The Winter Ghost
The Winter Ghost
About the film
The Winter Ghost is a short dance film. Shot in Berlin, Germany during the last embers of 2020, it is a subtle mix of genres and disquieting styles.
A Dance mystery
Dancer and dramaturge Katja Vaghi is the winter ghost, a spirit who appears inside our empty living spaces after they’ve been vacated. However, this time, it’s not just the building’s memories that she has for company…
with Director Mark Esper, Dancer Katja Vaghi and Composer Ashley Webb.
Mark: “I already knew the stillness of Katja’s performance was exceptional but the real challenge was layering the narrative in such a way that it didn’t announce itself.”
Ashley: “I did find myself having strange internal dialogues about how many supernatural voices would be channelled if only one hand is touching the wall? -Is it more or less than two elbows and so on? I think Mark and I also had a couple of conversations where we were even trying to create the sound we wanted to hear with our own voices!”
Mark: “I’ll never forget the look on your face when I showed you the finished cut with the music. I was watching your face and you kept darting back to me with these big eyes, especially during the big reveal, and you said “-Oh really? So we’re going there?”
expand the sections below
Mark: “Both Katja and myself had been looking for a suitable shooting location in Berlin for what seemed like ages. And then, out of nowhere, she had an empty flat space. However, we would have to be quick as it would only be empty for a few days. So, after a quick visit in November, we did some test shots and video so as to explore how the space could best be used. I think the first thing that really hit about the place were all these drill holes in the living room wall. Like clear echoes or signatures of the past, it made me wonder what scenes and conversations they may have witnessed.
Now I’ve always believed that when it comes to moving house, you don’t choose a home, the home chooses you. There’s a certain vibe that each building or room gives off which either welcomes you or doesn’t. Heading back on the U-Bahn, I wondered about what happened to a building’s lingering memories. Do they just circle around like disparate spirits ready to either shriek or sing at each new entrant? Or was there some kind of a benign spirit who would appear out of the walls and absorb all the words that have been left behind. And this is where Katja and I developed a loose outline for The Winter Ghost. I thought, thinking back to Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House, about this idea of “wounding the air”, and how you deal with an atmosphere and what a really strong idea it would be for Katja to run with.”
Katja: “I agree. For a long time, I have wanted to do something in an empty apartment and last November whilst being in-between houses, I saw an opening where I could realise this. As Mark mentioned, we’d been looking for a setting for a while, so I decided to seize the moment and initiate this venture.”
Mark: ”Ok, so this was 2020, we were all still very much in pandemic mode and as such this was never going to be a big shoot. As it was, in the end, it became just Katja and myself where I was shooting mostly handheld.”
Katja: “I think this is where working with Mark became very interesting and we synched up well. In film-making there is this tendency to want everything scripted and fixed before the filming is done whereas for this project we put everything on its head, and that gave us permission to experiment freely. This is also the way I like to work as a choreographer where you let the context, the material and the moment guide you to a result. I am an improvisation teacher as well, so I am fully into trusting ‘chance’ as an approach.”
Mark: ”One thing I did insist on was starting super early in the morning as I wanted to shoot in natural light. Given the building’s relationship to the sun, it was really only 3-4 hours of serviceable light before everything got “murky-Berlin-winter” on us. That all said, I have to say there was something really liberating about this shoot and filming hand-held. Since I didn’t know exactly what Katja was going to do or when she was going to do it, everything became very instinctual. Now, in a way, having worked as a photojournalist, this actually felt like the most natural thing in the world. In just responding to events as they unfold, it really gave a very loose and organic approach to the shoot.”
Katja: “One of the other starting points for me was also the costume — which again I had bought by chance on the internet — and the notion of skin. I move inside what basically is an enormous stocking and I had no idea how it would look like. However, after hours inside it, I started noticing that I felt protected inside it. The space had a womb-like quality. Everything felt very delicate and soft, as when touching something very fragile.”
Mark: ”So, right from the outset, I must give credit to Katja for giving both myself and Ashley a lot of trust when it came to editing and assembly of the story.”
Katja: “I basically left you to it (laughs).”
