Natalie Portman in the "Black Swan." (Fox Searchlight )
In Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller "Black Swan," an increasingly imbalanced ballerina, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), struggles to break free of her inhibitions. Cast as the lead in a production of "Swan Lake," Nina perfectly embodies the purity and reserve of the white swan but falls well short of finding the aggressive sexuality and passion of its counterpart, the black swan. She is pushed ever harder by the company director to let loose, to go beyond the technical aspects of the dance and find the emotional resonance of the darker character. Yet, through weeks of rehearsals, she never captures it. The night of the show, as Nina's mental state grows ever shakier, she suddenly breaks free to transform, quite literally, into the stunning and seductive black swan as Tchaikovsky's score thunders around her.
Here, we break down that scene, with script excerpts, from the viewpoint of all the craftspeople involved.
INT. PRINCIPAL DRESSING ROOM
Nina deliberately applies the Black Swan makeup. Dark eye shadow and rouge, maroon lipstick … she looks fierce.
Makeup designer Judy Chin: "I did look at different productions of 'Swan Lake,' mostly from New York City Ballet. They were all beautiful, but I needed something more intense, more dynamic. I just started drawing, and I did a lot of casts. I spent a couple of days working on a model and painting — putting on makeup, photographing them and washing it off. I was hoping to create the feeling of motion with the strokes of the eye makeup and wanted the focus to be on her eyes. [Portman] definitely brought a lot to it."
INT. STAGE - NIGHT
Nina bursts onto stage as the Black Swan, accompanied by Rothbart. She looks powerful, intense …
Choreographer Benjamin Millepied: "It's all about how you go from one step to another, and to never go through a movement that may look unprofessional — bending the elbows, leading your fingers — that's really what the challenge was. She worked on it in a way that became hers, that became completely natural."
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique: "The camera is almost always with Natalie up to that point. She dances with Rothbart and then she goes backstage, where her transformation actually begins. That's a combination of two shots: One handheld shot of her with Rothbart and another handheld shot that takes her into the wings, that sort of pans around her arms to see the transformation beginning, the feathers growing on her arms."
Editor Andrew Weisblum: "We transitioned into a Steadicam shot, and I added handheld movement at the beginning of it."
Alone, she looks at her arms, sees black points trying to push through again. Some fully emerge as shiny BLACK FEATHERS.
Sound designer Craig Henighan: The use of wing sounds "came from something I tried early on, which was how to evoke subtle touches, subtext, of where she develops. We know with the arc of the story that she turns into a swan at the end. So how do you evoke some of these things at the beginning of the movie? [Fellow sound designer Brian Emrich] did a lot of cool stuff with swan vocals — for lack of a better term, swans bark. I would take them and manipulate them. With the wing flaps, we did a lot of recordings of a lot of different fabrics we could manipulate into wing flaps. We went from feather sounds to tree bark and roots and some other stuff that my foley artists crushed and twisted and manipulated and made everything about her knuckles and toes cracking.
She just watches them, not panicking, but accepting the transformation taking place.
Weisblum: "As she started to transform, I eased off the handheld movement so it gets completely fluid by the time that backstage section is done. When we go back onstage, it's just floating."
Her second entrance cue is played … She leaps back on.
Libatique: "This is one of the only times where you start wider and have her move toward you. For the rest of the film, the camera is pretty much always with Natalie at the same distance. So the camera basically counters her as she dances."
Millepied: "There are a couple of things that are signature moments of "Swan Lake" that are in there. Most of it was re-choreographed to find the right movements for Natalie — a lot of it has to do with more movement for Natalie."
She takes a brief pause, closing her eyes once more, and then completely lets herself go.
Visual effects supervisor Dan Schrecker: "It was one of the handful of scenes where Natalie didn't do the dance, being one of the most difficult pieces of choreography in the history of human endeavor or whatever. Sarah Lane, Natalie's dance double — I think it was 17 takes before she nailed it. It was like 30 of these spins and the big bow at the end, so it was 17 takes at least."