Perhaps the target audience won't care, but Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events sets a new record: the most dimmers used on a single rig in a movie, most of which were ETC's 2.4kW models. Brad Silberling's film version of Daniel Handler's popular children's book series, which stars Jim Carrey as villainous Count Olaf and Meryl Streep as one of the eccentric guardians who take in three orphaned siblings, takes place in a fantastic world created on a variety of Paramount Studios soundstages, as well as in a cavernous building in Downey, CA once used to build the space shuttle. It was in the latter location that lighting programmer/board operator Scott Barnes used a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 3 and five DMX processors to program 6,532 channels for a single set.
“On most large movies, you'll have many different sets on multiple stages,” says Barnes, who, having worked on such films as Van Helsing and The Terminal, is no stranger to big films. “Typically, on your largest set, you might have 1,000 dimmers. That would be considered very large in the film industry.” On the other hand, at 2 million sq. ft., the Downey facility is no ordinary soundstage. For Lemony Snicket, which is photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, it was converted into an expansive storybook exterior, with a large tank representing a lake, bordered on one end by a beach, and on the other by a boat dock and village. The entire set needed to appear as if lit by daylight.
“I had purchased the Wholehog 3 during Van Helsing, which also had a lot of dimmers,” says Barnes. “I knew what it was capable of doing, but I never thought I would put it to a test like that; I just liked it because of all the features it has and how quick and easy it is to use. But I got a call from a friend, Michael Yope, who was going to be the best boy on Lemony Snicket, and he was telling me they were going to use about 2,200 space lights. A space light is a popular fixture in the film industry; it looks kind of like a wagon wheel, and it consists of six individual 1,000W lamps. In the old days, it was just a single 60A, and you didn't have the ability to turn one globe on and off. Now, it's fed through a Socapex cable, so you can dim individual globes and have more control over the color of the light. Cameramen can turn individual globes off rather than dim the fixture as a whole.
“So, 2,200 of these things times six is going to be thousands of dimmers,” Barnes continues. “John Buckley, the gaffer, called me up once he talked to Michael Yope and said, ‘I heard you have a board that can do 10,000 channels.’ I said, ‘Yeah, technically it's supposed to be able to do that. However, it's going to be pushing the limit.’ But he was interested because they had already figured that they were going to need something like 12 different [ETC] Expression® consoles just for that one rig. So, I got booked on the job solely because of the Wholehog 3. I'm not 100% sure, but I don't think it had been used on a movie until I brought it around. I was kind of in the hot seat.”
Soon, however, the console put him in the catbird seat. “Luckily, we didn't do the Downey part until the last part of the movie, so all the stuff we did at Paramount was good testing ground,” Barnes says. “Even the Paramount stuff was large — we had three different stages that used about 1,500 to 2,000 dimmers each, so we were able to get an idea of what it was going to take to get Downey ready to go. The Wholehog 3's Ethernet system goes through these DMX processors that hold four universes each, but I didn't max out the universes. You can hold 512 channels in one universe, but I kept it kind of minimal. Now it's completely stable, but at the time, the software was a little unstable when it came to maxing out the DMX processors. The Paramount part of it required four universes, and I divided them up across two processors. That way, I got a little more speed out of the whole unit. High End was very helpful with that; they actually loaned me a DMX processor to help get me started.”
When the production moved to Downey, Barnes had to round up three more processors, which wasn't the easiest thing to do. “I used mine, High End provided two, and then CW Productions provided two, one of which they had to get from St. Louis.”
As it turned out, for budgetary reasons, the number of space lights on the Downey set was reduced to about 1,400. The 6,532 channels required were networked over the five processors for a total of 16 DMX universes. The technology continued to improve during filming: “During Lemony Snicket, I updated the software about seven times,” Barnes says. “And each time, it just got better and better.”
Even though the rig was reduced, the ability to individually control nearly 6,600 channels of lighting on one set is nothing to sniff at. “They covered the whole ceiling with these space lights, and underneath it, they ran white diffusion, which helped create more of a daylight look,” Barnes says of the set. “The other reason they needed one solid piece of diffusion was that they wanted a nice even reflection on the water. Rather than a lot of little dots of white, they needed a nice even skylight softness above the water.” The tank, which was about the size of a football field, extended on one side into a cave, “and we also had some space lights inside the cave,” he adds. “It was enormous. It's funny; I do a movie like Van Helsing, and I'm thinking to myself, ‘I'm never going to see a set bigger than this,’ and the next show, you see something bigger.”
When Barnes bought the Wholehog 3, it was very new and quite expensive. “I thought about getting a Wholehog 2,” he says, “but then I thought, ‘Why not get something that's ahead of its time, start learning with it, and become one of the few that knows it?’” The programmer shared the console's bill with gaffer Michael Bauman. “We own it together,” says Barnes. “He's doing a Michael Bay movie coming up, and I'm going to work with him on that.”
The film he's referring to is The Island, a science fiction thriller starring Ewan McGregor. “It just so happens that it's going to be in the same building in Downey. It's another really large show — I think it's around 2,000 dimmers and 40 or 50 moving lights and a bunch of bluescreens. I think it's even bigger.”
Of course, with the help of constantly evolving technology, big will continue to be relative.