When acclaimed stage and film director Rob Marshall began looking for his next project to follow the Academy Award®-winning “Chicago”, he and producer Harvey Weinstein decided to tackle a film adaptation of the Broadway hit “NINE”. With music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, “NINE” won five Tony Awards® when it first debuted in 1982 and went on to win another two Tony Awards in subsequent years. Taking on a project with such high expectations, Marshall turned to acclaimed director of photography Dion Beebe to help fulfill his vision. Beebe then turned to theatrical lighting designer Mike Baldassari and Philips Vari-Lite to create one of the most spectacular lighting designs ever seen on film.
“The Director of Photography is responsible for overseeing all the lighting on a movie,” began Beebe. “Rob and I discussed early on the possibility of bringing in a theatrical lighting designer/consultant in much the same way we had with 'Chicago', and after our discussions we brought Mike on to help us realize the full theatrical lighting component of the movie both technically and creatively.”
“I had worked with Rob previously on a Broadway revival of “Cabaret” but the phone call for this project really came out of the blue,” said Baldassari. “I hadn't talked to him in a number of years, but have always been a fan of his work. So when he asked me to assist as a lighting designer for â€˜NINE' of course I agreed to join him and Dion.”
As the design process began, Beebe and Baldassari knew that to bring the film to life, theatrical lighting elements would be crucial to realizing the full potential of the lighting design. Having worked with Marshall before, both shared a common vision for how to best approach creating the design for “NINE”. By carrying over lighting concepts from the stage, Beebe and Baldassari developed a strategy for how to best tackle the daunting task of lighting the varying musical numbers in the film.
“In the overall lighting design of the movie, the musical numbers needed to integrate seamlessly and have a singular design,” said Beebe. “The look of any movie starts with the script. The story will determine the atmosphere, mood and setting and the approach to lighting starts there. With 'NINE', we have a character that is conflicted and overwhelmed by the situation he finds himself in, so visually we show this with lighting by using shadows to create light and dark. From there the musical numbers become fantasy, an escape for the character and the shadows are filled with his imagination. All these things together, with the tone of each scene, contribute towards the final look of the film.”
“The concepts for the lighting design come right out of the music,” agreed Baldassari. “When reading the script some scenes are intimate and some are full stage shots with every number needing to have its own look. One of the great things about working with Rob is that he is also from the theater so the production process was no different than if we had been doing a Broadway musical. From that standpoint, we came up with a game plan for how to light 14 different numbers on a set the size of a football field; we needed 14 different lighting plots within our one system of hardware.”
With the decision made to create 14 unique light plots, Beebe and Baldassari now had to decide what automated lighting fixtures would serve the movie best. Taking into consideration the challenges of shooting on a stage of that size, they had to have fixtures that could be big and bold, but also handle the more intimate shots with only two actors on screen. Needing flexibility throughout the design, they turned to the one lighting manufacturer they knew had the right products for this project; Philips Vari-Lite.
Beebe continued, “My first time working with automated lighting was on 'Chicago' and I used them again on 'Memoirs of a Geisha'. Each time I have opted for VARI*LITE fixtures and this time was no different.”
“For rehearsals, they built a full scale mock-up of the set in the studio next door. Dion would then shoot video of the rehearsals which we studied together so we knew where people were going to be on stage and what the movement pattern would be,” said Baldassari. “From this, we were able to finalize which particular lights to use throughout the 14 different designs. Knowing all the lights would have to be used in multiple designs, we had to get the right gear for the job and that was VARI*LITE luminaires.”
In the design, Beebe and Baldassari went with an automated lighting package exclusive to VARI*LITE® automated luminaires. They chose the VL3500â„¢ Wash, VL3500â„¢ Spot, VL3000â„¢ Wash, VL2500â„¢ Spot, and VL2500â„¢ Wash luminaires and knew exactly what design element each light would help them achieve.
“What was key in the overall lighting design of 'NINE' was that it serve the drama and that the musical numbers drive the story in the same way the scene work does,” said Beebe. “The key to all of this is the character of Guido. As he struggles through his conflicts and as his moods and fortunes swing my goal was to find a way of enhancing that through the lighting. In the opening of the movie he seemingly conjures up his muse and wills the set to life. These are all things we did through the use of theatrical lighting.”
Baldassari explained, “There was a lot of square footage to light on this big, complicated set. For the walls, which were the spaces covering a very large area, we used the VL3500 Wash fixtures because we knew with a dozen or so of them we could easily cover the entire background. We would then use the VL3500 Spots for the specials where we needed shutters, such as on the runway for numbers such as â€˜Cinema Italiano' with Kate Hudson in the center. There were also several arches built into the set, so whenever an actor would appear in the arch, we made sure we had a VL2500 Spot that could provide great back light. Then over the top of the scenery, we used the VL3000 Wash and VL2500 Spot fixtures as additional lighting because there'd be numerous times when Rob would want people in a pool of light. But no matter which light we were using, the light had to be smooth across the entire beam. I feel like the VARI*LITE fixtures really do this better than any others and that's why choosing them for this film was all about cleanliness and the purity of the beam.”
