Nine Combines Theatrical Lighting And Cinematography In A Tribute To Federico Fellini
In a blaze of theatricality, director of photographer Dion Beebe, ASC/ACS, and lighting designer Mike Baldassari—working in close collaboration with director Rob Marshall and production designer John Myhre—added pizzazz to the 14 musical numbers in Nine, the film version of the Broadway musical inspired by Fellini’s landmark 1963 film, 8½. Daniel Day Lewis is positively channeling the spirit of Fellini as Guido Contini, a filmmaker with director’s block surrounded by a cast of the women in his life—played by Marion Cottillard, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Fergie, Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman, and Sophia Loren. Costumer Colleen Atwood used over 1,000,000 Swarovski crystals to make their costumes truly sparkle under the hot lights on the set.
“We were guests in their world, and it was essential to interface with the cinematographer and his team,” says Baldassari, who worked closely with the director and cinematographer to interpret their vision on stage. “I think one could refer to Nine as a film noir in color—very shadowy but with a full color palette.”
The musical numbers were all shot on soundstage H at Shepperton Studios in London, while the exteriors were shot in Italy. “We were shooting on the second largest sound stage in the UK. Only the 007 stage is larger,” says Baldassari. “There was one unit (basic) set with a series of gold archways and no straight lines. Everything was off a little bit; even the floors are at an angle. They built an exact replica in the studio next door, rehearsed the musical numbers in the summer of 2008, and sent me a DVD of each number as they finished, so I could see where the dancers would be and how the set was being used.”
The arches on the set are backlit dramatically with a Vari-Lite VL2500 in each arch whenever there is a dancer there. The fixtures were fit into the arches so they couldn’t be seen, as they are too state-of-the-art for the 1960s-era look on the soundstage. “We did full-scale mock ups of the arches with the production designer, using pipes, clamps, and cheeseboroughs to find the optimum mounting positions,” notes Baldassari. In addition, antique Fresnels are hung in the view of the camera, with the vintage fixtures helping to mask the modern equipment.
When the gigantic studio is lit for the opening shot of the film, there are Vari-Lites hanging on all the trusses, but also unseen. “I flew in some of the empty trusses so the Vari-Lites were masked by the truss or out of sight of the cameras,” Baldassari says. “We also had to light the arches and façades as architecture, having at first suggesting mini-strips but finding there wasn’t enough room to fit them into the set. The gaffer, John ‘Biggles’ Higgins, had the great idea to use MR16s attached to a strip of metal. I immediately called them ‘Biggle Strips,’ a brilliant, yet simple solution, set in a gutter at the bottom of each arch. For the entire shoot, everyone, even Rob Marshall, referred to them as Biggle Strips.”
For the musical numbers on a set as large as a football field, the solution was to create a large truss system to cover the entire area. Baldassari then assigned a channel number to every possible position on the truss, and from there, he and Dion created the light plot for each of the musical numbers. Eventually, they used four different lighting packages—supplied by PRG Lighting in London—all incorporating the same structural system, with the ability to move individual trusses up and down on chain motors.
Each lighting package was used for several of the musical numbers. “Basically, we had this gigantic set and had to find the most cost-effective way to light it, musical number by musical number, rather than have one giant rig all the way through,” says Baldassari, adding that the filming covered a three-month period, from October through December 2008. “Since Rob’s from the theatre, we would tech each of the musical numbers as if we were doing it on Broadway and then shoot it. The finale was filmed in the same studio but turned around and shot against the back wall. Most of the downstage trusses worked; we just turned the lights around and added a truss for some backlight.”
“One of the things I requested was a theatrical production electrician,” continues Baldassari, who brought in Peter Lambert from the West End, with the theatrical lighting crew comprising moving light programmer David Sadler, Vari-Lite techs Chris Dunford, Keith Johnson, Simon Targett, and Ben Timms, and West End followspot operators Leila Bundy and Alex Howard. “We needed them to meet the demands of the production numbers, and Peter Lambert and his crew were used to working with Vari-Lites and running followspots on a regular basis. He figured out all the nuts and bolts, and all the cabling for the large and complicated system.” Kristina Kloss, back in New York, used Vectorworks Spotlight for the drafting and paperwork.
