Comedy needs light. That's Mike Myers' credo, according to DP Ueli Steiger, and when it came to filming the star of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Steiger was only too happy to oblige.
"Mike is very particular about having himself lit so that you can see his eyes and the rest of his face," says the German-born Steiger. "He has to be brighter than anybody else. I think it comes from the old vaudeville theory, where the lead performer always has a spotlight on him. You have to be clear in telling any story, and when it's a fast comedy, you have to be especially clear, or the joke doesn't work. There can't be any ambiguities. That's where the brightness idea comes from, and I agree with it."
Steiger and veteran gaffer Jim Grce, who've worked previously on such films as Godzilla, Singles, and The Hot Spot, started with that initial concept of a vaudeville spotlight and took it to its natural extension: They made sure there was a followspot on Austin Powers in almost every scene, be it interior or exterior. "We put it right above the camera, if possible, and if the camera moved, we would just pan with it in a wide shot or whatever," Steiger says.
This solution was not much of a problem in smaller scenes, but The Spy Who Shagged Me, due out June 11 from New Line Cinema, dwarfs the original in almost every way. In this latest installment, our randy little superagent must travel back in time to get his mojo workin' again after the bald-pated Dr. Evil zaps him with a ray that drains him of his sexual drive. A centerpiece of the new film is a party held in Austin's swingin' singles pad in London in 1969; Steiger and Grce were left with the task of training a spot on Myers in the midst of this 60s groovefest full of dancing, swinging, and general merriment.
"Frontal light looks good," Steiger notes, "but it's sometimes difficult to get it in when you have a huge room with a party going on and 200 extras dancing! It was tough to make Mike brighter than anybody else, and in this instance it meant truly using a followspot. We shot with multiple cameras, and had multiple followspots that were each used based on the direction."
"We used either ellipsoidals or we had special snoots made for normal film lights for the followspots," Grce adds. "And I'd have a spot operator on them to follow Mike. For the party scene, we had to have four different spots, which would follow him wherever he went. And then if he was getting too hot on one we'd dim that out and dim in on another one, depending on where he was. And we never knew exactly where he'd go, so everybody had to be on their toes."
Making the task more challenging was the set itself; as envisioned by production designer Rusty Smith, the superspy's super digs resembled what Steiger lovingly calls a "60s hallucinogenic hiccup." So it was up to the DP and his gaffer to figure out how to make it all pop while keeping the focus on Myers.
"I did another very colorful film called Soapdish, where we did quite a lot of tests on the walls, and I learned that with vibrant colors, you have to really light them," Steiger explains. "You can't just light the room as such, you have to separately light every wall. So for the party scene, we tried to light the backgrounds and walls so they had some texture and color, and made the colors really pop. Often the walls had to have full exposure, because the set was so colorful. If a red wall is not lit, then it's not red anymore. So we lit the room first, then the artwork and props, and then we lit the characters separately. And when it was Mike Myers, we made the light frontal. But with such vibrant colors on the set, you have to make sure the walls get enough light. It's like another character, not only the walls, but the furniture, everything."
Interestingly enough, Grce tends to use ETC Source Fours on his shoots. "They make everything pop out without having any spill on anything," he explains. "We've been using them a lot, because the sets are getting bigger and you don't have anywhere to light from or fly from. So if I can flag a light and take care of all the spills within the light itself, it just makes everybody's job easier, and it looks better."
To give Austin's pad a real party flavor, Steiger and Grce installed a club rig, with nine High End Systems Cyberlights(R) and four Studio Spots(R), and even a couple of Technobeams(R) situated above the bed (no jokes, please). An ETC Expression 2 was used for most of the party scene, with a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog handling a dance sequence. Of course, there was the question of whether moving lights would be used in a party back in 1969 London, but that was quickly forgotten. "We talked about it a little, but I figure that if they can send Austin Powers back in time, then we could send some Cyberlights," Grce jokes.
Custom gobos were created for the scene as well, for ubiquitous Austin Powers images such as male and female symbols and daisies. The mixture of moving lights with PAR cans and ellipsoidals provided the room with even more color; a purplish Rosco 126, for instance, was used on the purple walls in the room to give an extra vibrancy. "On this we let the set design dictate the colors," Grce says. "All of our warm gels were from the Rosco CTS Series. We generally use Rosco, because for us it's so available and the gel batches seem to be consistent."
Contrasting all the shagadelic colors in Austin's pad in 1969 is the same space today, a very tasteful, very white photography studio. One scene calls for our intrepid agent to figure out which one of the two women he's photographing for a fashion shoot is a spy; one is Cindy Crawford, and one is named Ivana Humpalott. Guess which one is the fembot? "It was completely re-rigged, lighting wise," Steiger says of the 1999 pad, "with a completely different look. We lit outside to bring something in through the windows, which came through the venetian blinds. It was not as colorful a world, but it still had to be bright, and Austin had to be brighter than anyone else. For Jim and I, what we were really trying to do in this and every scene was to be clear, to get in every shot some kind of visual comment on clarity."
Dr. Evil's world, in contrast, is essentially colorless. Both his volcanic lair and his moonbase, done mostly in gray, were built on the same stage, and contain many of the same set elements. Steiger and Grce prelit the moonbase with two setups: One in blue for normal moonlight and one in yellow for emergency lighting, when Dr. Evil hits the self-destruct button. Says Grce, "We used some plain white lights for ambient fill, and ETC Source Fours custom-painted silver so they'd match the set. And then we put a lot of Mole-Richardson Maxi Brutes around the set, some with double blue on them and some with yellow, so that all of the backlights, when we shifted colors, could either become blue or yellow. We used the 70,000W Lightning Strikes machine for the explosions."
The Spy Who Shagged Me was shot mostly on the Warner Bros. lot, but one exterior scene opens the film. In it, Powers dances naked through the lobby of a French hotel (with his naughty bits cleverly concealed, just like in the original), and ends up in the outdoor pool with a synchronized swimming team in an Esther Williams-type number that features fountains, stiltwalkers, and fireworks. "We actually shot it in one of those garish houses in Malibu, which doubled very well for the French Riviera," says Steiger. "Because it was in the bright sunshine, we had a lot of fill. We used a 6k PAR full blast on Austin, and then we used that big new 50k Soft Sun from Lightning Strikes, which worked wonderfully. It's a softlight that you don't necessarily need to put through any diffusion."
The work of Steiger and Grce can also be found in another summer comedy, Bowfinger, starring Steve Martin as a schlock movie producer who secretly films an unwitting action star (Eddie Murphy) in his daily routine when he can't get the actor to appear in his next production. "It's so different from Austin," Steiger says. "It was shot a lot on location, and it's darker and moodier. I was in that world for a lifetime and then went immediately into Austin. I recently went to a screening for Bowfinger after being on this film, and I was so shocked. I thought, 'My God, it's so dark! They're going to fire me! But then I realized I was already off the film, so they couldn't do that."