DP DONALD McALPINE TRIPS THE LIGHT FANTASTIC WITH BAZ LUHRMANN'S POSTMODERN MOULIN ROUGE
In some ways, Baz Luhrmann's new musical extravaganza Moulin Rouge is all about light. The title Parisian nightclub, made famous near the turn of the 20th century by the scandalous, knickers-baring Can-Can and by the patronage of notable bohemians like painter Toulouse-Lautrec, was one of the earliest public spaces to be electrified. “Electricity at that point in time was like television in the late 1940s and early 50s, when people would just stand watching it in a shop window,” says director of photography Donald McAlpine. “People would go somewhere just to see electric light. Zidler, who owned the Moulin Rouge, virtually went broke because of his involvement in electricity. We don't carry the story through to where he goes bankrupt, but it's an underlying theme in the movie.”
Zidler is a supporting character (played by Jim Broadbent) in Luhrmann's movie, as is Toulouse-Lautrec (a shorter-than-usual John Leguizamo). The story revolves, however, around the romance of two fictional characters: Christian (Ewan McGregor), a poet who becomes enmeshed in the Montmartre district's debauchery, and Satine (Nicole Kidman), an abused and consumption-ridden dancer and courtesan. And though set in 1899-1900, Moulin Rouge (like Luhrmann's 1996 version of William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet) virtually wallows in anachronism. The songs range across the 20th century's popular catalog, from “Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend” to “The Sound of Music,” and from “All You Need Is Love” to “Like a Virgin.”
With characters having the prescience to warble tunes by Madonna and the Beatles, the question became, how many period liberties should be taken on the film's visual side? The costumes, which are designed by Angus Strathie and production designer (and Luhrmann spouse) Catherine Martin, are generally historically accurate, while the sets are a mix of authenticity and artificiality. The Moulin Rouge itself is recreated with some fidelity, while the surrounding streets trail off into soundstage and miniature flights of fancy.
Possibly more than any other visual element, the lighting takes the film out of its ostensible time frame, and delivers it to the realms of Studio 54 and the Las Vegas Strip. “Early on, there was talk about it being true to period,” recalls gaffer Steve Mathis, who worked with McAlpine on Romeo + Juliet and every other movie the DP has done in the past dozen years. “And I thought, why do that, because the music's not period.” This is just one issue Luhrmann and the cinematographer hashed out over the film's year-long preproduction stage, a process McAlpine refers to as his “indoctrination.” Eventually, the concept emerged: “The Moulin Rouge is basically the equivalent of a contemporary nightclub set at the turn of the century,” says the DP. “We didn't want it to be a history lesson; we went for the heart of it, not the reality.”
Period authenticity in the stage performance scenes would have meant white footlights and a few lights in the wings. Instead, says McAlpine, “We decided to go all out with computer-driven, multicolored light in a theatrical style. The thinking was, that's what they would have done if they could have. We can do it today on their behalf.”
SHOOTING IN SYDNEY
Moulin Rouge, which premiered opening night at the Cannes Film Festival, and which Twentieth Century Fox launched on its American release May 18, was shot at Fox Studios in Sydney, Australia. “There are five stages, one of which is as big as any soundstage in Los Angeles, and the rest are pretty close,” says McAlpine, who, like Luhrmann, hails from Australia. “We ended up using virtually the lot of them. It was a very complex film, because the whole thing was shot on soundstages; there were no exterior scenes.”
The most important set is the club, which in the course of the film is transformed from a disreputable dance and pickup joint to a legitimate, though hardly more reputable, theatre environment. At first, a central dance floor in the main hall is lined by two rows of upper and lower booths, with a bar at one end of the room, and a bandstand over revolving doors at the other end. Then the bandstand is replaced by a stage, and the dance floor is converted to a seating area, with the booths remaining on either side.
