How ‘Spinning Out’ Used Ice Skating as a ‘Conduit’ for Emotional Storytelling

Many films and television shows use choreographed routines to express a character’s emotions or push them forward to a new place in their arc, but more often than not these are dance routines on solid ground. Netflix’s “Spinning Out” puts its characters, and audience by extension, on ice.

In “Spinning Out,” Kat Baker (Kaya Scodelario) is a gifted skater who had a bad fall that halted her career and created major trepidations in trying what used to be routine moves for her. But when an opportunity arises for her to shift her track slightly and become a pair skater, she does go for it, learning to push past her trauma as she learns a new style of skating.

“Part of the metaphor of the show is, when you fall, you get back up,” executive producer Tory Tunnell tells Variety. “Kat is one-of-a-kind. She’s elegant, but she’s not even trying to be elegant. She’s entirely watchable, and it comes to her so naturally. Her peers are really hard-working athletes — and not to say she isn’t — but she has ‘it’; she has that thing that everyone wants, and she didn’t conjure it, but it comes naturally.”

The production team did put out a call “far and wide in the U.S. and Canada,” Tunnell says, “for a high-level skater who could play Kat.” But they didn’t want to “compromise on the acting” for a role that also explores living with bipolar disorder and ultimately went with a woman who was an actor first. Emma Roberts was first in the role, replaced by Scodelario before principal photography began. It then became up to a skilled choreographer to teach Scodelario, and her fellow cast members including Willow Shields how to skate well enough that they could move comfortably and confidentally for scenes that range from conversations while warming up on the ice to routine practices to full performances. (Cast members Amanda Zhou, Kaitlyn Leeb and Evan Roderick came into the show with more extensive experience, although Roderick had hockey skating experience and did need to learn a new style for this show.)

The show brought on Sarah Kawahara, a former figure skater and Emmy winning choreographer who has worked on the most important modern representations of skating in film and television, from “Blades of Glory” and “I, Tonya” to the XIX Winter Olympics.

Kawahara’s first step was to find “a team of coaches” who could work with her actors before she got to meet with them. Scattered across Vancouver, London and Los Angeles, these coaches and actors trained together for approximately two months before they all got together in January 2019. Kawahara shares that she had about three weeks in January before production began where she could really focus on choreographing “them as to how they would move in the beginning” and to ensure they were “learning the language” of skating.

Scodelario and Roderick not only had to learn to figure skating, but they also had to learn to pair skate, which Kawahara says is “no small feat, even for two people who have been skating all their lives.” Additionally, Kawahara worked with many skating doubles for the actors because there were just some moves they couldn’t perform themselves. Zhou, Kawahara shares, did all of her own skating except for the jumps, while Scodelario had three different doubles because her role “demanded three different levels of skating.”

And then there were the cameramen to consider.

“In amazing ice skating movies that came before us, there was a lot of showing jumps and landings, jumps and landings — because that’s what people tune in for. We also show those, and in interesting ways that I have never really seen shot before. But in addition to that, we really focus on choreography and the art of it, and our cameramen were literally skating with our skaters up close and personal as they’re doing really beautiful, intricate choreography,” says creator and co-showrunner Samantha Strattan.

Kawahara had to be “really very involved” in working with the cameramen, as well as the skaters and the actors, she says, because of how dangerous it can be to have so many people going so fast around each other.

“They want to feel like you’re on the ice with them or that you are them or you are the character,” she says. “You want to be close, but you can’t be in the way. And then the velocity is much greater than you think just by the common eye, but when you’re pivoting the camera around going full force, speed and distance is very critical. So it’s a lot of camera choreography in sync with and counterpointing the actors’ skating.”

Adds Stratton: “You can’t improv. Every look between a skater, even if both of them are on the move, needs to be precisely calculated so it reads on screen and shows the emotional beat of what’s going on.”

At times, both producers and Kawahara admit new technology helped with how the skating was shot. In addition to “special mirrors” that aided in the “whole different angle and point of view and sensation than you would necessarily see in sports,” they also had the ability to put an actor’s face on a double if they had to for some shots.

