Cinematographer
15 June 2001
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The Spectacle of 'Moulin Rouge'
By Catherine Feeny

"Moulin Rouge" grew out of a mind as fickle and eclectic as the film itself. Director/co-writer Baz Luhrmann had a vision of Montmarte and the Moulin Rouge that defied storyboarding; it was a mood, a movement, an era. And that made visual effects supervisor Chris Godfrey's job challenging, at the best of times. "Itís incredibly worrying to go to work in the morning and not know what your problems are," Godfrey said. "Itís also quite exhilarating."

The film tells the story of a young poet, Christian (Ewan McGregor), and his affair with a famed Can-Can dancer (Nicole Kidman). The couple's burgeoning love becomes verboten when Satine (Kidman) promises herself to the slimy Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh), who offers her prosperity and acclaim in return. Throw in Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo), a campy score and visuals ranging from silly to sublime, and you've got a taste of "Moulin Rouge."

Godfrey, a principal of Australian effects house Animal Logic, was recommended to Luhrmann by Fred Chandler at FOX. Godfrey had supervised the FOX release "The Thin Red Line" and was based in Australia, where much of "Moulin Rouge" would be shot. However when Godfrey walked onto the set of the musical, he was greeted with skepticism. Cinematographer Donald McAlpine, (ASC, ACS) asked Godfrey what he was doing on the film. "I told him I was the visual effects supervisor, and he told me I would have very little to do on this film," Godfrey laughed.

Despite the fact that the original breakdowns called for 300 VFX shots, observers were incredulous about the mix of music and visual effects. Early in the production it looked as though they might be correct. As Godfrey was on the way home from a production meeting, the director called him with bad news. They'd had to cut the budget in all areas, and the visual effects shot count would be slashed to 75. "I told him I was still game, and we ended up with more than 400 shots," Godfrey said. For a film without a spaceship or a car chase, that's a hefty number.

Luhrmann didn't initially intend to include many outdoor shots of Paris. But as production progressed, the film began to feel claustrophobic. "The whole thing was being shot inside stages," said Godfrey. "We didn't have any wide shots. We never had the money or the space to actually build the front of the Moulin Rouge with the windmill attached at full scale."

Enter The Mill, which did motion-control photography of the miniatures that make up Paris -- models that were never intended to be shot closeup. "It only became necessary to get close to them and bring in the motion-control unit when he (Luhrmann) realized that the claustrophobic feeling was overwhelming," Godfrey explained. The shots of the area surrounding the Moulin Rouge accounted for a large portion of the expanded VFX shot count.

The miniatures materialize toward the end of the opening sequence, when the camera pulls up from Paris and into Christian's room. The models were made to represent Paris, glittering in the distance. But as the pan over Paris became more integral to the opening sequence, it became clear that the VFX team needed to illustrate the relationship between Christian's room and the Moulin Rouge.

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The pan over Paris hinges on what Godfrey calls the "postcard effect." Luhrmann and Godfrey used a transition from 2D to 3D to enhance the theatrical nature of the scene, which opens with the parting of curtains. Luhrmann developed the concept of using the camera to pull out from a postcard, and Godfrey expanded upon that, flattening the elements of Paris to 2D. Godfrey's team at Animal Logic Film used hundreds of small texture mattes to bring the flats to life.

The Animal Logic Film team brought the 2D elements into a 3D environment using Softman (an in-house Softimage to Renderman converter) and added 3D water, lighting effects and smoke. Then they put the elements into what Godfrey called 2 1/2D -- squeezing 3D images in the Z plane. As the virtual camera gets closer to individual buildings, they pop into a fully 3D space. Godfrey did a 3D scan of the miniatures and choreographed the ride through the streets of Paris in 3D

Chris Bone, Justen Marshall and David Dulac did the R&D that formed the basis of digital Paris. The team used a proprietary plug-in to create the city, which consisted of six different building types to which different textures, architectural details and heights could be applied. Not having to model each building individually saved a substantial amount of time, as did rendering the flats in 2D rather than 3D.

Because of the organic nature of the project, Godfrey shot as much footage and as many stills as he could. He shot all of the visual effects footage spherical (which gives more vertical and horizontal image space than anamorphic) to allow for more play in the cinematography. Godfrey found that the more he could offer, of anything, the happier Lurmann was. "There was a feeling, on occasion, that more was never enough," he said. "There was a shot at the end that was a big particle animation of the heart exploding into 100,000 little pieces. I showed it to Baz, saying 'I think I might have gone too far.' He said, 'You did good,' and walked away."

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Another major effects shot in the film is the pull-up from Satine as she lay dying in Christian's arms. The couple was one element, the men in the fly foor another, the crowd a third and the Duke was a fourth element; as the camera pulls into the snow falling on the rooftops of the Monmarte, the buildings are models in front of a distant 3D Paris. Toulouse Lautrec, singing on the roof of the Moulin Rouge, was an element to be tracked into the model shot. Of course, Lautrec is an effect whenever he is seen in the film, given that that the actor portraying the artist is not 4-foot 11-inches tall. "When I was brought on, everybody was laughing about the fact that my job would be to put CG legs on this character. There was not a chance in the world that CG legs would work because this man had to dance and interact and cast a shadow," Godfrey said. Instead, Leguizamo kneeled in prosthetic legs for much of the film. The digital team then went into the shots and erased his real legs. For the dance scene early in the film, the one scene in which that method wouldn't work, Godfrey shot the background as a separated pass, then cheated the camera up eight inches when he was shooting Leguizamo and morphed his legs up in the frame.

After parsing shots out to Animal Logic Film, Asylum Visual Effects and Digital Filmworks, Godfrey had one last sequence that no one had the capacity to handle. Cinesite agreed to create a sparkly sky for a kiss sequence, but were surprised when Luhrmann had them re-do the shot three times. Godfrey was ecstatic. He asked the producer, "Isn't that great? Only three times!"

Godfrey admired Luhrmann's willingness to start over as many times as were necessary to get the right shot. "He wanted perfection, and so did I," he said. Part of the challenge, however, was figuring out what the director considered perfection. "The biggest problem that my producer (Holly Radcliffe) and I had was trying to keep all of the balls in the air. We had to lock off as late as possible on all of the scenes, so everybody had work in progress. At one point Animal Logic Film had more than 100 shots going," Godfrey said. It is fitting that the brilliantly manic energy of the film springs from a production process that must have felt, at times, like chaos.

Godfrey also pointed out that Luhrmann had an extremely collaborative approach to filmmaking -- the director sees himself more as an arbiter of taste than an initiator. Luhrmann has built a team of artists with whom he works consistently, including editor Jill Bilcock, cinematographer Donald McAlpine and production/costume designer Catherine Martin, who is also his wife. "Baz is great at assimilating concepts," Godfrey said. In fact his ability to learn quickly sometimes posed a challenge to the VFX supervisor. "By the end of the film he knew enough about effects to be amazingly dangerous," Godfrey smiled.

From the beginning of the project, Luhrmann emphasized that he wanted the effects, along with the rest of the film, to look handmade. It was an usual prospect for Godfrey. He yielded to it, happy to work on a film that did not look as if it were being made on a computer. "The effects have a different feel -- there is definitely a texture and a time to them," he said. What they were working toward, and what they achieved, was sort of a perfect imperfection.