Dancing With the Stars

The grace of Dancing With the Stars is captured by innovative camera and special effects wizardry

When Andy Dick ziplines into a dance number dressed like a matador, or a bunch of professional dancers seem to be on the 3D surface of another planet, audiences assume it’s just another week for “Dancing With the Stars.”

But underneath the glam and the sequins, there’s a military-style operation that pushes the limits of production technology every time “Dancing” — which airs episode No. 300 on May 14 — goes on the air.

Black-clad camera operators must move like ninjas during taping in order not to be seen in the shots of their fellow crew members. Designers cue up tools like 3D projection to create the false perception of 3D objects on the dance floor — as in the outer space number from the April 16 show.

Dancing clearly wouldn’t be the same program without this relentless experimentation with the latest techniques and toys.

“The entire team at “Dancing With the Stars” are working at the very top of their game creating weekly spectacles that combine movement, music and technology,” ABC reality topper John Saade says. “From the concepts, to the choreography, lighting design, staging, projections and direction, this team is creating magic every week, and that spectacle is part and parcel of the DNA of the show.”

In an ongoing effort to self-bedazzle and reinvent, “Dancing” added a dedicated video designer two years ago. The production also ramped up to five video servers to make it easier to do elaborate visuals that appear to be 3D.

“I think it’s ambition among the crew to keep the format of the show fresh somehow after 300 episodes,” says director Alex Rudzinski, who writes a script for the show’s cameras based on rehearsal footage of the choreography. “We find ways to use the technology that are unexpected — like when we started using the wireless Steadicam, which really wasn’t done in live entertainment until we started doing it.”

On top of everything else, Rudzinski’s camera script must work in bars and beats — in time to the music — and each competitive performance can contain 20 to 30 shots. Longer pro routines or musical guest performances for singers like Bruno Mars or Selena Gomez can jump up to 150 shots. Generally, each week there are about 20 performances to design and camera script.

Recently, “Dancing” added the “towercam,” a remote-control extendable jib that makes it possible to have phenomenal shots directly above the center of the dance floor.

The show continues to have 18 cameras in the control booth, 13 of which are manned by humans with skills fine-tuned to capture the emotional highs and lows of celebrities finding out whether they can do a Paso Doble before a live audience … or not.

“The format of “Dancing With the Stars” — the competitive performances done by celebrities — is very familiar to the audience,” says exec producer Conrad Green. “So we’ve got to find ways for the show to be surprising, whether it’s a camera angle or a 3D number, to keep our viewers engaged.”

Though Green thinks it might help expand the “Dancing” audience, which generally skews older, both he and Jane Tranter, head of BBC Worldwide Prods., think gadgets must serve a greater good.

“The technology only has a place if it can help continue that emotional connection the audience has to the people on the show, their expressions, their successes or their eliminations,” Tranter says. “You want to get the best possible shot of the competitors, because then the audience can go on the journey with them.”

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