Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Real Black Swan: Dance Magazine Exposes the Controversial “Face-Replacement” Technology That Made a Ballerina Out of Natalie Portman

by Claire Willett

If you’ve happened on Dance Magazine’s website lately – or if, like me, you have Facebook friends who are professional ballet dancers – then you may have seen Wendy Perron’s columns from last week and the week before  about Sarah Lane, the ballet dancer whose body doubled for Natalie Portman in her award-winning performance as Nina in the recent film Black Swan. In the following video (caution: this contains both spoilers and some gross special effects), you can see a very cool montage of digitally-enhanced scenes from the movie with original plates overlaid by effects shots – adding feathers to Portman’s arms, erasing crew and lighting rigs in the background, color-correction, etc. One of these techniques is euphemistically titled “face replacement,” and it’s causing a major stir. Why? Because in all of the climatic moments of the movie where we see Nina in motion, it’s Sarah Lane doing the dancing. Her face has been digitally replaced with Portman’s. Watch the video here:

** One more warning, this video contains spoilers and some gross special effects **

Now, in her defense, this is not just Portman’s issue (though she may have been complicit, and I didn’t hear her thank or acknowledge Sarah Lane in her recent seventeen thousand acceptance speeches). This is a studio issue. This is a 100% Hollywood-generated fake storyline intended to create the illusion that an actress learned how to be a ballet dancer in a year with nothing but a little coaching and her own sheer chutzpah and determination. It’s shameless Oscar bait. I have my own feelings about the Academy’s constant trumpeting of big grandiose spectacle roles over the arguably more challenging task of bringing a subtle, relatable, ordinary character to life (but I haven’t seen The Kids Are All Right yet either so I’m not shilling for Annette Bening here).

Body doubles are nothing new in film; actors use them for scenes that fall outside their standard contract agreements (mostly things like stunts, motion-capture, nudity or sex scenes), or for any situation in which it might be cheaper and easier to use a double rather than pay your star. And certainly movie musicals have been openly dubbing the voices of non-singing stars for years – we all know that wasn’t really Audrey Hepburn singing “I Could Have Danced All Night,” right, guys? But my point is that in this film, the physicality of Nina’s dancing – the way her body expressed her emotions – was surely a not-at-all-insignificant component that voters evaluated in the process of handing Portman award after award after award. She was playing a ballet dancer. The quality of her dancing was under scrutiny. So aren’t we compelled to say that a good 50% of that Oscar statuette, if not more, is really Sarah Lane’s? Doesn’t Portman owe a sizable chunk of this success to the hardworking athlete whose body executed all of those tremendously complicated dance moves, who was asked by the studios to stop giving interviews and keep her mouth shut until Portman had an Oscar in her hand, and to be complicit in the creation of a lie (or “façade,” to use Lane’s own more polite word) that anyone who feels like it can just become a professional ballet dancer on a whim, because they want to try something new?

What do you think? Is this just Hollywood doing what Hollywood does – create gorgeous illusions to entertain us – or is this something more akin to plagiarism – one artist receiving credit for another artist’s work? What other movies do you know of that play the body-double/voice-double card? Weigh in below in the comments and let us know what you think.


  1. The general public doesn't know enough to realize what a body double means to a ballet performance. Yes, Sarah Lane should be lauded alongside Natalie Portman for sharing a fantastic role, but who really in the ballet world does it for the applause? I think the stir (and some outrage) this issue has caused in our own exclusive community is enough to say: Sarah Lane, we love your work.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. this is not really a ballet movie ! and Portman excels in portraying emotions and facial expressions, it was NOT about her dancing skills.

  4. Idiot, Natalie Portman do the dansing. It's just that she didn't do all the hard move. It's sure she cannot become a professional dancer in one year and she needed a double for the most hard mouvement. But she did the majority of the dansing and she win for the potrayal emotion and facial expression and not the dansing.

    Also Natalie tell in interviews that she had a wonderfull double Sarah Lane so she didn't try to covince people that she was doing all the dansing.

    GROSS: Did you have to do en pointe for "Black Swan"?

    Ms. PORTMAN: Yes, yes, I was en pointe for - I mean, there's no way, obviously, I could have learned, you know, fouette turns en pointe for the film. That's something that takes a lifetime to perfect.

    So there's a wonderful dancer, Sarah Lane, who did the more complicated pointe work. But I did the stuff that was possible to learn in a year.

    npr interview

    Of course, there's one final question everyone wants to know the answer to: How much of the dancing in the film did Portman actually do? According to her -- as she explained with a clear note of pride in her voice -- nearly all of it. "I did everything, and the dance double -- Sarah Lane, who's a really wonderful dancer -- they shot us both doing everything, but because most of the film is in close-up, they're able to use me. The parts I couldn't do were because it's doing very complicated turns on pointe. They would shoot me doing it in flat shoes and Sarah doing it in pointe shoes and find a way to make that work." "Black Swan" opens in limited release this week.

  5. woow regardless of anything the VFX were awsome, and loooved the dancer`s work, Sarah Lane

  6. p.s. I didn't know it was a double how cool!

    everything seems great about that movie

  7. Sarah Lane knew what she was being hired for. There's no controversy here.

  8. Hi folks, We encourage healthy debate in our blog comments - but we ask that everyone be respectful and polite. We will delete your comment if it is disrespectful or mean-spirited. Comment on!

  9. Sarah Lane praised Natalie Portman in her interview with Dance Magazine and why the attack now? Sarah also said that she did not want recognition. This is no longer about dancing. It's about character and for standing up to one's statements.

  10. late to the debate but it's unfortunate that Natalie never came out and cleared things up. She's even admitted that she didn't do the complicated footwork on NPR. I'm not a dancer but I love dance and feel for Lane. I think Hollywood took advantage of her not knowing the system. I feel less for Natalie because she never came out and said the truth. A little thing called integrity, I though Nat had more of it than the standard HOllywood bimbo.