Photo: Documentarian Turner Ross captures the vibrant performances of color guard teams across America in ‘Contemporary Colors’
Written by T.T. Stern-Enzi
There are certain cultural activities that seem to speak to and represent regional or group-specific values. Drumlines, step teams, and cheerleading come to mind, and these activities also share a competitive element that elevates the performances to other levels of intensity, capable of transcending labels and categories. The art of color guard, which incorporates flags, rifles, and sabers into synchronized dance routines, operates on a scale that impossibly ups the ante.
So it is not surprising that such effort would attract the attention of David Byrne (of the Talking Heads), inspiring him to conceive an event like “Contemporary Color,” intent on bringing together 10 color guard teams from across the country to perform to new compositions created by top-notch musicians and artists like Saint Vincent, Philip Glass, Nelly Furtado, and Ad-Rock.
This showcase took place in the summer of 2015 at the Brooklyn Barclays Center, and Byrne tapped Sidney, Ohio documentarians Bill and Turner Ross to capture not just the performances, but the vibrant colors and flavors that give America—the country, the ideal—its contemporary spirit. This is the celebration the country needs at this very moment, which is why it was so appropriate and timely to have the chance to catch up with Turner Ross before the limited special screenings of “Contemporary Color” at The Neon.
First off, how did you and your brother get involved?
Turner Ross: One of our producers had a running conversation with David about a future project. David had this show in mind and thought there should be a film component. He had seen some of our films and thought we might be a good fit. We took the meeting. We pitched what we thought was a hard to swallow idea—referencing ’70s NBA, “Wrestlemania,” and The Muppet Show—and David said, “Great!”
At what point were you guys able to incorporate local filmmakers (like “The Last Truck” writer-directors Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert) into the mix?
TR: Steve and Julia are our documentary godparents. They’ve been friends and collaborators since our first meeting in 2009. We knew with this one that we wanted to build a strong team, so their involvement was obvious. We took the opportunity to exploit them a little bit—casting them as the TV crew in our stadium announcer segments, which they were simultaneously filming. They really get it, even when they don’t. They’re as down-to-earth as it gets.
You guys are really invested in celebrating not just our region, but small towns. Is that a conscious part of your approach to storytelling?
TR: It’s not so much about small towns as it is distinct environments—whether that be a community, a culture, a concert, a conversation… we’re interested in finding the universal in the specific, and in trying to convey the spirit of the moment, the nuance of place.
I have to ask about “I Am Not Your Negro.” How did that opportunity develop, and what is it like, switching from directing a project to serving someone else’s vision as cinematographer?
TR: They reached out to us cold and we ran with the opportunity. It’s fun to cut the ends off of production—no forethought, no post-script—just a present-tense experience. It’s how we sustain our own work, by working for others and taking on commercial gigs. A film like “I Am Not Your Negro” was not ours to make, but it was an honor to have the opportunity to engage with it, to contribute to something so meaningful and pertinent to the moment. And it’s healthy to collaborate—to shift the dynamic and to adapt to different process.
What’s the creative dynamic like with your brother? Is there a specific division of labor or just an intuitive, shared sense in your efforts?
TR: We’ve learned a dance in making these things, a balance of powers. When we’re shooting, it’s very intuitive—so much of it is unsaid. That’s where we meet—in the middle, in the making of the thing, the experience. On the front end, articulating the idea and putting together the production, that’s my strong suit. On the back end, Bill works as the translator of the experience—he’s a truly masterful editor. We have a lot of fun working together, realizing this shared vision, and sharing in these adventures along the way.