Watch: A Dancer’s Chromatic Journey From Oppression to Freedom

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Courtesy of Tom Oldham

London-based photographer and filmmaker Tom Oldham shares his short film, Infra/Ultra – an emotive expression of suppression, confinement and liberation

London-based portrait photographer Tom Oldham has always been inspired by people; their lives, their motivations and their struggles. His new short film, titled Infra/Ultra, follows this theme – albeit in a more artful, abstract way. In the 90-second clip, Oldham’s camera follows a queer Black dancer as they weave around a vast, chromatically-lit space. A deep-red light shines on them from above (representative of “suppression”), which eventually flickers blue (to symbolise freedom, support and motivation). “The title Infra/Ultra is a reference to the bookends of visible light, infrared and ultraviolet – the things we can’t see but know exist,” Oldham explains to AnOther. “[The things that are] beyond our vision but not our knowledge.”

The film, which was shot entirely on a handheld iPhone, has three separate cuts. Although all identical visually, each one has a different soundtrack, to help encourage multiple “different and challenging” emotive responses as viewers watch the dancer move from confinement to liberation. “As the piece resolves, [the dancer] finally walks proudly, strongly, into a future that’s coloured blue,” says Oldham. We caught up with the filmmaker and photographer to find out more about Infra/Ultra’s inspirations.

AnOther Magazine: What can you tell me about the dancer and choreographer?

TO: The dancer is called Webster and the choreographer is Benjamin Jonsson. I met them through some portrait shoots I’ve been working on in the ballroom scene. Both are astonishing performers, and I knew if I could align them to create a piece it would surely sing. Webster is really special – they have such a unique frame and really understand their form and its wonder. Benjamin is the most professional and creative dancer and choreographer I’ve ever worked with, and I knew putting them together under this light had to be done.

AM: What aspects of Webster did you want to capture?

TO: My sole intent with this piece was to attempt to give them a space to illustrate their struggle, whilst also reflecting the political atmosphere many of us were feeling. It was all about tension and release, suppression, battle and then unconstrained freedom.

AM: Does the video in any way represent a response to the events of the past 18 months? 

TO: Infra/Ultra was motivated by the incredible tension I felt around the American presidential election, hence the red and blue. I couldn’t believe there was even a chance the US could turn red again but in what felt like a month-long fever dream, it seemed to hang in the balance constantly. It felt like the whole of our society’s values were at stake and the threat of even less space for the marginalised was a very real prospect if the red side won. Creating something to reflect this wasn’t straightforward, but the tone and theme felt very relatable for the team involved. Happily, as the piece resolves, Webster finally walks proudly, strongly, into a future that’s coloured blue.

AM: Tell us about your decision to make multiple soundtracks.

TO: I really wanted to experiment with the possibility of varying the emotional responses to the piece through music. I commissioned two musicians, John Metcalfe and Palmskin Productions, to make unique soundtracks and used an additional, existing piece by David Kosten. Each promotes a different feeling and reaction – though the video cut is exactly the same it excites me to think about people discussing the film having seen different versions. I’d also love to see what producers out there could do with their own soundtrack on the same video edit.

“My sole intent with this piece was to attempt to give them a space to illustrate their struggle, whilst also reflecting the political atmosphere many of us were feeling. It was all about tension and release” – Tom Oldham

AM: What was it like shooting on an iPhone?

TO: I have to be honest, it was a super-easy choice. I wanted the viewer to feel as close as possible to the essential elements – the emotions, the action, the movement, the dynamic. Removing any interface helps this feel more like real life. We even shot with the iPhone handheld and not in any form of rig, to keep the camera moves human. We didn’t want to emulate another kind of camera, we wanted the ‘shot on iPhone’ feel like any of us would have captured it.

AM: How is it different compared to a regular camera? Does it allow for more intimate shots?

TO: It’s faster, for one. We didn’t have any funding to make this so we couldn’t afford time or luxury, and we wanted all the time we had to be spent shooting the dance. Also, having a big crew with big cameras can create a certain atmosphere on set which I didn’t want. A fast-moving, minimal, intimate, candid honesty was essential to the success of this project and I think we achieved just that. Simplicity allowed the focus to be where it needed to be – on the dance and the storytelling. The workflow was also incredible. Shooting to iPhone and iCloud, we could review footage live on our MacBook without an expensive set-up and bigger crew. We could share clips with our editor, Paul Watts at The Quarry, in seconds – giving us the confidence to keep shooting knowing we had his sign off.

AM: Looking back, how have iPhones shaped you as a filmmaker?

TO: Without doubt the iPhone has enabled filmmakers everywhere with its high-quality image capture, and it’s a real gift to have capabilities we’d previously only dreamt of in the palm of our hands. Beyond that, it opens up previously unimagined opportunities – knowing it’s always present encourages a world of ideas to come alive wherever, whenever and whoever you are. The digital democracy has truly landed.