With the lighting gear now in place and the 14 lighting plots finalized, Beebe, Baldassari and Marshall moved on to the cue writing phase. Cue writing would be one of the more challenging tasks as the movie was not shot in the same sequential order as the stage version. Making sure that the lighting looks were not being repeated, the color temperatures looked correct on-camera, and the timing of the lighting cues remained consistent between each shot were the top priorities.
“When we started a number, we'd say, â€˜Where are we in the movie and what is the progression? What do we feel like this number should be?' Obviously we didn't want two numbers back-to-back having the same feel,” commented Baldassari “We tried to give every number its own look, so before shooting we looked at every level, angle, and color, then Dion would use his digital camera and a spot meter so we could level things out. In theatre you're lighting for your eye. But in film, it's a chemical process because you don't see the shots until the next day and after you see it, it goes through color timing and other processes before it actually hits the screen. There is no one who can photograph this kind of lighting like Dion.”
Beebe added, “Lighting with theatrical fixtures particularly when using smoke on set, also influences composition. When building lighting cues you have the opportunity to also design shots, such as a single cone of light on a dark stage will demand a wide frame contributing to the sense of a character being overwhelmed or isolated within the frame. Mike's experience and creative skills as a theatrical lighting designer contributed greatly to 'NINE' and it was a very rewarding collaboration.”
In film, color temperature is also crucial. What appears to look correct to the eye will not look the same on film. Uniformity between lighting instruments is something that all lighting designers desire from their equipment, and this instance was no different. This was another reason the designers chose VARI*LITE automated luminaires.
“The use of theatrical lighting allowed us to exploit a wide color palette,” admitted Beebe. “The use of specific colors and color temperatures was a big part in building each of the musical numbers. Determining the use of color for each number is important as it influences everything from costume choices to set colors and design.”
“I've worked in lighting long enough to know that if you put a dozen lights on a wall, they're not all going to have the same color temperature,” said Baldassari. “You have to have excellent equipment to get the color temperature as uniform as it can be. If we had equipment that couldn't maintain consistent color temperature then we'd already be one strike behind before we got started. Honestly, VARI*LITE luminaires have the greatest consistency in color temperature, and since both Rob and Dion had shot with them before, they definitely knew about the quality of the light we would see. With the VARI*LITE fixtures there was a high comfort level all around.”
With the color temperature concerns put to rest, the team turned their attention to the timing of each lighting cue during the musical numbers. Timing would be crucial because of the nature of film in doing multiple takes of the same shot and then editing between several different takes of that same shot in post-production to come up with the final cut. Just as the costume and hair designers have to maintain consistency, so does the lighting.
“What was hyper-critical in the lighting was that every moment looked as good as it could and that every cue was perfectly timed and perfectly called so that we could create the raw material Rob needed for editing,” explained Baldassari. “To accomplish this, we did everything with time code so that we could tag the light cues to the music and every time we went back, the lighting cues were exactly the same take after take. This way during post-production, even if they cut between two different takes, it's going to be exactly the same every time. We tagged almost every light cue that's in the movie and that was all about making it perfect so Rob could have every choice available to him in making the exact edits he wanted to make. At no time did we have any issue with the VARI*LITE fixtures missing their cues or running at different speeds. There movement was just as consistent as their color throughout the entire shoot.”
During a theatrical performance, the lighting rig might be used for approximately 3-4 hours per day. But during a film shoot, the lighting can run all day over the course of several months. Performance demands for film lighting are significantly higher but it is a demand that the VARI*LITE luminaires easily overcame.
“To be honest, the gear was on for the better part of 16 hours or more per day and over the course of shooting, almost four months, the crew was able to maintain the system so we had no failures with the cast onstage” said Baldassari. “We had to have gear that could handle the demands going into what was a very high pressure gig. Can you imagine what it would be like to be on set with seven of the most famous actresses in the world and Daniel Day-Lewis, and the lighting goes down? You simply do not want lighting to ever blow a take. So it was critical for us to have quality gear that was trustworthy and dependable. I trust VARI*LITE luminaires.”
At the end of the shooting schedule, Beebe and Baldassari were confident that they had made a movie that would be worthy of the 7-time Tony Award-winning play. Judging by the four Academy Award nominations received by “NINE”, most would say they did just that.
“I loved working on this movie,” surmised Baldassari. “This design was the culmination of a lot of hard work between a great director, a terrific cinematographer and myself. I was only part of a truly incredible team and the VARI*LITE luminaires were a significant part of that team.”
Beebe concluded, “Working with automated lighting has a number of huge advantages, such as the ability to select and alter color instantly, the ability to run multiple cues sync-locked to music, and being able to fade to black or up from black without dealing with shifts in color temperature. These are not things I can achieve with conventional film lighting. The range of lighting fixtures both in output and function sets VARI*LITE luminaires apart for me, and they have become synonymous with my use of automated lights.”