The film and theatrical lighting were integrated and controlled together by an MA Lighting grandMA console with four Network Signal Processors to distribute commands from Ethernet to DMX and numerous laptop links into the network. “Because we were controlling all of the film and theatrical lighting on one console, it made for some incredible cueing,” says Baldassari. “The dimming curves are very different from a 20kW Mole Richardson to a Vari-Lite. There was such a complex cue structure—with Rob and Dion asking for such precise cue placement—and I knew that I’d need it all on SMPTE timecode, with multiple lines running at the same time. They used four or five cameras with multiple takes, so in post-production, there were many choices for each moment. With the lighting on timecode, the lighting continuity would always be perfect, take to take. Once it was on timecode, I could watch the take and make changes if needed. We could have never accomplished that manually or with someone calling cues.”
The workhorse fixtures for the production numbers were the Vari-Lites, with VL2500 spots as the primary instruments. “Both Rob Marshall and Dion Beebe—who had collaborated on the film version of Chicago—knew the Vari-Lite range, so we stayed with them. We needed as many as 300 lights at certain moments. The set required a lot of square footage to be lit at any given time,” says Baldassari.
For various scenes, Baldassari added to the gear lists, such as in his favorite number “Cinema Italiano,” Kate Hudson’s big number on a fashion runway, which really defines 1960s Italian style. “Most of the numbers are dark and sexy, but this one is bright and sexy,” says Baldassari. To add brightness, Biggles and his team lit the runway where Hudson dances with fluorescent tubes built into the deck, and Baldassari used VL3500s shuttered down to the runway from above. They also added small white cycs lit with Kino-Flo units behind the arches.
In addition, 30 Martin Atomic strobes add flash, and Lycian M2 followspots “pop” Hudson from the background. “I chose the Lycians as they have side choppers as well as top and bottom,” says the LD. “There are a lot of musical accents in ‘Cinema Italiano,’ so the day before the shoot, we set up the grandMA and wrote a few different kinds of chases with the strobes and played them back on the console. They provide a sense of heightened reality as the strobes hit in time with the music and are motivated by the ‘flashbulbs’ of the paparazzi in the scene.”
The overture is the most complicated—a four-minute musical number with the studio full of dancers and all of Guido’s women. “We had to be able to pick everyone out, so we wrote light cues moment by moment. Dion would camera-test them, and we’d go back and make edits,” Baldassari notes. When Contini is encircled, or encaged, by two rings of the women in his life, two rings of truss are brought in with some of the Vari-Lites moved onto the circular truss. “This gives a different sense of movement to the fixtures, and the circular truss is in the other musical numbers, as well.”
One of these numbers features Nicole Kidman at a fountain; an exact replica of an Italian fountain was built on the soundstage with the ring truss above it. “They were going to shoot that number on location, but Rob changed it to be on our main set,” says Baldassari, who used the fixtures above the fountain to create reflections in the water. “We also asked for windows to be put into the bottom of the fountain, under the water, where I used Philips Color Kinetics ColorBlast LEDs to add a little more character to the fountain and more color to the number, with shades of blue and aqua. We tried to give each number its own look and palette.”
The cinematographer and LD worked hand-in-hand to create the shadowy look for the musical numbers, some of which are lit from just one side, to increase the shadows, mixing the Vari-Lites with Beebe’s Mole Richardson film lighting package comprising up to 30 5kW, 10kW, and 20kW MoleBeams. “The numbers are memory or fantasy scenes,” points out Baldassari. “They are not set in reality.”
During tech and filming, Marshall, Beebe, and Baldassari sat on a platform that rolled around in the studio. “That is how we did the lighting, down to every minute detail,” says Baldassari. “In the end, it’s all Dion Beebe. I’m there to service what he needs, and he ultimately made the calls on every level. That’s the difference between lighting for the theatre and film. In the theatre, you’re lighting for your eye; in television, you’re lighting to a monitor; in film, it’s a chemical process, since the lighting has to change for things like film speed and F-stop, and then there are colorists to consider. That’s why it all rests with the cinematographer. He has to be the one to capture it all, and there is no one who can film lighting like this better than Dion.”Baldassari admits that working with Rob Marshall is one of his career highlights. “His vision for this was just unbelievable.”