Channel 4’s Flirty Dancing has got team Talented People – along with the rest of the nation – hooked. We persuaded Series Director Nik Warner to let us into the secrets of those filmic first encounters, the cameras & toys, and, erm, super flossing with Mr Ashley Banjo…
Tell us about C4’s new dating series Flirty Dancing, and what drew you to the project.
It’s a dating & dancing show, presented and choreographed by Ashley Banjo. It’s a bit like First Dates, meets Strictly, with a bit of La La Land thrown in too. Basically, each week, singletons get a dance specially choreographed by Ashley. Each has to learn the dance separately. The first time they genuinely meet and see each other, is when the music starts and they dance together. They don’t speak, just dance, and when it’s over they part ways not having exchanged a word. It’s only then that they have to decide if they want to meet up for a second date or not.
You directed the concept pilot – when you were brought on, what drew you to the project, did you know what you wanted to achieve? And do you feel you nailed it?
I got a call in the autumn of 2017 from Second Star asking if I’d be interested in directing the concept pilot. I instantly loved the idea, and the massive challenge that came with it, so didn’t hesitate in saying yes. The brief was to bring back the old values of romance, where people met on a dance floor, rather than the modern reality of swiping left and right. To capture the raw emotion of two people meeting for the very first time and dancing together without ever speaking, and to shoot it in a way that had a similar feel of a rom-com movie. We had two great singletons for the pilot, and the backstories and interviews worked better than planned. But the moment we’d shot the pilot dance itself, Ashley, myself, and everyone on location at the time knew we’d hit on something special – the atmosphere in the room during and after that first dance was absolutely electric. A few week’s later Channel got excited too after seeing the concept pilot, and the series was commissioned soon after.
What were some of the challenges you faced as SD to pull off a bold concept like this?
One of the biggest challenges was to capture the scale and beauty of the dance, as well as all the crucial emotive moments of the singletons too, especially the instant when the couples first look into each other’s eyes, and the facial expressions as the dance comes to a close. We had to make sure the couples didn’t feel too intruded on, and felt their space for their big moment, but we also needed to get close enough shots to see their expressions and feelings on screen. So we opted for huge cinematic zoom lenses – the Angenieux Optimo Zoom 24-290mm T2.8 – designed mainly for film and drama. These allowed us to be far enough back, but enables us to punch right in for close ups when needed.
The brief was to make it look as cinematic as possible, so when we could, we used drones, 32 foot jibs, sliders, dolly’s, steadicams and gimbals too to give shots scale movement. Also as much as we could, we filmed the dances ‘at the golden hour’ and shot them back lit, to help give that dreamy, romantic movie feel. Meticulous planning for every shoot was always absolutely key (even more so than normal) to get everything just right.
I had to work very closely indeed with the fantastically gifted shooting team, DOPs (Chris Yacoubian & James Vivian), the three shooting PDs (Greg Northfield, Helen Banoha & Peter Demetris), and the camera ops throughout all parts of each show, to make sure everyone was always on the same page – so the entire series had exactly the same look, feel and style on screen. For example, shooting on prime lenses, or on fast zoom lenses, with a shallow depth of field and having a feel of a ‘rom-com movie’ in mind wherever possible when it came to framing.
What importance did you place on the locations?
Dance locations were also absolutely integral, and I had to work very closely with Ashley, and the team to find the ones that would really work on all levels – they had to feel right, romantic and have some real meaning for each individual couple. The spaces had to work for what Ashley wanted to choreograph for the dances, and the cameras needed to also be able to capture it and not be restricted. We had to recce so many places to find the right ones, but we knew pretty much straight away on arrival when we’d found one that would really work across the board. Places like a deserted Kings Cross train station (which we had to film at 1am), the end of Worthing Pier just before sunset, Battersea Park Bandstand and a view point in Greenwich looking out over the whole of London (both late on a summer’s afternoon) were among my favourites. We had to try to capture the feeling of scale on the screen for these amazing locations, so we opted for a 32 foot jib, or a drone at most locations.
The master interview locations were also tricky to find, and often to shoot in, as we wanted them to have a feel that we had just found our singletons in an everyday life situation. The majority of the time these were somewhere in public, with life going on as normal in the background, just far enough away so they could still open their hearts to camera.
How did you cover the dances?
Camera Rehearsals with stand-in dancers were fundamental for us nailing the dances before we filmed them for real with our actual couples. We had to block out all the camera positions and practise camera moves over and over again, fine tweaking, finding better angles to ensure we were in the right place at the right time, getting the best shots we could for the dance moves, as well as capturing every look and emotion. Ashley was always there for every step of the camera rehearsals, and we all worked incredibly hard as a team to get it looking the best we possibly could, before we attempted the dance for real with our singletons. We had up to nine cameras on a dance, with all operators on comms, whilst I watched from a bank of monitors a short distance away. When we filmed the dances, it really was heart stopping stuff, and the adrenaline on set for everyone was sky high.
– something hilarious that happened on set
Me attempting to super floss with Ashley in front of the crew.
– something that just didn’t work
Me super flossing with Ashley on set in front of the crew.
– something that made your fist pump
Every time our singletons finished a dance, especially with the boys in the art gallery in the first episode, as it was probably the most technically tricky dance to shoot.
What do you feel were the most important qualities in your off screen team that made the series a success?
I’d say every single member of the off screen team were absolutely vital to the success of the series, all working incredibly hard, tirelessly and passionately as a large but cohesive team to get every single aspect the best they possibly could. From the casting team, who literally worked round the clock to find amazing matches, headed up by Laetitia Nneke, to producer Amy Tandy who was in charge of finding stunning date locations, to our fantastic production team, led by the queen of logistics herself – Katie Joyce. Then the creative art department who dressed the locations in fine detail to give that extra edge on the screen. The mega creative shooting team, pushing the cameras and equipment to the limits to achieve the best looking material they could get. To the team of edit producers, – lead by Kirsty Painter, and the editors worked tirelessly getting the narratives bang on, and cutting the footage together beautifully. And of course, the dance team, led by Ashley himself, to first create the wonderful dances, but then to get the couples up to speed, giving them the confidence they needed right up to the big moment of dance day. And ‘the big ship Flirty’ was courageously, but calmly steered at all times by our two execs, Deborah Sargeant and Andy Burgess. And finally, leading right from the front line was our tenacious series producer Ami Jackson, who literally worked her socks clean off, but still having high energy to the end.
Do you feel confident that these couples will find love? Or should we see it as simply a contemporary take on the nostalgia of meeting a date at a dance?
We certainly all hope our couples find love, and the Flirty Dancing holy grail is to have our first flirty wedding. But of course, there is only so much the power of dance can do, before fate plays its role. There were certainly some great connections made throughout the dances, the rest is now up to them…
How do you feel about the end result you all achieved?
I’m immensely proud of this series, and I believe we delivered exactly what we originally set out to achieve. I’ve also been totally humbled and amazed (as all the team are) by the responses so far to the series. The press, celebrities, and the public all seem to be loving it, and the show seems to be giving a lot of joy to a lot of people. And I’d like to hope that we’ve also been able to shed a bit of light on a bit old school romance that the younger internet generation may not have really seen much of before due to the rise of internet dating. But most of all, my mum, my wife and my 6 year old twin girls absolutely love Flirty Dancing, and that for me, makes it a real winner!
Flirty Dancing is on every Thursday on Channel 4 at 10pm until 7th Feb 2019.