Mark: “Yep, pretty much (laughs) … But in a way, I guess that was what was needed. Given the way that I had shot it and the fact that we decided to shoot for an extra morning after the first shoot, there was a lot of leeway in how the story could be told. Yet, in its own way, this can also create a different kind of pressure. Suddenly you’ve got too many alternatives and it can suddenly become impossible to know which door you’re going to have to close.”
Katja: “You were “killing babies”, I remember. As in choreography, we say you need to cut, cut and cut, relentlessly.”
Mark: “They were all darlings but some of them had to go…”
“…So again, thanks to Katja, I could sit down and play with the footage until these two different ideas would work together. I already knew the stillness of Katja’s performance was exceptional but the real challenge was layering the narrative in such a way that it didn’t announce itself.”
Katja: “Cue the music…”
Mark: “ Yes, regarding the music, that was a bit strange. I had been listening to Ashley’s CD whilst cutting most of the footage together and on whatever level my head was at, there was one track that just seemed to gel in my mind. So, I played it to Katja and you thought…”
Katja: “I thought it fitted very nicely. It needed a few changes here and there but the key atmosphere created by the musical signature was already in place.”
Mark: “So, by this point, I’d got most of the shots together and I was thinking about Ashley’s track and then he called me – literally two days later. Totally out of the blue. I mean, it really was one of those moments where the universe not just answers you but kicks-the-door-in and says you need to speak to this guy”. He wanted to tell me all about this new game and I was like, “hey, since you’re on the phone, do you fancy doing a soundtrack?”
Ashley: “And I did…”
Katja: “-Very smooth, Mark.” (laughs). “Very smooth”
Mark: “And so that’s when we set about it. I sent him a showreel of some rushes and bless him, he immediately came back to me and said “I know like that CD track but how about me doing something fresh for this?”
Ashley: “You see, initially Mark asked me for a piece of music based on something I’d written towards the end of last year. However, upon seeing the imagery and instantly connecting with it, I felt that a new piece of music would better serve the project. To start with, I worked to a long edit pieced together from the rushes Mark and Katja’s had filmed. I think it was about 18 minutes long but it suggested the pacing, mood and tone of the music. Essentially, I sent Mark 18 minutes of “ambient droning”, which seems nuts now but that got the ball rolling.”
Mark: “But that first sketch that you sent me was so in sync with the visuals and Katja’s performance. I mean, it’s pretty much all in there in the first section of the film.”
Ashley: “Fortunately you gave me a lot of audio from the apartment and that really helped lend a sort of conceptual element to the sound design. As such, many of the sounds in the end film were created using recordings from within the space itself.”
Mark: “However, with me being in Berlin and Ashley being in Bristol, there were many lengthy zoom conversations going over the minutiae of those sounds…“
Ashley: “Indeed, I did find myself having strange internal dialogues about how many supernatural voices would be channelled if only one hand is touching the wall? -Is it more or less than two elbows and so on? I think Mark and I also had a couple of conversations where we were even trying to create the sound we wanted to hear with our own voices!”
Mark: “Yep, it got to that stage. (laughs)
…You see, I really liked the idea of having a soundtrack that was really close to the sound design. Add on top of that, that it needed to also be minimalist and yet occupy the location without feeling forced either.”
Ashley: “So, you didn’t want much did you?”
Mark: “Nah, not really.” (laughs)
Ashley: “Fortunately in the end though, the sound design and music kind of blended in together as one. So, at times the sounds (although the musical) are also suggestive of a certain kind of visual movement whilst still being part of the score. Of course, there were stumbling blocks and challenges to overcome… Sections that didn’t really work for a while or deciding how best to create a certain kind of sound. However, that said, it’s hugely satisfying to overcome these hurdles and feel all the parts slot into place.”
Mark: “Agreed. I’m super proud about how the soundtrack has come together because for me it was such a different process from what I’m used to. I mean when I finally showed the finished version to Katja, I’ll never forget the look on your face.”
Katja: “-Wha-at? -What look?”
Mark: “When I showed you the finished cut with the music. I was watching your face and you kept darting back to me with these big eyes, especially during the big reveal, and you said “-Oh really? So we’re going there?”
