Seen at the Movies: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
All right, I've never read the monstrously popular J.K. Rowling book. All I have to go by is what's sure to be the monstrously popular Chris Columbus movie version, which is being released by Warner Bros. on something like 8,000 U.S. screens today. From all reports, this 152-minute effects-crammed fantasy is slavishly faithful to Rowling's story about the 11-year-old title character (played by Daniel Radcliffe) and his adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I enjoyed the movie in spots: it's hard not to, with a cast of English pros like Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, and John Hurt acting their hearts out as the various Hogwarts professors and fellow travelers. Stuart Craig's designs for the school, with its moving staircases and animated paintings, and for Diagon Alley, the secret London shopping street for all things magical, is touched with enchantment to the extent that Columbus' leaden style allows; ditto Judianna Makovsky's costumes. Unfortunately, the great DP John Seale's images are disappointingly flat and glum—perhaps effects movies are not his forte.
Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter
Visual effects supervisor Robert Legato certainly had his hands full. Some of the effects are truly nifty—I particularly enjoyed the stop-motion-style creatures, such as a lumbering troll (animatronic supplied by Jim Henson's Creatures Shop), and a giant three-headed dog named Fluffy. Elsewhere, as in a flying-broom game of Quidditch, the artificial-looking digital work calls up memories of the process photography from a 1970s Disney dog like Escape From Witch Mountain. For the record, the effects companies that contributed to Harry Potter include Sony Pictures Imageworks, Industrial Light & Magic, Rhythm & Hues, The Moving Picture Company, Cinesite (Europe), The Computer Film Company, and Smoke & Mirrors. Creature and makeup effects are by Nick Dudman. The perpetrator of the musical score is John Williams, who seems intent on aurally pummeling the audience into submission, or maybe just in keeping those of us who don't worship at the Rowling shrine awake.
Seen on TV: After two episodes, the gimmicky Fox series 24 looks like it just may be a keeper. This nail-biting thriller about a CIA unit's attempt to foil an assassination plot against an African-American presidential candidate is undoubtedly preposterous, but its hook is a lively, challenging one: starting at midnight, the story is told in real time, with each episode representing one of a consecutive 24 hours. A number of story threads keep director Stephen Hopkins and viewers on their toes, but the frequent change of focus—along with the commercial breaks—provides the show with the only telescoping it's allowed.
I've detected a few cheats along the way: a woman jumps from an airplane, for example, and a full two minutes elapse before she opens her parachute. But this is forgivable. The LA-set drama, with unusual locations downtown and in the San Fernando Valley, is given a surprisingly harsh visual treatment by DP Peter Levy--the nighttime streets with flaring hot spots look sinister in a less glossy manner than on The X-Files, while the resourceful use of reflections and planes of activity give the images depth. It will be fascinating to see how the show's lighting style evolves as it moves into daytime hours. For an piece on Joseph Hodges' production design, see the November issue of Entertainment Design.
Seen and Heard at La Mama: French scenic designer Jean-Guy Lecat was in town for the past few weeks, teaching a workshop entitled “Theatrical Space and the Work of Peter Brook.” This four-part event (organized by David Diamond and supported by Etant Donnés) included tours of various spaces, most notably BAM’s Harvey Theatre (formerly The Majestic), which Lecat helped transform for Brook’s epic production of The Mahabharata in the mid-1980s.
The workshop culminated on Sunday, November 11, with a four-hour session at La Mama in which Lecat spoke about the design of theatrical spaces and what makes a good theatre. “A good new theatre or successful transformation depends on strong ideas for its use,” insists Lecat, who worked with Brook for the past 25 years, and has now struck out on his own as a set/lighting/costume designer (recently designing a production of Miss Julie in Madrid) and theatre consultant, working on the right solutions to improve The Roundhouse in London, the RSC theatres in Stratford, and others. “Every theatre has to have the right answer for its time,” Lecat adds, pointing out that a theatre like the Harvey was “one solution for one man’s work at one time.”
Lecat spoke with some humor about the role of the architect in theatre design, putting forth the idea that “the architect should design the lobby, we’ll do the rest,” and pointing out examples of architectural design that actually impede proper theatrical performance (how about bright pink walls or reflective glass surfaces as balcony fronts?). On a more serious note, he stresses the importance of good sightlines and acoustics, while sharing photographs of different spaces he “transformed” for various productions by Brook. “Sometimes when we return to a space we discover they have made it too clean,” Lecat notes, making it clear that his personal preference runs toward abandoned stone quarries (like the one outside of Avignon where The Mahabharata --one of the most awe-inspiring productions I have ever seen!--was performed), and other non-traditional spaces.
The workshop was attended by a group of approximately 40 people, ranging from architects to theatre consultants (including Josh Dachs of Fisher Dachs Associates), and the feeling at the end of the day is that there is room for much more discussion on the subject. So hopefully, Lecat will have the opportunity to return sometime soon and continue to inspire architects and designers to create interesting and successful theatre spaces.