Life in a fishbowl


T he Truman Show stars Jim Carrey, but it is definitely not Ace Ventura Part III. In a summer season filled with the usual mix of monsters and mayhem, the Paramount Pictures release, scheduled to open June 5, will be like no other Hollywood movie playing at your local multiplex. In it, the usually rubber-faced comedian reins in his mugging to play a man who has unwittingly spent his entire life as the subject of a 24-hour documentary soap opera; his friends, family, and everyone around him are actors, his house is a set, his seaside town a massive, climate-controlled, domed studio in the Hollywood Hills. All the major events of this life have been recorded and manipulated by Christof (Ed Harris), the documentary filmmaker who conceived the idea of The Truman Show and who has presided over it for its entire 24-hour-a-day, 30-year run. Hidden cameras are everywhere: behind his bathroom mirror, in his neighbor's trash can, at the local newsstand, at his office, even on his favorite ring. They record his every move for a global television audience that has watched Truman grow from an innocent newborn to a 30-year-old adult who has begun to suspect that things aren't what they seem.

The film was directed by Peter Weir (Witness, Dead Poets Society), and shot by DP Peter Biziou, who won an Oscar for his work on Mississippi Burning and whose other credits include Richard III, In The Name of the Father, and Pink Floyd--The Wall. It was Weir's plan to create a vaguely unreal landscape, yet not make it so clear to the audience that Truman's world was necessarily a manufactured one. And it was up to Biziou to help translate that look onto film.

"It became clear that we would be operating in two worlds," the DP explains. "There was this slightly surreal world within the soap, which was slightly idealized, almost too nice to live in; it reflected the idea of being in a TV setting. At the same time, Peter Weir didn't really want that look to dominate and give the game away. That way he could, in telling the story, take his own dramatic license as to when to start revealing things to the audience."

It was decided early on that many of the shots would be positioned as if they were surveillance cameras spying on Truman's life; the idea was that as Truman got older and his world grew, Christof was placing more and more hidden cameras in spots throughout the town. (Seahaven is on an island, and Truman has never left due to a fear of water he developed as a child after watching his fictional father drown in a boating accident.) Biziou initially looked into using surveillance systems, but found them "really boring: static video cameras in parking lots here, there, and everywhere, and not dramatic at all. We had to mimic surveillance in a sense."

Biziou accomplished that by adopting some filmic methods sometimes used in TV advertising: putting the camera in boldly graphic framing positions, forcing the foreground objects stronger than normal.

It is mentioned in the film that Christof has installed nearly 5,000 hidden cameras to catch Truman in action; needless to say, Biziou and Weir worked with considerably fewer. "We certainly preferred to work with one camera, so performance is always assured; when necessary, we would go to two or three cameras. But because we were trying to mimic surveillance cameras, we did find more unusual camera positions than we might normally have done, to slightly imbalance the frame, but not be obvious. For instance, there is one in the radio of his car; we put a foreground gobo on the lens so it looks like the rim of a radio. It was a very wide lens, so Jim Carrey could lean forward and press buttons right next to it. And on top of that, post-production supervisor Mike McAllister's digital team put the LED numbers of a radiostation's call letters back to front."

Interiors were shot mostly in Truman's home or office, or in the main control room. For the former scenes, Biziou lit to a higher level than normal. "Even when you're using wide-angle lenses to mimic the idea of surveillance, they always have such a depth of field," he says. "So we'd light the interiors between 8 and 11 to help force the depth that surveillance cameras would have. What I wanted to do in all the interiors was, in addition to giving good depth, give that slightly polished, almost too-well-lit feel. With hidden cameras, they [Christof and his crew] would naturally have made sure that everything was lit so they could always see. It's the sort of lighting a multi-camera TV set would have had."

The scenes inside the control room needed a very different feel from those in Truman's world. Christof's domain has a faded opulence and is necessarily full of monitors, as well as a very large screen at the front of the room representing the action being beamed out to the world. "I had to keep the light levels reasonably low in the control room, so that all the various screens could be photographed," Biziou says. "I generally lit overhead with a very large softlight. We scrimmed a hole in the top of the set, and then below that constructed our own louvers, big black blades about 6' apart. It was like a giant window louver, and whichever way we were filming, I could always open and close the louvers toward us or away from us and take out all the ceiling reflections on the desk surfaces."

Exteriors provided their own sets of challenges. After scouting sites in California and Florida, Weir's wife Wendy Stites, who served as visual consultant on the film, found an ideal spot on the coast of the Florida panhandle called Seaside. An 80-acre (32 hectares) planned community, Seaside comprises more than 300 cottages with a unique building code: each house is required to adhere to a 19th-century Southern style of architecture, and every home features a white picket fence, though no two fences on the same street are alike.

In this well-lit, well-scrubbed location, Biziou faced two obstacles. First, the entire town is situated on a south-facing coast, so on every sunny day there was blazing direct sunlight. In addition, all of the buildings in Seaside (named Seahaven in the film) were either white or very pale pastel colors, thereby creating extremes of bright sunlight and bright reflecting surfaces everywhere.

