Leave it to Jules and Peggy — lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, that is — to come up with the hard-hitting, emotionally motivated lighting that gives the performance scenes in Dreamgirls an incredible edginess as the film tracks the rise to fame of a Detroit-based female trio called The Dreams. Wait a minute. Did I say film? Yep, I certainly did. While other major musicals are enjoying successful revivals on stage, the 1981 Broadway hit Dreamgirls is now a major motion picture (co-produced by DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures), with the star power of Beyoncé Knowles in the role of Deena Jones and the star-is-born sensation of Jennifer Hudson as Effie White.
Written and directed by Bill Condon, the film was released in time for the 2006 holiday season. It takes a backstage look at the cutthroat nature of show business, and the rough road encountered on the way to success in the music business in particular. The story begins in Detroit, the Motor City and home of Motown, the black urban music genre that was born there. The girl group in Dreamgirls is based on The Supremes, with Deena modeled on Diana Ross and Jamie Foxx as Curtis Taylor, Jr., a fictional version of the famous Motown promoter and head of Motown Records Berry Gordy, Jr.
Dreamgirls alternates between a 1960s realistic, gritty, urban environment to the glitz and glamour on stage, as the action segues from the book scenes and the performance numbers. These transitions work smoothly, thanks to a seamless collaboration by Fisher and Eisenhauer and the film's cinematographer, Tobias Schliessler, and production designer John Myhre. Fisher and Eisenhauer are no strangers to the film world, having worked on several films before Dreamgirls, including the Academy Award-winning Chicago, for which Condon wrote the screenplay.
“I almost fainted when they asked us to do the film. I loved the musical,” says Eisenhauer, who was in college when Dreamgirls opened on Broadway. “We wanted to do the musical numbers not just as straight musical numbers but explore breaking them out of the stage environment and creating a language that would work for that, collaborating with the cinematographer to make it all one look.”
The musical numbers begin in the early 1960s, and the lighting reflects the era. “Luckily, they started shooting at the top of the script, which is not always the case,” notes Fisher. “But that was good for us, as in 1962, the lighting technology was much simpler.” When asked what he used as a reference for the kind of gear and colors used back then, Fisher smiles wisely. “I lived through those years,” he says. “I used mental pictures of what I thought the period lighting actually was.”
Although the lighting is meant to reflect the 60s, it is not 100% historically accurate in terms of gear. “Due to the documentary nature of this film, the lighting had to look correct in terms of time and place,” says Eisenhauer. “The director or the audience might not know what was correct, time-wise, in terms of lighting equipment, so we were able to push the boundaries.” Fisher adds, “If the end result was something more dramatic and powerful, we could heighten the look and still not have it ring false.”
For the first number, a local talent show where The Dreams perform, the LDs used period lighting instruments including old batten strip lights that they found in the old vaudeville houses in Los Angeles where the musical scenes for Dreamgirls were shot. What the camera sees is period lighting; what the camera doesn't see are the 3,000°K Strong and Lycian followspots.
“The followspot was a big machine to create images in those days,” says Eisenhauer. “It's what we would have used as LDs in 1962 and on through the years as The Dreams move toward stardom. Their production values increase along with their ambition, from a sloppy talent show to the ultimate in sophistication, and the lighting got flashier as they built toward their big show at Caesar's Palace on New Year's Eve 1975. They would have had 12 followspots by then.”
The Caesar's Palace number is performed in the round, beginning with rehearsal shots and then transitioning to the big number at night. The set includes periaktoi mirrors that turn and reflect the lights. “This gives the static lights a sweep, as if they were moving,” Eisenhauer adds. There is no color in the light in this scene, which uses a combination of conventional fixtures, such as Altman ellipsoidals and PARcans, in addition to the dozen followspots placed around the circular stage.
Some of the book scenes take place on the same sets as the musical numbers, so the film lighting has to be tucked away overhead; it is also used to add fill light and increase the ambient levels for the camera in the musical numbers, while the stage lighting is what the eye actually sees. “It seems bright to your eye but not on film,” notes Fisher. In the song “Steppin' to the Bad Side,” vertical towers with PARcans, striplights, and Vari-Lite automated luminaries pay homage to the look of the Broadway show. As Fisher is quoted in the souvenir program for the film, “In designing the theatrical lighting for Dreamgirls, we're working in the shadow of the masterful Tharon Musser, who won the Tony for her lighting design of the original show. We hope to honor her legacy with our work lighting these musical numbers that she immortalized.”
The color palette was devised with the director and production designer. “They would say, ‘This is going to be a red number,' for example,” says Fisher. “The palette is simplistic in a way; there are not a lot of different colors.” Yet each song has its own look. “Steppin' to the Bad Side” is red and white; the initial talent show has blue, red, purple, and orange; the big Dreamgirls number is blue. “There was something special about limiting the palette from scene to scene,” Fisher adds. “We lit each scene as if it was for the crowd in the audience, as if we were really lighting The Dreams in performance. Then the director could decide how much to keep.”
