Fahrenheit 451 Production Animates Fire
CG flames were projected onto three upstage screens from Sanyo PLC-XF20 projectors that were above the audience.
An elderly woman stands in the middle of an outlawed library, daring futuristic firemen — whose job it is to start fires, not extinguish them — to set the room ablaze. The firemen do so, and the resulting conflagration not only consumes the bookshelves, but the martyred book lover as well.
Fans of great literature will recognize this dramatic scene as a crucial moment from Ray Bradbury's classic novel “Fahrenheit 451,” which was adapted for the 1966 François Truffaut film. There is even a proposed new movie version (which has battled the flames of Hollywood's development hell for the better part of a decade) for which state-of-the-art pyro effects would undoubtedly be needed.
But how does one go about creating the same startling action on a theatrical stage?
In the case of a local production of Fahrenheit 451, adapted and co-produced by Bradbury himself and staged at the Falcon Theatre (Burbank, Calif.), the solution involved the art of projected digital animation.
When the Falcon took on the project in late 2002 through Bradbury's Pandemonium Theatre Company, producers began looking for digital artists and technicians to create risky special effects never tried before during a live show. In the end, Wesley Horton, a young actor and production assistant at the Falcon recommended his roommate, recent Asbury college graduate Nick Denney, and another friend from the Los Angeles Film Study Center program, Jerry Belich, who at the time was still an undergrad at Bethel College. After meeting with them, co-producer Thomas Petitpas and director Charles Rome Smith (co-founder of Pandemonium with Bradbury in 1964) agreed that they were up to the task, despite their youth and relative inexperience.
The first challenge for Horton, Denney, and Belich — affectionately dubbed “The Pixel Pups” by theater veterans — was the fact that Fahrenheit 451 was slated to open in three short weeks. Working on a Windows XP Professional platform, the trio took drawings made by Denney — in a futuristic art nouveau style that he convinced Smith to adopt for the production — and scanned them into Adobe Photoshop to eliminate the gray tones. The images were then turned into vector files using Macromedia's Flash MX, an animation tool normally used for web-based animation.
“That gave us a style that we happened to like, and also simplified the process of painting and altering the image since the image pieces acted like objects, because as vector files, they were defined mathematically instead of pixel-by-pixel,” explains Belich.
Once a particular image was approved, it was put back into Photoshop for texturing. A texture map of marble, for instance, was placed behind semi-transparent steps to create the image of a marble staircase and then imported into Flash. Any animated movement that was required was accomplished using Adobe After Effects and Wildform, a software similar to Flash that converts video footage into vector-based graphic imagery.
The finalized images were eventually exported into MPEG-2 format and burned onto DVDs with chapter splits. “One of the reasons we went with DVD was because a lot of the scenes were still, so we could pause without anybody noticing,” Belich explains.
While rear-projection of the images was discussed, there wasn't enough room on the stage and it was ultimately decided that they would be front-projected from three Sanyo PLC-XF20 projectors high over the audiences' heads. Each projector was trained on a Da-Lite 7.5'×10' high-gain screen onstage. This was not much of a concern for the three artists, but it was for the cast (which included Horton) and director, who had to stage the action carefully to avoid interference with the projections. “A lot of the play was staged downstage, because if the actors walked too far upstage, their heads would be stuck in the projection path,” explains Smith.
Many of the projected effects were subtle to the point of being subliminal. For a scene set in a park, for instance, the team put in a fountain, the water for which was animated in After Effects with particle generators, and passing cars in the background. For the play's closing scene, set in the woods, gently moving leaves were also animated.
The fire scenes, though, remained blatantly front-and-center. Upon entering the theater, patrons were confronted with the famous Joseph Mugnaini cover design for the first edition of “Fahrenheit 451,” which depicts a weeping knight armored in burning newsprint. Only this time it was unsettlingly engulfed in photo-realistic flames via projection.
“We knew the fire was going to be one of the most difficult things, so we spent a couple days just trying to figure out exactly how we were going to do it,” says Denney. “We thought about actually shooting fire against a greenscreen, and seeing if we could composite it in, but eventually we nixed that idea because it was not going to react naturally to what it was composited on.”
Ultimately, the team turned back to After Effects. For the torching of the library, Smith wanted a blaze of no more than 30 seconds in duration. The team settled on a fire of about 20 seconds that would start on the middle screen before spreading to the two outer ones. Belich created guides on the bookshelves for the fire to follow and then threw the controls all the way up until the projected portion of the set was consumed.
The water in the fountain was animated in After Effects with particle generators. Unlike the fire scenes, which were front-and-center, this was a more subtle, yet also effective background effect.
Ensuring that the fire was not triggered too early required skill and communication between the effects team, the production stage manager, and the effects operator in the booth. “The fire scene was actually two different [DVD] chapters,” says Belich. “The first chapter was just the bookcases. The next chapter was the exact same thing, only about a second and a half later, the fire would begin.”
To make the effect work, the effects operator had to pause all three Pioneer DVD-7400 players in the first chapter, and then upon receiving the cue for flames, jump to the next chapter and play through to the fire.
As challenging as the animation was, though, it was the final rendering that produced the biggest headache. A rough set of DVDs had been made for the cast and crew to use during rehearsals, while the team struggled to turn out the performance set.
“It was about 27 straight hours of rendering on one of those fire sequences,” Belich recalls. “I was trying to explain to them that even though the stuff was actually done, the amount of time it would take to take to render out the large files in MPEG-2, get it to the chapter setup, and burn the DVDs meant we didn't have nearly as much time as we thought.”
The final set of DVDs was turned in just hours before the show's first public performance.
That the Pixel Pups had graduated to the Big Dog League was evidenced by the reactions of the director and author upon seeing the final effects. “I always felt it would work one way or another, but when it was on stage, I did sort of gape,” admits Smith. “I got there and said, ‘by God, this looks like I thought it would look!’ ”
As for Bradbury, the first sight of the Mugnaini cover reportedly brought tears to the 82-year-old writer's eyes. “He loved those sequences,” says Denney. “I understand he came back every night and he was just in awe.”
Michael Mallory is an L.A.-based author and journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org