The modern giant screen film industry was built by educational institutions and world's fairs. After the 15/70 film process was introduced in 1970 by Imax Corp. at the Osaka World Expo, a network of 200-some permanent large-format theatres grew up over the subsequent 25 years in science centers and museums. Imax competitors sprang up along the way, such as Iwerks Entertainment, MegaSystems, and Christie.
In keeping with the needs of educational exhibitors, most films in the large-format library are educational documentaries, shot outdoors in natural settings. Even the most successful large-format film to date, Everest, fits this description.
In the 1990s, commercial exhibitors began to take an interest in the medium- and large-format theatres, and they began to appear in shopping centers and entertainment complexes. Most of these new theatres--the first was the Sony Imax Theatre in New York City--are set up for 3D exhibition, and every year's crop of new film releases includes some 3D films. These films are aimed largely, though not exclusively, at the new commercial theatres, and as a result, filmmakers are adapting the medium to entertainment and storytelling--but not without growing pains.
Creating a narrative film in large format means bringing in more of the elements seen in the making of a mainstream feature than have traditionally been used: real actors, production and costume designers, and modern digital tools. The films remain shorter than mainstream films--40 minutes on average--and the budgets smaller: about $6 million for a 2D film and upwards of $12 million for a 3D film.
Two 3D films completed in 1999, Cirque du Soleil Journey of Man and Siegfried & Roy: The Magic Box, are notable examples. The films are very different from one another in their production and look. Journey of Man is mostly a live-action film with real-life sets. Magic Box combines live action with virtual sets and a panoply of digital effects. What they have in common is that each creates a surreal atmosphere, each follows the stages of life from birth to maturity, and each takes the large-format medium further along in its journey towards providing quality narrative entertainment with modern production tools. Despite the usual mixed critical reception most films of this ilk garner, each is having some success in both commercial and educational markets. And, of course, each spotlights a top stage act drawing nightly sellout crowds in Las Vegas at a Steve Wynn-owned hotel. In fact, it seems like a sensible option for Wynn to build a large-format 3D theatre in order to show these two films on an indefinite basis.
Journey of Man is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and is set for worldwide release in the spring. It premiered in January with the opening of the CineStar Imax Theatre, part of a new Sony Complex at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin. The film adapts individual sequences from several Cirque du Soleil productions to a variety of indoor and outdoor settings, fitting them into the story. "Through [producer] Peter Wagg, we worked hand in hand with Cirque du Soleil throughout the project, to create a giant screen that was unique on its own terms yet true to the spirit of a Cirque stage show," says Keith Melton, who directed the film. This was the first large-format feature for Melton, who has numerous 3D and special venue short films to his credit, including To Dream of Roses, Pirates, 007: License to Thrill, and The Lost M Adventure.
"The power of Cirque du Soleil Journey of Man is the power of physical performance," explains Melton. "Shots are held longer than usual to capture this performance and to create a dreamlike pace, with CG flashiness kept to a minimum." DP Reed Smoot and 3D supervisor Peter Anderson were key collaborators in realizing Melton's vision.
Although he has lensed many large-format films, this was Smoot's first 3D production, while Anderson is a 3D specialist well known in the special venue business. "We came up with approaches specific to stereophotography, to create a strong sense of depth," says Smoot. "Keith's philosophy was not to demonstrate the 3D format per se, but to use it as a tool to effectively tell the story. My gaffer, Dwight Campbell, did an extraordinary job in getting a specific look."
"It was a priority to find the most beautiful locations we possibly could," says production designer John Zachary. An early scene in the film is an original underwater sequence choreographed by Sylvie Frechette specifically for the film and performed by synchronized swimmers from the cast of O, the troupe's show at the Bellagio. "Originally, the producers wanted to use a tank," says Melton. "We explored every tank in the world. Either the tank was not big enough, we couldn't heat it to the temperature our swimmers needed, or we would have to dress it. I pushed for a real location.
"Location manager Steve Dayan set them up in the Bahamas, where they shot underwater with special lighting units, 15 crew members below the surface, and six support ships above. "The sequence just goes into deep, deep blue; you're clearly 20'-30' underwater," says Melton, who was submerged for four- to five-hour shoots, breathing through a regulator. Via a second regulator and earphones, he spoke to the underwater cameraman, Bob Cranston. "When I needed to talk to the performers, I would literally take the regulator out and talk to them through the water. They could understand me, although I couldn't understand them," says the director.
The shoot took five days, plus three days' rehearsal. "Everyone got shriveled up, but the costumes and makeup helped hide it." The performers had never swum in open water before, and the saltwater made them more buoyant. They needed eye gear and special makeup, and to keep them down, thin sheets of lead were put into their costumes. "They were wearing lead bras, lead waist belts, and lead packets around their ankles and arms," says Melton. "All the key crew members were divers, including myself. I've never been in such good shape. I was to-the-bone exhausted every day."