"The contrast ratio was quite extreme," Biziou explains. "It would have been too hard to battle it. We wanted the sunlight, and as much as possible, we wanted the intense blue skies, which would help take us toward that slightly super-real look."

The solution: Key grip Chris Centrella and the electrical department built Biziou several 40-sq.-ft. (3.6 sq. m) white scrims, mounted on manlifts that electricians could drive around. "On practically every setup we'd wheel in two, three, or four of these enormous white reflectors, bank them down the street, and put them around the shoot," says Biziou. "What this did was bounce back and give us a volume of fill light into shadow areas everywhere. When there's intense blue sky around, the shadows tend to pick up that blue, which is not always very attractive. But by being in this location, it actually helped us to find the look we were going for by filling back a lot of soft light, which meant we could stop down to quite extraordinary apertures, shooting around 11 for all the exteriors." He also used Kodak EXR 5248 film stock to enhance the contrast even further.

Night exteriors on most films employ trusty Musco Lights to get a large volume of illumination over a large distance. On The Truman Show, Biziou's chief electrician, Kevin Murphy, suggested something called Lumacasters, or Bam Bams. Designed by gaffer Ian Kincaid and former gaffer turned DP Dave DuBois, Lumacasters are made up of 108 PAR-36 globes and are distributed by Hollywood, CA-based Paskal Lighting.

"They're built sort of like lightweight Dino Lights," explains Murphy. "They're aluminum construction, so two guys can mount a light on a stand. We'd p ut two together at night usually; if we were on a beach we'd put three together. We'd hard-mount them onto a 110'-135' (34-41m) construction crane and kick them out about 15 degrees, so we could aim the lights."

Truman turns up missing one night, and Christof orders a search party to cover the entire town. For that scene, Biziou and Murphy placed two Bam Bams on a tall crane that covered the entire plaza area of downtown Seahaven. "We weren't trying to make it look like moonlight," says Biziou. "It was the sort of lighting control you'd expect Christof to have--if he wanted to see, he'd just bring up a big bright moon. There was something almost synthetic about it."

The Bam Bams were used to more spectacular effect when Christof does the unthinkable and orders daylight to arrive on the town in the middle of the night. For that, Centrella designed a system where three of the Bam Bams were hooked up to 1' box truss, attached to a crane with an accelerating hoist, and placed behind a large black scrim. "We then literally raised those lamps in the air about 90' (27m) in four or five seconds," says Biziou, "so you got this edge of light sweeping down the buildings and across the courtyards. We had debated doing it digitally, but it would have been so hard with so many people in their positions. It worked out really well this way."

"It sounds more complicated than it is," Murphy adds, "but Chris happened to know how to do it. When you see it you go, 'Ohhh!' It's just a question of putting the right pulleys and blocks in the right place."

Late in the film, Truman bravely attempts to escape from the island on a sailboat; to stop him, Christof orders a button pushed from his control room that unleashes a terrible (but manmade) storm. Filmed over a two-week period in an outdoor tank on the Universal lot in Hollywood, Biziou and key grip Centrella needed to devise a way to keep the boat shaded from the glaring California sun. "Normally, it is suggested that you use smoke and rain to diffuse the sunlight, but I really wasn't happy having to put ourselves in nature's hands so much," the DP explains. "Even if you create enough smoke and rain to wipe out the sun, you're not making the amount you need for your visual effects. And then what would happen if we suddenly had a flat, overcast day? How would we then find a balance?"

Their solution was eventually dubbed the Cloudmaker. "Chris agreed to design a very large scrim for me, about 100'x60' (30x18m) on a massive tubular frame," says Biziou. "He then hoisted this monster frame with one of the largest mobile cranes you can get, about 250' (76m) high, and we got this wonderful soft light. It cut the harsh sunlight, but it also glowed and gave us a very soft overall light. And it gave us consistency throughout: If the sun was out, we used it; if it was cloudy we just took it away. And as the sun moved, Chris would just move the crane with it. He also worked out the specifications so that it wouldn't be a danger for anyone; with an object that size, if a 10mph wind comes along you can lift an aircraft carrier with it."

If nothing else, The Truman Show may become known in the lighting industry as the first film in which a spotlight gets the spotlight. Early in the movie, as Truman leaves his house to go to work, an object mysteriously falls from the sky onto the street in front of his house. He goes to inspect the object and finds that it is a light--a Cinemills CMC 1,200W SE, to be exact. The space above Truman's house is nothing but a series of rigs and PAR cans, cleverly concealed by Christof to resemble a bright blue sky; the instrument is explained away on Truman's car radio as a light that has fallen from a passing plane!

"The script described something falling from the sky, and Peter offered four different objects to various people and asked them to pick the most interesting," Biziou explains. "The general consensus, and Peter's final decision, was that lamp. It looked like a nice bright object. It had to be something the public would see as undeniably filmic, rather than just a strange glass object."

CMC 1200W SE, call your agent.