For The Dreams' reunion number at the end of the film, the lighting is a bit more modest once again. “Curtis is no longer producing them,” says Eisenhauer, noting that, as the producer had pushed the group toward stardom, he kept adding to the show — better wigs, better sound, flashier lighting, and pyro. The singers perform in front of a sparkling beaded curtain, and Effie joins The Dreams in an emotional moment where all four singers are on stage together. “The lighting includes a ring of lights on the floor, with 48 28V ACLs in two rows of 24, carefully focused to create a perfectly even fan shape. This is the last show in the film, with confetti falling into that light and across the actors' faces in a dramatic scene where Curtis recognizes that the young girl with Effie is his daughter,” explains Eisenhauer.
Fisher and Eisenhauer provided audience lighting as well, since many of the musical numbers were performed before a live audience. “We lit the audience as if the light was bouncing off the stage, bringing in some extra theatrical lighting,” says Eisenhauer. They also took advantage of a FOH batten with 20 automated Vari-Lites that were used to light the singers and could move quickly to light the audience as needed.
To light all of the various musical numbers, the LDs had a large rig supplied by PRG in New York with support from the LA office. The rig included more than 450 lights in multiple lighting packages that moved from one shooting location to another, with the film often shooting in one location and loading into another at the same time. The entire shoot took three months and one week, with programming done on two PRG Virtuoso consoles, with Harry Sangmeister serving as lead programmer for 75% of the project and Tom Celner and Matt Hudson doing the rest.
“There was a lot of scheduling, and we created flow charts of equipment and people, showing where everything would be on a given day. We were pretty much a self-contained department, working closely with the production supervisors for the film,” says Eisenhauer. To help with this massive job, Fisher and Eisenhauer brought along Broadway production electrician Richard Mortell, who remained with them in LA for the duration of the shoot. “Each number was hung like a Broadway show,” explains Fisher. Once a number was hung, Mortell could move on to the next number, moving from shop to theatre and continually moving equipment around.
Automated luminaries by Vari-Lite, including VL5 arcs and VL1000s, were an important part of the rig. “They were quiet enough for use on the film set and were there for power. For the most part, you never see them,” says Eisenhauer. “The VL1000 has a big lens, so if you see one in the darkness, it doesn't look too modern. We also asked PRG to find less modern-looking versions of ellipsoidals and Fresnels, as the actors walk right past them in some of the shots. When theatrical lighting is playing itself, or when it's scenery, you have to identify it differently from when it's hidden as unseen sources.”
For the disco version of the song “One Night Only,” VL5s were used even though they were anachronistic. “It's the one time we cheated,” says Fisher. “Lighting people would know, but the audience won't notice.” Eisenhauer agrees, noting, “They could look like a PAR lamp. We avoided anything that looks like an LED array with pixels.”
The LDs started with the storyboards for the film and then asked themselves what they could do to make the scenes look dazzling. “We are still exploring film as a genre and how to create something on stage that looks good on film. You have to be aware of the camera language and choose colors that render well based on the film stock,” says Eisenhauer. Fisher approaches each number as if lighting it on Broadway, in terms of the architecture of the lighting, but he points out, “The angles have to be different, and the intensity in the backlight cannot be so much brighter like it is on Broadway.”
Eisenhauer points out that the biggest difference between stage lighting and film lighting is that the theatrical audience has just one point of view, while the camera has multiple points of view. “With this in mind, we worked closely with the cinematographer to create lighting that looks seamless, as if crafted by a single designer,” she explains. For the cinematographer, the challenge is capturing the theatrical lighting correctly on film.
“It was a pleasure to work with Jules and Peggy,” says the German-born Schliessler. “They have so much experience in the theatrical field, and this is not something I have done before as a DP.” Schliessler would bring the theatrical lighting to a level where it works on film. “We would set a level that worked, then blend the theatrical lighting and film lighting, bringing them up or down as needed for the proper film exposure and fine tune the theatrical lighting to suit the camera when I shot from a different angle. There was never a moment they didn't trust me about the levels.”
Schliessler used primarily tungsten sources based on a color temperature of 3,200°K. When he used HMI spotlights, they had color correction gel to bring them closer to tungsten. His biggest challenge was the wide variety of skin tones in the film. “Every actor has a special level that we constantly adjusted,” he says.
“The movie is very colorful,” he continues. “To get all the tones right, you have to trust the meter and the exposures we set; you can't trust your eye as you normally would. For Jules and Peggy, setting levels might mean changing the intensity on the control board, so they had to trust me to get the look we wanted and vice versa.”
Working on a film represents a different process for Fisher and Eisenhauer. “I have a diary of things I learned along the way and don't want to forget,” says Eisenhauer. “You are working so fast, and there are so many things to think about. We were lucky enough to work on both Chicago and Dreamgirls, which had many more locations, as 75 percent of Chicago was filmed in the same theatre.” After the success of Chicago, movie musicals seem like a hot ticket, with Hairspray (starring John Travolta) up next. “In addition, Dreamworks was sold to Paramount during the filming, so there is a lot of pressure on this film. It's as if the future of the movie musical rests with Dreamgirls,” notes Fisher.