The scene was lit with four 8K HMI underwater lights made by Pace Technologies. "These are big, soft ambient fill lights," says Campbell. "We would modularly build the lights before taking them in the water. Within 45 minutes of arrival, we had the lights in there and working."
Another sequence in the film reproduces the statue act from Mystere, the Cirque production playing at the Mirage. "I wanted a semi-surreal location that would involve water and be reflective," says Melton. "It became the most challenging location to find."
"Originally, we wanted to shoot the statues at Mono Lake [in California]," recalls Zachary. "But it was too cold. After we got off Mono Lake, we started looking for a beautiful, lush garden." They opted for a private mansion in San Jose with a Roman-style reflecting pool designed by Greene & Greene. The 60' x 120' pool hadn't been maintained and was murky with moss and algae. The water was dyed black, to enhance its reflectiveness, contrast with the gray marble of the performers' makeup, and hide the working platform, which included dolly tracks to move 400lbs worth of camera, camera head, and dolly around the performers. "We used a Cartoni base and a gear head that allows you to pan and tilt," says Melton.
"I had to create the Indian Ocean onstage once, dyed black to make it look deep," says Zachary. Because the pool used for the statues scene drained into a nearby creek, he had to select something environmentally neutral. "We found a dye that could be bleached out by adding chlorine, and then the chlorine could be neutralized. "In preparation for the job, Zachary viewed several existing large-format films, including the 3D film T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous, which had the same producers as Journey of Man, Antoine Compin and Charis Horton. Zachary liked the forest settings of T-Rex so well that he used the same greens supplier, Michael McComb, for the redwood forest sequence in Journey of Man, which features a bungee-cord performance taken from the Saltimbanco show. The huge redwoods dwarf the players and make them seem elf-like. The set was nicknamed Iron Alley because of the vast quantity of lighting and other equipment brought in.
"We wanted an ethereal look," explains Smoot, "so we punched in lots of tungsten mixed with blue light. In the background, we had the natural light of the sun, and we kicked up smoke that was bluish by comparison. The warm/cool contrast helped create depth. There were lots of lights on dimmers, lots of big soft lights stuck way in the background. We had a forest of cranes and cherry-pickers. In a large-format 3D film, you need to do whatever you can to increase depth of field," Smoot continues. "It's crucial to have tremendous amounts of light. Altogether we had 21/2 thousand amps of lights burning in the forest."
The Iron Alley setup included three large Condors and three banks of Ultralight 1,200W PAR-64 Dino light globes. "We set them up in a 6 x 6 configuration and separated the circuits in order to address each column as a bank on the dimmer board," says Campbell. "We checkerboarded the bulbs: medium-spot-medium-spot. It allowed us to use the spot to align the lamp and the medium to illuminate the area." The forest of lights also included 20K Skypans and pre-WWII 5K beam projectors from Mole Richardson. "Those beam projectors are like the xenon lamp of the tungsten world," he adds. "They use a Bausch & Lomb reflector and make a serious beam of light and a lot of heat. In the old days, they were used for lighting trees in motion picture studios; greens absorb a lot of light."
Instead of the white costumes the troupe normally wears for its stage performance of this act, Melton opted to transplant from Mystere some gold costumes with tassels and reflective beads. As with all artistic decisions on the production, the change had to be approved by Peter Wagg. "It's very difficult to change anything artistically with Cirque, because they are so conscious of keeping creative control," says Melton, "and that's what makes them powerful and unique. We had to change the makeup from a stage look to a cinematic look: on film you see everything, so the makeup had to be more precise and intricate." Makeup artist Stephan Dupuis, whose experience includes The Mask and Mrs. Doubtfire, is a prosthetic and special makeup specialist. Says Melton, "The Cirque people were cautious and careful at first with Stephan, but ultimately embraced him."
Other credits for Cirque du Soleil Journey of Man include John Hora, additional DP; Don Cerrone, key grip; Click 3X and IMAGICA USA Inc., special effects; Bobby Riggs, special effects coordinator; Mark Bridges and Gail McMullin, wardrobe; Tom Myers, sound design; and Skywalker Sound, sound mix.
Siegfried & Roy: The Magic Box, distributed by Imax Ltd., went into general release in October 1999. It alternates between the past and the present to tell the story of the stars' lives from boyhood to maturity. Present-day sequences show them performing their famous magic act at the Mirage Hotel and romping with white tigers and lions at their wildlife sanctuary home. The flashback scenes use live actors and virtual sets to recreate significant growing-up episodes as related by Siegfried and Roy. The film is narrated by Anthony Hopkins, with voiceover contributions from the principals.
The "magic box" is a surreal place of whirring machinery and images from the stars' lives. In all the flashback scenes, some element of the box is visible. With 17 minutes of special effects scenes, this 50-minute film uses digital 3D effects more extensively than any previous large-format film.
