Contemporary touring circus group Cirque du Soleil is synonymous with live performances that leave audiences gasping, as acrobats and artists showcase their spectacular athletic abilities. But how do filmmakers translate these bold shows to audiences in their homes? As part of a year-long internship with Getty Images that has seen her work with stills, video and editing teams, British entertainment photographer and filmmaker Emily 'Milly' Grange-Bennett documented the magic of the circus in 4K.
Milly began her year-long internship with Getty Images in October 2019, but her photographic journey has always been rooted in the arts. "I originally enrolled at the University for the Creative Arts in 2016 to study Fashion Photography, and found myself shooting artists in and around gig venues for small publications," says Milly who has been a Canon photographer ever since she picked up her first DSLR, the Canon EOS 550D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 800D).
Enticed by the entertainment world, Milly put university on hold and took the plunge as a freelancer. After a year in the field, she was ready to restart her studies, and was offered a place at the University of the Arts London to study for an MA in Fashion Media Promotion – a course she says 'set her up creatively'. She returned to freelancing after finishing her studies, and began an internship within the entertainment sector of Getty Images in the UK to further her experience in the industry.
Milly soon secured her dream assignment. "I discovered Getty Images' partnership with Cirque du Soleil and explained to one of my colleagues that I was very passionate about Cirque, and that one of the reasons I became interested in photography and filmmaking was because I was a trapeze artist myself," she explains.
"They made it happen for me without question. Given an open brief, I was allowed to brainstorm ideas and develop a concept prior to shooting. The composer, Jack Kendrew, who I produced the music track for the video with, was also an important part of the creative process."
The concept of the stripped-back black-and-white film was to convey both the mental and physical prowess of a Cirque du Soleil performer. "As someone who has been a gymnast and in the circus, I was very interested in the mental and physical strength it takes. I wanted to document the movement of the body and show the strength in what the artists do rather than the performance as a whole."
A modern-day circus act is surely a filmmaker's dream, with a rainbow of costumes and dazzling light displays as acrobats fly through the air. But Milly wanted to isolate her subjects, move away from colour completely and slow it down, shooting at about 50 to 60 frames per second for editing in slow motion.
"I shot in black and white because I wanted the focus to be on the movement," says Milly. "Colour was a distraction and I wanted to focus on the body. Seeing the muscles contract in slow motion is not something you see in real life because these movements are so fast. Slow motion also gives you more footage to play with.
"Shooting in black and white means you can grade the footage to bring out highlights and darken shadows, so it almost looks as if the acrobat is floating," she adds. Milly adapted her settings accordingly. "I used a standard picture profile to ensure the colours were quite flat, so I wasn't getting too much contrast – that meant it could be easily changed in post."
For the Cirque du Soleil shoot, Milly paired a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) – the lens that saw her through many of her earlier shoots at music gigs. "When I started using Canon's EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, it was a real game-changer for me. I was able to shoot larger concerts without compromising on focal range," she says.
Filming wasn't without its challenges, but Milly could rely on her setup to cope with the low light conditions, particularly the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II's exceptionally wide ISO range of 100-51,200 (which doubles to 100-102,400 in the Mark III).
"Shooting was very difficult as it was fast-paced and I was chopping between stills and film," she says. "The environment was dark and not lit for a performance. This affects how you grade, because a higher ISO means graininess is much more evident.
"The Canon EOS-1D X Mark II is full-frame and shoots in 4K so you can have a really wide photo or film image and a shallow depth of field. I was positioned about seven metres from the artist and wanted to catch the intricate body movements, so the footage was very cropped, which can lead to unwanted camera shake. Luckily, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens has a 4-stop Image Stabilizer, so I didn't have to worry too much about stabilisation with my gimbal, which was very helpful when it came to editing."
The final atmospheric video conveys the spectacle and athleticism of the circus performers, with the combination of low light, black-and-white footage and slow motion proving to be an effective mix. Milly is rightly pleased with the outcome: "The film is probably my favourite piece of content that I've made at Getty Images so far."
During her time at Getty Images, Milly has also been photographing live music performances and shooting video clips of film premieres on the red carpet. During London Fashion Week, before her internship started, she would hang around outside the venues to try to photograph models walking in and out of the shows. "I would catch them, and interact with them, which has an essence of red carpet photography. When I applied for the internship at Getty Images, I explained that I was very interested in this dynamic – of catching people in transitional periods to get something original."
Milly has used her red carpet experiences with Getty Images to grow her skill set. "Shooting this kind of event is a challenge," she says. "It forces you to think on your feet about how to pull unique content from your subjects. I've learnt not to position myself too centrally, or you end up capturing two halves of a moment. I position myself at the side of a photo pit, where the celebrity is less distracted and more likely to give you the time you need.
"You have to get to grips with your kit and how you present yourself. On the red carpet, I've been doing lots of slow-motion clips of celebrities, looking at my LCD screen for framing and composition, but mainly maintaining eye contact with my subject so I stay fully engaged."