yet, I think several aspects of the story date it and do not work to preserve the likability of the film.  I was also very disappointed in the portrayal of female characters in the film, as I do not think they were portrayed fairly or with depth.

Review: Restrepo

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The name “Restrepo” sounded very familiar to me, and when it came time to critique a documentary, I realized why.  “Restrepo” is a 2010 documentary in which two unseen filmmakers spend a year living with a platoon stationed in the deadly Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. The Korengal Valley was, at the time, being referred to as “the deadliest place on Earth” and the soldiers took fire almost every single day.  The film won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary and received widespread critical acclaim, hence the reason the name had somehow become lodged in my consciousness.

“Restrepo” was directed and shot by two journalists, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington.  Within moments of beginning the movie, I started questioning how these two men could possibly have inserted themselves in this unceasingly dangerous conflict, not to mention with two cameras to document the soldiers.  The most striking thing about the documentary is thus the verité, uncensored documentation of war and the constant danger that surrounds the world of these soldiers and the two filmmakers.  Though we never see the men behind the camera, they follow the soldiers around, running through the mountains, ducking behind barricades and dodging fire, going out on expeditions and investigative missions.  It became difficult for me to imagine the kind of person who would risk their life to document action in the deadliest part of the war.  Upon further researching the two men, I discovered that Tim Hetherington was killed in 2011 reporting in Libya.  I suppose that these journalists feel compelled to report the truth no matter the cost, and while I cannot imagine doing their job, I feel they are doing a great service to the public.

The filmmakers are providing a gritty and raw look at what it is like to be a soldier and what it means to protect your country.  Many of the soldiers look so young, because many of them probably were very young.  They let loose with a string of profanities every time they come under fire, which forced me to realize that though these are professional soldiers, they are also just humans.  They are afraid for their lives and the lives of those around them.  The narrative technique of film was simple and uncluttered, which served the subject matter well considering the subjects speak for themselves.  Additionally, much of the jargon and logistics that the soldiers discuss can go over the head of the average civilian, so the use of mostly raw footage, post-return interviews and a few title cards with supplementary information complemented the intense and frantic action.

The cinematography was intriguing, as there was a lot of camera movement and shakiness, especially during the combat scenes.  The footage was shot to capture as much information as possibly while the cameraman simultaneously had to try to survive the fire.  There was often dirt on the lens, but this only added to feel of the whole piece.  The physical action captured also spoke volumes about the circumstances.  The filmmakers captured the men playing guitar, cooking, talking, and even rejoicing when they killed enemy fighters.  There was a close-up shot of a village elder trying to figure out how to drink from a juice box during a meeting with the soldiers that spoke volumes to me about the struggle between two cultures in war.  The most difficult moment of the film was when a soldier was killed, and we see another soldier reacting to that death first with denial, then with utter despair.  He cries out in such a gut-wrenching way that we see that these men are not professional killers.  They are boys who recently became men and have lost many friends on the harsh terrain of battle.  The Korengal Valley is eearily beautiful for a war-torn land and it seemed that when there was a moment of respite, the directors would capture some scenery and shots of the outpost that were both stunning and poignant.  The beginning and end of the film used personal footage shot by Doc Restrepo, the soldier the film and Korengal outpost were named for.  He says both hello and goodbye to the camera, and adds a very human, very personal touch to the film.

I would certainly recommend this film to any viewer old enough to handle the content.  “Restepo” is an unbiased look at war, killing, brotherhood and humanity that I think people need to see to better understand and question what we do when this country goes to war.

 

 

Experimental Short: Pablo Neruda

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DevonEyesI was excited at the prospect of creating an experimental short piece, despite my apprehension of taking on such an amorphous task.  Experimental videos give the creator and the audience a chance to focus on visuals and the feelings they evoke.  When I learned that we were to choose a poem written by a non-English speaking author, I immediately thought of a poem by Chilean writer Pablo Neruda.  The poem is commonly titled, “Tonight I can write the saddest lines.”

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write, for example,’The night is shattered

and the blue stars shiver in the distance.’

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms

I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me sometimes, and I loved her too.

How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear the immense night, still more immense without her.

And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.

The night is shattered and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.

My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight searches for her as though to go to her.

My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.

We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that’s certain, but how I loved her.

My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another’s. She will be another’s. Like my kisses before.

Her voide. Her bright body. Her inifinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her.

Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms

my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer

and these the last verses that I write for her.

I recalled this poem from a high school Spanish class, but more significantly, because it contains my best friend Elizabeth’s favorite quote: “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.”

Those two lines were the inspiration for my entire piece, with the rest of the poem coming into play through mood and tone.

I wanted to establish a visual representation of what it is like to be affected and colored by all the experiences one has in a relationship.  Everything you take from another person, everything they give you, the ways you and the other are both changed.  The memories that you collect that become part of your identity.  Love can be fleeting, as Neruda shows us.  But forgetting is long, maybe impossible.  Thus, I decided to have my beautiful actress Devon Gailey paint her face, symbolizing her previous relationships’ experiences and memories.  I then chose to play this footage backwards, to show that she is, in a sense, taking off these memories, attempting to start the long process of forgetting.

Because relationships involve two people becoming one whole, I chose to incorporate camera work that represents the other member of the relationship.  This person is losing Devon, as she moves away from the camera, yet engages directly with it.

Eyes are a motif in the piece as Neruda mentions her “great still eyes.”  Eyes are the window to the soul and the conveyor of the strongest emotions.

As memories cannot be relinquished in the long trauma of heartbreak, I cut between Devon removing the paint from her face and her face being totally covered in the paint.  She slowly undoes the work of the relationship, breaking her heart and the heart of her former love.  Though she cannot truly forget, her face is blank by the end of the piece showing her resolve to move on from the relationship, even if this does not bring joy to either person.