Katja: (laughs) “I did.”
Mark: “It was really bizarre and yet rewarding to see because… you clearly knew what was coming but you just didn’t know how.”
Katja: “-But that’s why it works!”
Katja Vaghi – Dancer, Choreographer, Dramaturge
Katja Vaghi is a Swiss Italian choreographer, somatic teacher and dance researcher. Through her education in modern dance and ballet at Ballet Arts in NYC, Katja uses different modern dance techniques (in particular Horton and Limón) together with urban and traditional dances. She holds a MA in literature and linguistics from Zurich University and a PhD in dance philosophy at the University of Roehampton (UK) and has been lecturing in dance history, performance theory, improvisation and instant composition in several institutions in the UK and Germany. Her research interests are reference practices and intermediality, the comic in dance, screendance, and embodiment in spatial perception.
“Starting point of the movement research is the skin. Our most extended organ — 2,5mm thick and up to 6 kg heavy — it is often overseen. Porous and at the same time the barrier protecting us from the outside, it is the site of our primary and first developed sense, touch. Protected by a second layer of skin, the performer enters into a meditative state exploring her body existing against the fabric cocoon. The mesmerising slow-motion movements promote kinesthetic empathy in the viewer, bringing to the fore what is generally blended out by everyday life (functional blending out). The viewer is thus brought back to one’s own being in the world.”
Mark Esper – Director, Filming, Editor
Born in Maidenhead in the UK, Mark left Oxford to study film and narrative structure with the London Screenwriters’ Workshop and later worked as a freelance multi-media designer.
However, through his love of extreme sports he picked up photography again and has since become more widely known as a freelance photographer. Since joining New York photo agency Polaris Images his photos have been published in titles like National Geographic Traveller, Rolling Stone, Der Spiegel and The Guardian newspaper amongst others.
Award-wise Mark has been successively nominated for the ANI Coup de Coeur award (2010-2014), The Renaissance Photography Prize (2013-2014), the New York Photo Festival (2015), International Color Award (2015), Lens Culture (2015), LightBox Photographic (2015) and awarded 2013 Art Of Photography Prize in San Diego, USA and a 2017 Gregor International Calendar Award. Marks’ work can be seen at www.markesper.com.
Ashley Webb – Composer, Sound Designer
Ashley Webb is a musician born in Oxford but now based in Bristol, UK.
Although learning to play traditional instruments as a child, he was drawn to the sound of synthesisers and the mood they were able to create. Early on he was inspired by bands that were able to combine an experimental approach with pop music which in turn led to an interest in the various strands of music that evolved from the rave scene of the early 90s.
Leaving Oxford, he enrolled on a sound engineering course in Manchester, UK to learn some recording basics, gain access to equipment and start experimenting with ideas. It was at this time he had started to take an interest in more experimental music and electronic scores of the 70s and 80s.
Today, Ashley self releases music under the pseudonym ‘My Blue Extremes’ – a project purely designed to allow him to release music in whatever style he feels at the time.
All the latest winter ghost news
On March 18th, 2022, there will be a special 24 hour online screening of The Winter Ghost and other screen dance films as part of Wild Dogs’ Wolves at the Door Ukrainian fundraiser.
We’re excited to announce that The Winter Ghost has been chosen selected for the March 2022 FilmFest by Rogue Dancer: Quiet!!! Edition
The Winter Ghost has just been chosen by Central Michigan International Film Festival for this year’s 2022 CMIFF event.
Congratulations to Katja for her participation with an article on Jiří Kylián (“Jiří Kylián: The Fusion of Dance Genres and the Renewal of Ballet”) to the collection on contemporary ballet co-edited by Dr. Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel and Dr. Jill Nunes Jensen.
Streamable preview of The Winter Ghost
What three dedicated people can achieve
|Filming, Editing, VFX, Grading
|Dancing, Choreography, Foley, ADR
|Score, Sound Design, Mixing
All the specifications
|17/11/2020 (8am – 12pm)
|25/11/2020 (8am – 1pm)
|11 minutes, 55 seconds