The main hall is lit with a combination of movie lights on trusses and practical lamps — mostly 25W Christmas-tree-light-sized globes — festooned in strips along the booths. “There were a ton of practicals, and each group of practicals was on a dimmed circuit,” says Mathis. “The light bulbs are about an inch and a half apart, and the set was about 120' (36m) long, so you get an idea of the extent of it. Mostly we ran them down around 60% on dimmer, because they were too bright on camera — they'd start to flare. So we'd bring up the side we weren't seeing for ambient light, and dim down the side that was in shot. It was a constant battle for me to figure out which was which.” There was at least one circuit to a booth, and some booths had more, if they contained wall sconces or table lamps in addition to the festooning. “We also had a lot of globes that we bought from a company in England called Ferrowatt,” says the gaffer. “They have a huge filament and are meant to simulate old light bulbs. They're not very bright, so we only used those when we saw them.”
To hang the more traditional studio lights — mostly Mole-Richardson 5ks and 10ks, some juniors and babies, and two Arri T12s — Mathis and rigging gaffer Simon Lee adapted the relatively new Sydney stage to a more American manner of operation. “They're not really used to greenbeds and catwalks,” says Mathis. “I had to tell them what I wanted, and they built them.” Rows of catwalks were constructed across the width of the stage, and “in between the catwalks, we hung pieces of rock-and-roll truss on chain motors, and then hung the lights and dimmer circuits. We used the set for three months, so depending on the day, it was a different lighting diagram.”
Lengthwise on both sides of the stage, over the booths, hard-floored platforms were built so lights could be moved more easily, and catwalks were also installed at either end of the stage. A painted backing outside the doorway at one end was lit with 12-light Maxi Brutes (or dinettes, as they're called in Australia) and 20ks. For a night look, six individually circuited 1,000W Ultralite space lights were used.
Inside the club, “most of the movie lights functioned as backlights,” says Mathis. “Occasionally, we'd put Lee 216 or full grid on them, and lower the truss for fill when we had dance numbers we couldn't fill from the floor. Or we'd spin them and use them just to build up light on the wall.” There were also followspots — 2kW Colortran Xebecs, 3kW Strong xenon Gladiators, and especially 2kW Strong xenon Super Troupers — on dollies covering the action. These were particularly instrumental during a tango sequence danced to a cover of the Police's “Roxanne.” “We used four followspots and three cameras for the tango,” says the gaffer. “While Don was coordinating camera, I was out on the floor with a headset and my four followspot operators, trying to keep the two dancers just in 3/4 backlight from both sides. They have a really hard edge and almost no fill, so they're silhouetted. Then more dancers get into it, and we bring up other lights. We had lowered a bunch of old studio 10ks to the stage, as if they were working on them, and we covered the other dancers with these big lights blasting straight at camera.
“That's where we started using followspots, and we kept them for the stage production,” Mathis continues. “But they really just pick out Nicole and Ewan, because the stage must have 50 people on it.” The film's stage performances were done in three distinct setups. “They open with one kind of look, then they go to another one, and in the final one, the whores onstage sort of stage a coup d'état,” he says. At that point, a wall that divides the playing area flies up, exposing the full stage. Originally, a theatrical lighting designer was hired to light the performance scenes, but, says McAlpine, “He required a week where they would virtually close the stage down and let him figure out the lighting. Of course, they couldn't afford that, so Steve and I had to do it in two nights.”
“We started with Look 2, and had Saturday to work on it, and shot it Monday without any rehearsal,” says Mathis. “Don and I came in at 8:00 the next morning, and we saw Look 3 for the first time. On that one, all the cues got called live, because they were ready to go. Don did the cameras, and I got the lights, followspots, and dimmer board, and just tried to go with the music, like a rock concert: It's done on the beat. The problem with that is, you don't have any cues recorded, so if they want to go again, it's like, ‘Uh oh, what did I do?’ The dimmer board operator was trying to scribble notes while he was doing it, but there were several hundred lights up there. We had to group them into circuits by color. I had red or blue or yellow sidelights, and different-colored backlights, and would call colors rather than specific instruments.”
In four trusses hung across the stage, and four others set at perpendicular angles along the walls, the lighting included 80 ETC Source Fours with narrow spots, ten 5ks, twenty 2ks, and 100 baby 1ks. “We had all the babies in Sydney, so we had to start using theatrical babies, which don't have very good barndoors,” says the American gaffer, who carried his own package of smaller instruments from Hollywood, but got the bulk of the lights from Panavision Australia. To the 900 dimmer channels and Jands Hog 1000 console already covering the main hall set, another 600 channels and a second Hog 1000 were added for the stage area. “We had a great board operator, Grant Neutrowski, who had done rock and roll, so he wasn't particularly stressed out by no rehearsal,” Mathis says.