Watch the video here!

PSA: R U OK?

Stop motion projects are always challenging.  I admire all animators for their passion and dedication to such a time-consuming and often tedious craft.  I marvel at their ability to remain focused on a project that could take years.  My stop motion piece is a PSA about an non-profit organization called R U OK? Day.  The organization is based in Australia and is dedicated to encouraging people to ask “Are you okay?” to their friends, family or other people who look like they could be struggling.  The cause was founded by a man named Gavin Larkin after he was rocked by the suicide of his father in 2009.  The organizations’ mission statement includes: “We are dedicated to encouraging and enabling all people to regularly and meaningfully ask ‘are you ok?’ of anyone struggling with life.”

I knew that I wanted to create a PSA that had an artistic representation of a story being told by a voiceover.  When I visualized what depression would look and feel like in a symbolic sense, I came up with a ship being stuck in a storm.  The vessel is unable to escape the wrath of nature until the sun comes shining through the rain.

A large focus for this project was sound design.  Visuals tell powerful stories, but sound design is incredibly important, acting almost as another character in the story.  Sound can change the entire mood of the piece.  Because my video is set in nature, I needed to incorporate natural sounds without overpowering the voiceover.  I also needed to find a song to lie under these two elements that conveyed both the struggle of the narrator as well as the hope she finds at the end of the piece.  Thus, my major challenges were: placing the voiceover to match the visuals, incorporating natural sound effects and choosing the appropriate song.

I first recorded the voiceover using an external microphone.  I recorded the vocals myself, and worked to put the proper emotion into the words.  Using several takes, I chose the best lines and placed them where they would correspond with the images.

The next step was to choose the proper song.  Initially, I had hoped to have a piano track that was very simple.  I did not find this, but instead found a song called Life Worth Living, from Firstcom.com.  The song was appropriate for the piece and subject matter, as it sounded lonely and tinged with sadness at first, but grew to be more hopeful and optimistic.  I put the song on a level lower than the voiceover, so that the 30-second excerpt would exist as background music and convey the desired tone.

The final major step was to select sound effects.  I knew I wanted sounds of ocean waves and thunder clapping.  Thus, I found some ambient ocean noise and a storm soundtrack that included a thunder clap that was very fitting.  The ocean noise is levels below the voiceover, so as not to compete with or overpower the story.  The waves fade out as the ocean scene comes to a close.  The storm builds right when the narrator’s depression is at its peak.  The thunder is heard in conjunction with lightening seen on screen, yet it still does not overpower the other songs.  By the end of the piece, the only sounds are the voiceover and the song, which fades out as the image fades to black.

Watch (set in 1080 for best quality!) here!

Choros

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Choros is a short, experimental film that features a single dancer who creates numerous versions of herself as she works toward one progressive movement.  The film was done by Michael Langan in collaboration with Terah Maher.  Langan is a young, award-winning film maker, a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design known for other experimental work, including acclaimed short film Doxology.

Choros has no dialogue and the entire film is scored, therefore it almost has the feel of a music video.  The score actually drives the entire piece.  The choreography of the featured dancer relies upon the story-telling ability of the non-diegetic orchestral arrangement.  Though the music is not of the world of the dancer and clearly added after-the-fact, it is clear that the music affects the world and the movements of the dancer.  The music is traditional in its arrangement, yet maintains a modern, hip feel.  The dance and score work together to drive the film forward, as being experimental, there is no discernable plot.

Langan was inspired in part by Edward Muybridge, a much-studied pioneer in the history of film-making.  Muybridge sought to settle the question of whether a racehorse ever has all four feet leave the ground by taking successive photographs of a running horse.  Muybridge discovered moments when the horse was airborne, but perhaps more importantly, realized how successive photographs shown rapidly create the illusion of movement.  The Muybridge influence is obvious in Langan’s work.  The dancer begins moving and suddenly, there are infinite versions of her, each new multiplied version racing to catch up with the original.  When she moves her body, her own chorus extends the process of moving from point A to point B.  This technique is appropriately called a visual echo.

At times, it seems that the action could be just a repetitive experimentation with a highly sophisticated editing technique, which in itself is intriguing and worth watching.  However, Langan keeps the piece innovative and engaging as the multiple images of the dancers body must merge back into one, or into a new position entirely.  The tension of the piece exists in the need to see the dancer reunite with all of her multiple images after a long movement.

The cinematography is simple, allowing the dancer to be the focus of the piece.  The first part of the film features long wide to medium wide shots, all set inside a studio.  There are then shots racing through a serene field.  In a wide shot, the woman stands in the field and her images multiply and spiral outward.

The art direction is phenomenal.  The studio scenes feature a mostly dark background with little discernable detail, the light coming from within the dancer.  She is the focus of piece and the ultimate life force.  The field is green and glowing, matching nicely with the serene environment created by the angelic dancer in the dark studio.  Even the dark colors seem to be rich, and the light colors starkly vibrant.

Langan claims that the film explores rebirth.  The dancer is literally surrounded by fire and light.  As her movements are made up of many versions of herself, the piece speaks to the complex nature of humanity.  This implies the notion that we are all the sum of many parts.  There is a light within all of us that drives us to innovate, to do what we are passionate about.  Passion in Choros is shown brilliantly through a dancer, as dancers manifest their passion in a demonstrated, physical form.

I would highly recommend Choros in part because it is soothing and ethereal to watch.  Yet it also offers the viewer great inspiration for creating innovative visual works, and it touches that within each of us that is always yearning for light.

Watch Choros Here