“We are so grateful that it was 2019 [when we were making this] because that really allowed us to stitch things together in a really seamless way. We absolutely used that technology but I think less than we expected we would need to because our actors ended up being pretty handy on skates,” says Tunnell. “There’s a lot of artistry behind the facial placement: They are able to convince you that it’s not the actor in those moments, and you’re not taken out of the storytelling. It’s a huge achievement of technology.”

“Spinning Out” shot its episodes in blocks of two or three at a time and directed by a rotating batch of helmers — this was aided by technology, too, but also the fact that Strattan’s writers’ room had written all of the scripts before production. For the pilot episode, Strattan admits she was “very specific” about the types of skating moves she wanted characters such as Kat to be doing.

A former competitive figure skater herself, Strattan put her own memories of skating into the show through the music used for routines, rather than the moves.

“I skated to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ when I was younger, and it was such a beautiful piece of music and it was something that really resonated with me that I wanted Kat to be skating to that eventually,” she shares. “Kat is the more graceful one and, to me, that piece of music is just the epitome of grace and beauty and vulnerability. I didn’t want her to skate to something sad. I wanted her to skate to something that was optimistic and kind of fairy-like and whimsical — because that’s how I see Kat as a skater [overall].”

Once Kawahara came aboard, the choreography became more collaborative and “tailored to the abilities and the talents of the skaters that we were working with,” Stratton continues.

For “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which Kat was known for performing before her fall and then uses to gain attention from Justin (Roderick) and his family to show them why she’d make a good partner for him, Kawahara says she poured her own personal experience into the style.

“I come from an artistic background and a modern dance background, and it fuses with classical, which I tried to give to Kat because I felt that it would be more interesting if you saw and arc to her style, her movement and the moves she did,” she explains. “It was shot really tight, and I love the reveal of the hands to the face because I knew that Kaya would be able to just do that, and she learned that whole beginning choreography with the main focus and emotion on her face and arms and hands and back. And I felt we could really cover it with her and then as she pulls out, then I could bring the camera into the double and feel like it was still the same person. It was exciting for me to be able to really get tight on Kat Baker and you would feel her emotion from the get-go.”

As the story in the first season went on, Kat became more confident back on the ice. “Kat is never more herself than on the ice. I would say that sometimes that identity and that clear vision gets clouded later on in the season as Kat deals more and more with her bipolar disorder, but I think at the end of the day, it’s in the rink where she feels the most like herself — the most expressive, confident version of herself. I think that’s just kind of where her soul resides,” says Stratton.

Similarly, Stratton says, they became more confident in shooting the show. “We had an interesting parallel emotional evolution. The shooting became more aggressive and interesting as it went on because we had more tools at our disposal because of what we learned,” she says.

Additionally, the actors had been training longer and were able to perform more of their routines themselves. Leeb, who got to skate with Johnny Weir, was able to do his signature move on her own. And by the finale, Kawahara says, “Kaya and Evan did that whole little first sequence — they were ready.”

The show doesn’t shy away from neither the nitty gritty details of what it takes to be a skater, nor the hardships. “You see people fall. You fall 70% of the time in practice. You learn to land, and in competition you hope you’re landing everything because of all of the practice you put in,” Stratton points out.

But it also uses that world as a “conduit that connects all of the dots” of the other dramatic pieces of the story, including the familial relationships between Kat, her sister (Shields), and their mother (January Jones), and the nuances of Kat’s new professional relationship with Justin, with whom she had a past fling.

“It’s a signature throughout the show that the skating doesn’t just stand by itself. There’s actual acting on the ice and interplay with coaches who are not skating and other skating characters as they’re practicing. That makes it more complicated, too — particularly when you have actors with new ability and then you have to jump to a triple flip or something like that and you have to figure out how it’s going to flow seamlessly,” says Kawahara. “Our field is so heavily-laden with technical tricks and jumps and lifts and stuff like that, and it was interesting to delve, from a skating standpoint, into the arc of the character.”

“Spinning Out” is streaming now on Netflix.