Also being used during Look 3 were 30 four-light cyc strips lining the backdrop in pink and blue. Out front at all times were four Super Troupers, and at the edge of the proscenium arch were footlights covered in front by seashells. “When we were out in the audience looking at the stage, we used cannibalized nook lights, two each for 2,000W of white light,” the gaffer says. “When we looked from the stage out, and could see them on camera, we used the Ferrowatt globes.” The big Super Troupers would also frequently get into shot, which is an anachronism the director and cinematographer didn't want. “There's a point where you start to draw attention,” says McAlpine. “You want the tricks to be magical, but you never want anyone looking at your cuffs.” Disguises were built for the followspots, or they were replaced on camera by smaller units. Still, says the DP, during these sequences, “50% of the film was useless. But the lights would eventually go out of the shot, and we'd get another five or 10 seconds of magic.”
During preproduction, the DP had also conferred with the choreographer, John O'Connell, and worked out a shooting plan for the dance sequences. “Coming from theatre, a choreographer's perspective is mostly from the auditorium,” McAlpine says. But Luhrmann's style, which calls for lots of dynamic camera movement and a three-dimensional enmeshment with the action, is the antithesis of a static, front-and-center shooting approach. “I would take a camera to the top of the studio, and then show the video to the choreographer,” says the DP. “I would say, ‘It looks great from down here, but not very good from up there.’ I would suggest that he rehearse the dancers so they would really know their spatial differences at that point. Then there was the fact that we were shooting anamorphic. So I would say, ‘In this arrangement, it would be great if they were spread out a little.’”
WORKING IN WIDESCREEN
McAlpine, a former documentary cameraman whose feature credits stretch from Australian movies of the 1970s like My Brilliant Career and Breaker Morant, to such Hollywood blockbusters as Mrs. Doubtfire and Clear and Present Danger, favors the anamorphic format partly because “it's a couple of extra yards on each side, and people know they're going to see something they won't see on TV.” But Super 35 was more suited to the extensive digital work that had to be done on the film's miniature sets and dream sequences in postproduction. “So we compromised,” says the cinematographer. “In any scene where digital work was ensured, we shot Super 35, on a 200 ASA special effects film.” The rest was shot anamorphic, on Kodak's 500 ASA Vision stock. Facilitating this was Panavision's Millennium Panaflex camera system, which converts easily from one format to the other.
There were many other sets constructed for Moulin Rouge. On one stage, a 40'-high (12m) elephant housing a brothel in the club's courtyard garden was recreated; that set was lit with a 16kW HMI balloon with half-CTO and, for a night look, 5k Mole Skypans and 4-bank Strand Iris cyc lights with Lee 165 on the backing. This gel, named Daylight Blue by Lee, was paradoxically used for all the night exteriors. For a brilliant dawn scene on the courtyard set, a scaffold rig holding six dinos with 24 narrow-spot globes and Lee 152 Pale Gold hit the backing through diffusion — actually, clear plastic material ordinarily packed between rolls of carpet. Satine's red velvet bedroom, which is set inside the elephant but shot on another stage, was lit with Source Fours in iris and leaf patterns, among other instruments. And hallucinatory shades of pink and green were thrown onto sky backings for absinthe-infused fantasy sequences.
Whatever liberties the filmmakers take with the story's setting and time frame are placed out front, says McAlpine. “We have an opening scene in the Moulin Rouge, with the Can-Can girls all over the floor dancing, and it's a riot — we're saying, ‘This is the energy, this is the color, this is what the film's going to be like,’” he says. For him, and for Luhrmann, the movie was partly about resurrecting the musical, with a dash of 1940s, a dash of Bollywood [India's lavish movie spectacle industry], and a dose of something more contemporary. “The musical numbers just evolve, you never get the feeling that a conductor's tapped them. The sound and the music stimulate the visuals, and one plays with the other. With a great deal of arrogance, we sort of hope that we've reinvented the musical as an acceptable form of cinema.”