‘Step Up 3D’ Director Jon Chu on 3D, Justin Bieber, and ‘Sexy Dance’

Jon ChuWe chatted with Step Up 3D director Jon Chu about his views on 3D, shooting in New York, and a little something called “Sexy Dance.” He tells us about how working on the third installment of the Step Up series “was just a filmmakers’ dream.”

The other two Step Up films were set in Maryland at the School of the Arts, and now for the third you’ve moved to New York, so what types of doors did that open in terms of dance and in terms of story?

Oh so much, I mean, dance changes so much depending where you are in the world; every area has its own little dialect and New York is the center of it all and people come there to dance. So to be in that environment and to meet all the dancers and to see just the different underground culture there was really great for a movie. And it was a great setting; literally I could turn the camera anywhere and there were interesting people and beautiful scenery and to shoot that in 3D was awesome. So it was definitely stimulating, it changed our whole idea of what this movie could be in terms of how big you could get. We had 60 dancers in Step Up 2, in Step Up 3 we had over 250. There’s too many talented people; you’re like “I want that group, but oh I want that group,” we just went for it.

Were there a lot of dancers from New York in the movie?

Yeah, there were a lot of dancers in the movie from New York. There were a lot of dancers that I knew from the LXD that I do – we have like a web series, Legion of Extraordinary Dancers, it’s a lot of dancers that I met on Step Up 2. So it’s sort of a combination of all those together. It’s like a Justice League of dancers. We really got to pick the best.

Tell me about the LXD.

Well, it’s on Hulu. There is every week, we release an episode. We just did our second season and we danced a lot of our Step Up 3 dancers and it’s sort of a super hero story. Their super powers are their dance, so it’s on Hulu and you can check it out.

Speaking of 3D, you actually shot this movie in 3D whereas many films are shooting in 2D and converting. How did filming in 3D from the get-go shape the film in terms of what kind of dance you could do? Did it change the process?

Definitely; 3D changes everything in our story. It’s the reason why we made it. From the story, from every scene we conceived how it could be communicated in 3D better; how we could use the space to express emotion. And that changed the way we worked with our choreographers; because there wasn’t just choreography of motion, within the frame but of the frame itself. And that also changed the way we worked with our cinematographer, we got to sit with him and work with the choreographer and say how do we make these dance together so it feels like a duet between the audience and our dancers. And so every step of the way it took a lot of thought and a lot of figuring out how can we beautifully make it work for the medium. Because 3D isn’t for everything, but for our movie it fit right and we wanted to really show that.

Speaking of the duet between the audience and the dancers and since not everything is meant for 3D, you also worked on the upcoming Justin Bieber documentary which was also in 3D which I thought was kind of interesting because I can’t think of many other documentaries that are shot in 3D. So tell us about that decision and what it brings to the film.

We learned so much on Step Up 3D and I love the medium. Like I said 3D’s not for everything, but there is an opportunity that 3D can be used in other types of stories and I love experimenting with that. And one of the places was the Justin Bieber story where I felt there was such an opportunity; because there’s something about 3D where not only is it a big spectacle, but it can actually bring the audience intimately into a scene. And that’s sort of what we wanted in Never Say Never; it’s yes he’s been onstage, yes he’s a big crazy star, but you get an inside look into his real life, and he’s just a boy with a dream and he’s able to do this. It’s a really cool way to use 3D, and yes I don’t know that there’s been any – other than like nature docs – that have used 3D before , but we also I think use music in a crazy way in the documentary. We’re really integrating how music plays into the story and it’s the same way in Step Up 3D. It’s a lot of the same sort of techniques for figuring out when words aren’t enough, how do these other elements build into the emotion of our story, so it’s been a fun journey. I think we’re just at the beginning of what 3D can be used in for a film, so I can’t wait to see how other filmmakers do it. And I’m excited to see how people at home can experience it the same way with the Blu-ray 3D which is crazy, so that will be really fun to see.

The other movies we know you for are more fiction and this definitely a switch to documentaries. Is this something you’re interested in doing more in the future? Was this along the lines of something you were already interested in?

When I first started, I definitely had never done a documentary, but when I hear his story, it’s very much a cinematic story. He was shot since he was a little baby on these video cameras and you can really have footage from when he was learning how to play music from when he was learning how to play music. It’s like watching Michael Jackson audition for Barry Gordy or any of that. It’s amazing to watch this stuff. And it’s really all the same stuff, it’s all storytelling. With Step Up 3D we got to play with that with some of the documentary footage that Luke was shooting for the movie and that interplays with the key that you know what this medium can actually be really great and use all the things that I already know naturally. Which, I love fantastical storytelling and you can use both of those with this. And there’s honesty in being able to use technology that everyone has whether it was a flip camera or a Canon 5D that makes it really interesting for me. So is it something I’d like to do in the future? I think it was really fun, we’ll see what happens but I definitely had a really great time learning and figuring it all out. I think people will too.

I noticed the one country where they changed the name of the Step Up series is in France, where they call it Sexy Dance. I was wondering if you had any insight as to why they changed that name.

You know I have no idea; it was always Sexy Dance from the very beginning in France for some reason, but I remember when I found out first I was like, “I need those posters now, and I’m putting them up in my living room.” So I have Sexy Dance 2 and Sexy Dance 3D, or wait no, Sexy Dance: Le Batalle in my living room and it’s awesome.

I have a few photos of those posters myself.

That’s awesome. You know it was weird seeing those overseas trailers because it’s so crazy to hear like my friends’ voices voiced over with totally different languages. It’s pretty awesome.

So while we’re on that same vein of dance movies, obviously a big one right now is Black Swan and it’s sort of shaking up, at least in my opinion, the world of dance movies, so do you think it’s maybe opening an opportunity for maybe wider audiences for dance movies?

Oh I’m sure. I mean, I haven’t seen it yet, but I really want to see it. But I think again, I think it’s an example of how dance can be really, really powerful. When words aren’t enough dance can take over and it’s awesome to see how other filmmakers use dance and to see what do they find fascinating in the story? What do they use to express a character? And I don’t think we’ve seen the effects of Black Swan yet, I think we’re going to in the next couple of years though, so I’m excited.

You really showed us what you’ve got in the dance arena, and it’s obvious that you’re very passionate about it. Is there another art form that you’d like to see expressed on film in the future?

I love technology in general, so I think with 3D we’re just at the beginning of playing with these things so there’s music in storytelling, there’s dance in storytelling, there’s 3D in storytelling; I think there’s also the interactivity of the audience. You know the idea that when we Twitter and we Facebook and all this stuff, the story begins way before you actually watch the movie in a theater and it doesn’t actually end at the end of the movie, it continues on. I think that the idea that the story is everywhere, the narrative is everywhere; the narrative is in the actors that tweet about it while they’re shooting when they’re shooting, when they’re finished shooting, when the movie comes out and after the movie comes out. But the filmmakers are a part of that conversation as well. I think that’s the fascinating thing, that I don’t know exactly what that means for everybody but I think it changes the way we watch movies. And I think that’s something to look out for in the next three years of how that affects, well not just box office, but how it affects how you remember a movie when you look back at your childhood and remember those old movies. It will be interesting.

Step Up 3D hits stores Tuesday, Dec. 21 on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D.