Sarah Perry is a world renowned Movement Director; Movement, Character & Performance Coach and Motion Capture Director working in Film, TV, Animation, VR and Theatre. 



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In production

Behind the scenes of HIS DARK MATERIALS, S3 – How ensemble crowd direction brought The Land of the Dead alive.

With so much requiring time and attention and so much of the focus on leading roles, it’s easy for an ensemble to be overlooked as simply bodies on set to provide background bulk. But no lines to speak doesn’t mean no subtext to communicate, no script to follow doesn’t mean no story to tell. There is incredible impact to be gained from a well rehearsed, well orchestrated ensemble moving with clear intention, direction and depth of character. A mass of bodies transformed into a subtle and nuanced supporting framework that deepens the story telling and the entire performance.

Costumes, hair, makeup and set positions are rarely enough to realise the full potential. Ensemble coaching done well covers not just the expected choreography and movement sequences but the all important character direction subtext and story too.

As a director with a clear vision to execute and a whole cacophony of moving parts, efficiency of time and energy is paramount and understandably time and attention on set is stretched. A supportive team you can rely on for smooth running with SA’s as confident in their roles as your leading actors, greases the wheels. This, like all good direction, doesn’t happen by accident.

Historically, very little time is given in our industry to ensemble preparation but there is growing recognition of it’s importance and I’m delighted to see this shift. When a production does allow for such rehearsal and preparation time, it elevates the performance and the overall production hugely and we saw this in action with His Dark Materials, Season 3, I’d love to walk you through it…

Behind the Scenes, His Dark Materials 3, Land of the Dead
His Dark Materials,  Land of the Dead, crowd ensemble.

100 SA’s, 1 Movement Coach and a very supportive cast and crew.

Our challenge: Build a physical and characterful world of more than 100 characters within the Land of the Dead. No cliche zombies here, these are people with backstory, on a journey of their own albeit subtle and ‘ahem’ dead.

Working with Ghosts….Exciting!

Bad Wolf and the team working on His Dark Materials were exceptional at giving me enough rehearsal time with ‘The Land of the Dead’ SA’s and we needed it. These guys were going to have to work hard and boy oh boy did they.

But this isn’t always the case with productions. Sadly, I see many moments when SA’s are thrown into the mix without context, support or briefs and the missed opportunity breaks my heart. Here’s where a good movement and performance coach comes in. (Queue me flying in from the wings with a flourish) My aim is to provide a bridge between Directors and Ensemble that avoids the need for barking orders when time is pressed to a bewildered mass that isn’t sure what’s being asked of them.

Having time to share with the ghosts the basics of the story, the contexts of the scenes in which they feature and the ensemble of characters they will be asked to embody was priceless. We delved into the world they would inhabit, who they would be sharing it with. We explored the obstacles and challenges and the tone, atmosphere and mood of the overall scenes which enabled them to bring their best when cameras rolled.

Context is so supportive for an ensemble, seems obvious, but so often gets overlooked when it comes to SA’s. Of course, with NDA’s they can’t always be privy to all information, but sharing some general context, references, and a sense of the scene is vital to get the most out of them and avoid frustration for the directors.

A few precious hours on set pre filming enabled us to take the exploration further and workshop options and possibilities for how the ensemble might respond in each scene.

I like to encourage SA’s, even in a small way, to build their own characters and context – that helps them fit and integrate into the scene and the world in which they are playing. In Land of the Dead – I encouraged each one to build their own back story, where did they come from, what did they do, what were they taken away from? There are moments in the series where these characters pick up an object, look at it and somewhat recognise it from their past lives. To facilitate a tangible connection with that object we explored what it might have meant to them, the memories associated and then in the performance how much were they going to reveal this memory and how much were they numb from it? The style required was a very vacant/empty response to the objects and others they were sharing the world with, but at times their memories came back, although fleetingly and this helped them build that graduation within their performance. Land of the Dead literally stole their memories, hope, lives, family – which slowly begin to come back with the help of Lyra and Will.

This gave us that all important richness and avoided just a mass of glassy-eyed-zombies but rather living ghosts with a story to tell.

Morale, Motivation and making the most of time on set

We all know the realities of working on set, organised chaos at times, and group harmony can be a happy accident or by design. I take the time to foster individual relationships with SA’s, building trust and rapport and develop a shared language and common understanding. So vital when time is of the essence, the pressure is on and they need to be in the right place doing just the right thing with no delay.

SA’s feeling unproductive or sitting around waiting to be called can easily become demotivated and slow to catch up when cameras roll. With an awful lot of waiting around, keeping motivation and focus high is a must. I took advantage of every scrap of time we could get. Warming up, developing character and micro rehearsals were so valuable to keep us in the world, in character in the zone and energised, so no time was wasted on set.

The camaraderie that develops within an ensemble that has had facilitated time to work and play together in those micro moments of downtime is gold dust to a production. SA’s who are responsive, receptive, willing and confident reduces potential friction and the need for costly retakes. The dynamic on set made working on this project a real joy.

When all is dead and done….

Watching the final cut is always a thrilling moment and seeing His Dark Materials for the first time in full was no exception. Seeing the ghosts brought to life and working and moving together with such cohesion was incredible. They weren’t just there, they were performing, acting true to the moment and what was needed in each scene. It added to the believability of the story and really brought the dead to life.

View trailer and more production information here.

You can watch His Dark Materials on BBC iPlayer.