Body Double versus Natalie Portman in ‘Black Swan’

There has been a brewing argument over the last few weeks between ballet dancer Sarah Lane against a few key members of the production staff for the film Black Swan (2010). It is an age old cat fight in the school yard, but it does pose an interesting question about film production. Here is the entire situation in a brief summary. Director Darren Aronofsky wants to make a movie about a ballerina. He hires actress Natalie Portman to portray the dancer, Benjamin Millepied to choreograph the dance numbers, and professional ballet dancer Sarah Lane to be Natalie’s body double for the extremely difficult dance numbers.

After the Natalie Portman won an Oscar award for her performance in the film Sarah started complaining publicly of an unfair acknowledgement. According to Sarah’s mathematical formula of physical contributions she had appeared in ninety-five percent of the full body camera shots with Natalie’s face digitally inserted in the shot during post-production. If you watch the Visual Effects reel over on YouTube (click here to watch) then you will see what I am referring to here.

Visual Effects Reel for Black Swan (2010).

Other members of the film crew have been refuting Sarah’s claims marking them to be nothing more than pure grade bologna. It has finally arrived to the level of elementary school counting by the director of the film and his trusty editor! I am not joking, because embedded below is a quote from Aronofsky sent out as press release via the film’s distributor, Fox Searchlight. I have retrieved this quote from the Entertainment Weekly website.

Here is the reality. I had my editor count shots. There are 139 dance shots in the film. 111 are Natalie Portman untouched. Twenty-eight are her dance double Sarah Lane. If you do the math that’s eighty percent Natalie Portman. What about duration? The shots that feature the double are wide shots and rarely play for longer than one second. There are two complicated longer dance sequences that we used face replacement. Even so, if we were judging by time over ninety percent would be Natalie Portman. And to be clear Natalie did dance on pointe in pointe shoes. If you look at the final shot of the opening prologue, which lasts eighty-five seconds, and was danced completely by Natalie, she exits the scene on pointe. That is completely her without any digital magic. I am responding to this to put this to rest and to defend my actor. Natalie sweated long and hard to deliver a great physical and emotional performance. And I don’t want anyone to think that’s not her they are watching. It is.

Darren Aronofsky — Entertainment Weekly, March 28, 2011

Reading the development of this story over the last few weeks has sparked a question about the utilization of special effects in the movies. Has it really boiled down to playground fighting between performers if they feel unfairly acknowledged with their performance? If the answer is yes, then how come the musical orchestra is not given more credit for supply the soundtrack for the film? Or maybe the makeup artists do not get enough public praise for making the actors looking amazing or horrifically scary on the film screen as the story would call for? Just throwing it out there for thought.

One thought on “Body Double versus Natalie Portman in ‘Black Swan’

  1. Excellent link, I hadn't seen that one before.

    Personally I think this case of accusations of due recognition should be kept separate from other discussions about that. Generally if people are honest about who did what on a production it should be reasonable that different specialists will get the recognition that they deserve, if one area is particularly noteworthy over another. The main reason why this case is being sensationalised, in my opinion, is because they hyped Portman for the Oscar premeditatedly and saturated the public with it. Sarah Lane might be lying, but the emphasis on Portman deserving an Oscar tends to start a focus on whether the actor did everything, especially in a heavily physical film. Whether an actor physically did everything (whether strenuous right through to dangerous) in a film should never be an aspect of whether their performance deserves an award, but we all know it is, it's seen as an example of true commitment, truly going above and beyond the basic requirements of the role. People are treating as really important in the case of Black Swan because of the Oscar, and the *possibility* that if she didn't do the whole performance everyone else involved might lie unfairly about another performer, and the performer has every right to demand more recognition.

    But generally as long as people have an accurate credit for their work, recognition should come naturally, not just in awards but from the public. Like the zero gravity scenes in Inception. They were pretty hard to do, it was publicly discussed how much Joseph Gordon Levitt and the other performers had to work hard at making the movement in the suspension work look right, they and the other departments involved were credited with their involvement, no drama, no hype. But I guess no one was planning on creating a hype machine behind the actors of Inception, so no one set about hyping how they did every single physical thing in the movie.

    Personally I think the whole Sarah Lane thing is hilarious; I wasn't a fan of Black Swan. I thought the script was excellent, given that it is a brilliant extension of the magical story within Swan Lake but made into a human story you can engage with as opposed to ignore the narrative and enjoy the pretty dancing, but other than that it was just a melodrama to me, and I don't care about melodrama, and Portman's dance sequence were unexceptional. Apparently I'm not alone in that opinion, several Ballet industry magazines have been discussing this with experts in their field and many say if it was Lane dancing, she shouldn't be shouting it from the rooftops because the technique was poor :p Blunt in the Adjustment Bureau was far better technically and visually yet that was just an action flick so no one cares about that either :/


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