Animation, action-packed epics or gory cult flicks might be the genres that first come to mind when you think of 3D movies, but the filmmakers behind two innovative TIFF titles are hoping to add dance films to that list.

Pina, the Wim Wenders film celebrating his late friend and famed choreographer Pina Bausch, and the short feature Ora, directed by Canadian Philippe Baylaucq and featuring the choreography of José Navas, are both being featured at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Wenders, whose Pina has already earned acclaim internationally, had wanted to make a dance film celebrating Bausch for a long time — well before her sudden death in 2009, just days after a cancer diagnosis. However, it wasn't until recently that he felt film technology offered up a fresh way to adequately present Bausch's avant-garde dance troupe Tanztheater Wuppertal onscreen.

"Pina Bausch had crossed all boundaries of dance and had really reinvented dance. [She] had put it upside down, or rather on its feet, so that dance would belong to common humanity again. So that dance was something that reflected our lives, our existences and our real questions. So that dance was connected to human beings and to our needs. So a film that dealt with Pina's universe had to be also quite revolutionary and had to be able to capture what was so new in her work," Wenders told CBC/Radio-Canada recently in Toronto, while in town to present his film at TIFF.


In the film Pina, excerpts from many of Pina Bausch's most famous pieces are performed by members of her company Tanztheater Wuppertal and shot outside in the streets and in natural settings. (TIFF)

"For a long time, I was hesitant to make this film…I didn't know how to do it. My craft didn't have the tools to really do justice to the beauty and the contagious quality of Pina's work. So when 3D arrived, I said "Yes! There is something that can enter the space of the dancers – their main element. And that is the way I can show dance differently."

According to the German auteur, whose credits range from dramas like Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire to the documentary Buena Vista Social Club, describes 3D as a perfect tool to showcase dance in cinema. In Pina, he brings the dancers off the stage and captures their performances against real-world backdrops.

"I felt 3D and dance were made for each other — not only that 3D could show dance differently, I also felt that dance could finally show 3D differently: as something human and beautiful and necessary and not just a fairground attraction," he said.

'[Thermal imaging cameras are] used for night vision and military operations. They're used for high-end scientific and medical applications, but they've never been used for dance before' —Philippe Baylaucq

Quebec independent and experimental filmmaker Baylaucq was similarly excited by the prospect of using emerging film technologies for his new, human evolution-inspired dance film. It marks his second collaboration with choreographer Navas for the National Film Board of Canada, where he served as a filmmaker-in-residence from 2009 to early 2011. After investigating motion-capture, green screen and other recent cinematic tools, he landed on infrared thermal imaging cameras owned by the U.S. military.

"They're like a classified technology. They're used for night vision and military operations. They're used for high-end scientific and medical applications, but they've never been used for dance before," he told CBC.

In a stroke of luck, Baylaucq ended up speaking to the very optical engineer who designed the cameras thanks to a shot-in-the-dark attempt to find the company making them.

"I had to infect him with the idea of 'Let's do a film with this technology' because he's a creator in his own right – he's a scientific designer. He said 'Yeah, I want to do this. I want to have this camera used for the first time in a cultural creation,'" Baylaucq recounted.

"One of the reasons the human body is such a good subject [for these cameras is because] it's an ultra-conductor of heat. We lose a lot of heat… The interesting thing about having semi- or almost-totally nude dancers is that they're expressing themselves in heat in an unimpeded way, which is the perfect subject for these cameras. They read heat, they want to see heat," he said.

Ora's dancers — who appear luminescent, but distinctive since each person emits a different heat signature — have their identities masked by what the filmmaker describes as a "virtual costume."

"The infrared look [presents] kind of an organic clone of each dancer," according to Baylaucq, who described the result as ideal in the presentation of potentially tricky semi-nudity.

"It’s not a turn on. It’s not an issue. It’s not erotic. It’s just naked human bodies doing a heat thing."

Despite the project having "leap-frogged" over layers of bureaucracy with Baylaucq’s successful phone call,  NFB producer René Chénier still faced many organizational difficulties, including securing the proper cross-border work permits and authorization for Ora's dancers and film crew (since the thermal cameras were not permitted to leave the U.S.) in time for the one short window in the performers' busy schedules.


German master filmmaker Wim Wenders, second from left, shoots in 3D to capture the dance world of Pina Bausch in his film Pina. (TIFF)

The final product was worth it, however, since it has remained "in the human spirit, in the organic template" the filmmakers envisioned from the very start, and avoided falling into the "cold aesthetic" of other films using cutting-edge film effects, said Chénier.

Indeed, while the multiplexes are increasingly filled with commercial 3D films, Wenders feels few are exploring 3D's true potential — perhaps a reason why many movie-goers remain unimpressed by the technology.

"A lot of people don't think it's actually a new language. They don't think it's a new medium. They think it's a gimmick. But it is really, truly, a new film language comparable only to when sound was added," he said.

For the makers of Ora, the key is to remember that the story comes first, with new cinematic technologies to simply be used as tools to tell that story in an innovative manner to attract audiences.

"The draw is the technology.. but it was never our intention to make a film to showcase the technology," Baylaucq said.

"But if they come to see the film because they're intrigued about the new way it's going to look and they get swept away by the story, then something great is happening."

Ora will be paired with Pina in Quebec theatres beginning in mid-December. The Canadian short will also be screened at other film festivals as well as dance festivals and technological conferences. Talks are ongoing for further release.


An image from the 3D dance film Ora, directed by Philippe Baylaucq. (National Film Board of Canada)