An Interview with 'Beauty and the Beast' Choreographer Anthony Van Laast
Updated: Apr 13, 2020
“Tale as old as time” is anything but old when it comes to Disney’s new live-action film, Beauty and the Beast. Choreographer Anthony Van Laast took a fresh approach to this iconic film that not only required his talents, but also some technical prowess. It’s a level of skill that choreographers will need to use more and more as technology plays a big hand in film and TV.
Van Laast was approached to work on the film by director Bill Condon, who he worked with in 2014 on the Broadway revival of Side Show. Like La La Land, the cast was treated to a musical theatre boot camp before production began and Van Laast stayed with the film for nine months to help shape the musical scenes.
In an exclusive interview with Dance Dish, Van Laast gives us a behind-the-scenes look at what it took to create the iconic “Be Our Guest,” ballroom and Gaston scenes.
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How did you feel once you took on this monumental task of choreographing Beauty and the Beast?
I was very nervous because I knew what an iconic piece it was. I knew the film very well and I knew the musical very well, so the challenge was to try and look at it again and find a way of reinventing it.
You also took on the task of working with a tremendous amount of technology, including motion capture. How did you approach it?
To be honest with you, when Bill first asked me to do it. He said to me, “The biggest number we have to do is ‘Be Our Guest.’” I hadn’t thought at that time about how we were going to do it. It suddenly occurred to me it was all going to be animation and that I was going to have to choreograph animation.
When you see dancing in an animated film, you never really think, oh my, a choreographer has done all of that. That’s when it occurred to me, “Oh my God, I have to choreograph ‘Be Our Guest.’” Then the whole job to do it took nine months.
Did you take a crash course in technology since you needed to understand the abilities and limitations of movement?
The interesting thing was at the first meeting, they discussed that everything was going to be on pre-viz. And I nodded my head pretending to understand even though I had no idea what that was.
After the meeting, I told the producer I had to go on a course to understand what pre-viz even is, which I now know are pre-visualizations. You pre-visualize on a moving storyboard all of the sequences that you invent.
So I had to learn to work with that, come up with the concept and then pitch it to Disney the whole concept of the number. That took about two hours to talk through beat by beat. Then I worked with a storyboard artist who created pre-visualizations and then it took nine months to get it where we needed it to be.
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What were some of the challenges along the way in creating “Be Our Guest?”
We worked a lot with dancers and the dancers were filmed doing the bits. The animators would then take the film and transfer it into animation — how the napkins would move and we used motion capture for Lumiere.
Even four or five months after we finished the film, I was working with dancers in Vienna to try and come up with little bits to make it look better.
Photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures
In the ballroom scene, what was it like working with Emma Watson and Dan Stevens?
I had worked with Emma before on the Harry Potter films, so I knew she moved very well. Dan also moved well, but he had a few challenges.
We had to put Dan on stilts and dance on 10-inch platforms, so their eye level would be correct. Otherwise, if they danced together, her eye level would be wrong and his eye level looking down at her would be wrong all of the time. Even though he was dancing in a suit covered in dots (motion capture), he still had to dance in 10-inch platforms.
We worked very hard. The rehearsal was very intense to get Dan into that position to be able to do that. The day we filmed, they did it all the way through and the whole studio burst into applause. It was an exciting day and they both felt like they achieved something special.
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How long was the rehearsal process for this scene?
I had four months with Emma and about three months with Dan. It was really good because Emma wanted to go into musical theatre boot camp before she started. So we did a lot of dance and movement rehearsals to get her used to doing something that she has never done before.
I think people are realizing that if you want to get the performances to the standards you need them to be in, you need to invest the time. That’s what it is. You get the performances you want in the end. It's money well invested in the beginning and we worked out all of the camera shots before we got on the film stage. It was thoroughly rehearsed.
Are you seeing the role of a choreographer expand on film sets these days?
Usually, you come in as a choreographer for hire. You come in and do your little bit and you leave. My work in theatre, a choreographer is an absolute equal member of the creative team. In films, that role is not as important, but the choreographer must have a big role in how everything is set up.
Like Mamma Mia, I was fortunate enough to be a part of the whole process in Beauty and the Beast. In the end, I feel honored to be involved in a film that is so iconic. You just hope your grandchildren will watch it one day and be proud that their grandfather was involved with it.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast opens nationwide on March 17, 2017.
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