"In the very early discussions, there were few visual effects," says Sean Phillips, who was visual effects supervisor and DP on the film. "But as we researched the possibilities of telling the story, it became apparent that on-location shooting would not be the best way to do it." Production designer Steve Suchman suggested the use of highly stylized sets, avoiding straightforward live action. "The fact that it was in 3D, which demands huge depth of field, the limited budget [about $15 million], and the creative issues all pointed to our going with virtual sets," says Phillips. "Virtual sets enabled us to create the stylized appearance that director Brett Leonard wanted for those scenes, and achieve a high-quality look on film that would complement the quality of Siegfried and Roy's actual stage sets. You get more bang for your buck."
Phillips describes the virtual sets as "pop-up storybook style, with muted colors and many layers of compositing." According to Phillips, Tim Sassoon and Johnny Banta of Sassoon Film Design next defined the digital technique for creative direction with a camera projection test that established how the virtual sets would be accomplished. The method takes a painted image and places it into a stereoscopic digital environment comprised of uncolored, unlit geometric primitives that match the basic shapes of the original image. For extensive camera moves, multiple projections are created as needed. The projection of the image onto simplistic geometry creates the painterly, pop-up look. This approach had the desired stylization and at the same time slashed modeling and rendering times. "We didn't need to spend time to build geometry for virtual sets," says Phillips. "We took matte paintings and projected them into simple 3D geometry. They already had their own color and lighting built in." The shadows and lighting used in the live-action, bluescreen shots would translate into the virtual scene.
The flashback sets were not entirely virtual. For the live-action part of each scene, some real props blended with the virtual; for instance, a bicycle that the teenaged Siegfried rides through the streets of Munich. The bicycle was mounted on encoded rollers that allowed the actor to ride in place naturally, with the bike swaying from side to side. The encoders told the computer how far the actor had pedaled the bike, a distance matched in the virtual environment.
Due to the tight delivery deadline, color design evolved over the course of the project. "A lot of artists and production designers contributed," says Phillips. Steve Suchman worked with Leonard on the Magic Box designs. John Townley designed effects transitions. As effects production designer, Michael Hartog worked with sketch artists to visualize the master shots in black and white. The individual CGI vendors--including Sassoon Film Design, Metrolight Studios, Dan Kretch Productions, and Rainmaker Digital Studios--would translate these into the color scheme.
Hartog benefited from having worked in traditional production design as well as visual effects. "Most production designers have very little experience in the visual effects arena," he says. "What they come up with may not particularly work in the visual effects part of things. Budget-wise, it helps to know what can be accomplished. I usually don't come up with something that can't be done. It's a logical blend of skills for modern filmmaking, like that of the DP, who combines camera operating skills with lighting design." His job on Magic Box was to incorporate several live-action sets and pieces of sets with the work of the virtual artists. "In this format, it's hard to hide anything. Any flaws in physical sets increase exponentially. It was important to know this in order to instruct the other vendors. I spent a lot of time saying 'You can't leave it that way, it'll show!' "
The lengthy sequence in which the two young men meet for the first time and start to work together takes place in several environments on a cruise ship, including a dining hall with a large audience, a lounge, the deck, and Roy's stateroom. "The boat trip was literally all virtual, except the platform they were standing on, and sometimes not even that," says Hartog. An ornery cheetah used in this sequence was filmed separately from everything else, including the actors, and composited in later. "I take my hat off to Brett Leonard for being able to accomplish the emotional side of it without the physical environment," says Hartog. "It's a special challenge to the actors. They have to learn new skills, and the director has to give the actor something to do so that he isn't working in a total void."
The sequences of the actual stage show at the Mirage were a different kind of challenge. "It was a very dark environment," says Phillips. "We used White Pro Mist(R) filters, made by Tiffen, on everything to give a dreamy, diffuse quality good for skin tones. It softens edges and helps prevent ghosting, which is always a hazard when you have white objects--such as white tigers--on a black background. We made no effort to hide the stage lights. They appear as pleasant shafts and soft disks." Star filters, made by Cokin(R) and yielding eight-pointed stars, were used in some scenes.
The crew depended heavily on the existing show lights and the services of Danny Gross, who is lighting director for the magic show. To throw shafts of light behind things, Phillips brought in many xenon lights from Xenotech. He also used Kino Flos, and 12k and 18k HMIs as "efficient daylight color light sources," along with "a lot of colored Rosco and Lee gels, going to whoever had our color in stock." To backlight the six-panel flying dome that is a prop in the show, "We laid in a bunch of 1,000W cyc lights from Mole Richardson."
"You design your way in and out of these things," comments Hartog, who got into filmmaking into the 1970s and has to his credit the fabrication of the giant chicken and the Orgasmatron in Woody Allen's Sleeper (1973). "CGI has opened up possibilities to do stories that couldn't be told this way before. But a better widget doesn't make a better story. An effects-laden film is only effective if it supports the story and involves the audience."
Additional credits for The Magic Box include: Michael Lewis, producer; Jini Dayaneni, coproducer, Alan Silvestri, music composition, and Jonathan P. Shaw, ACE, editor. The film is an L-Squared Entertainment Production in association with Lexington Road Productions.