The American Society of Cinematographers

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The lavish musical Nine, photographed by Dion Beebe, ASC, ACS, pays homage to Fellini’s landmark film 8 1/2.

Unit photography by David James, SMPSP
Based on the Tony Award-winning musical that opened on Broadway in 1982, the new film Nine marks the latest collaboration between director Rob Marshall and cinematographer Dion Beebe, ASC, ACS, who first teamed on Chicago (AC Feb. ’03). The story, inspired by Federico Fellini’s autobiographical film , concerns a movie director, Guido Contini (played by Daniel Day-Lewis), whose professional and personal crises collide through a series of real and imagined encounters with the significant women in his life.    

“Rob knew he wanted to make another musical, and he was considering a number of different projects,” recalls Beebe, who also shot Memoirs of a Geisha for the director (AC Jan. ’06). “Nine is essentially a narrative drama with an amazing cast [including Nicole Kidman, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench and Sophia Loren], and the material had a lot of visual potential. Guido is a famous but tortured director who can’t cope with situations of his own making. He’s on the verge of a breakdown, and his escape into fantasy becomes our language to transition between musical numbers and the unfolding drama.”   

To help prepare for the project, Beebe screened several of Fellini’s films, including , “but we were very careful to not reference that film directly,” he says. “All of Fellini’s films are so original, and no one could ever remake . We looked for the spirit and imagination of his approach. What also became important for us was how to best re-create 1960s Italy in today’s North London.”   

Nine was shot mostly onstage at Shepperton Studios, with some location work done in and around London, followed by a month of location work in Rome. Beebe’s main camera crew comprised A-camera/Steadicam operator George Richmond, 1st AC Jonathan Richmond, gaffer John “Biggles” Higgins and B-camera operator Damien Beebe, the cinematographer’s brother.   

The Panavised Arri camera package — Arricam Studios and Lites and Arri 235s — was supplied by Panavision U.K. “I knew I wanted to use the [Arri] 235 for some handheld work,” explains Beebe, “and I also wanted to stick with Panavision Primo lenses because I like how they handle looking directly into lights and the way they handle flares.”    

In order to maximize shooting time on the musical numbers, Beebe usually worked with multiple cameras and zoom lenses. “We always had two to three camera units going on the bigger numbers, and on two songs we ran four cameras,” he recalls. “Most of the movie, about 75 percent, was shot from 30-foot and 50-foot Technocranes with Scorpio Stabilized Heads, Arrow jibs and dollies. I’d say about 5 percent was shot with a Steadicam, and the rest was handheld. We used handheld on the story elements to retain the energy when we were transitioning in and out of the musical numbers.”   

George Richmond recalls, “Typically, we’d shoot a number in London over two to four days and then move on to other scenes to give the art department some time to turn the set around. We’d tech-rehearse and finesse lighting over a couple of days and then run the number from beginning to end for the cameras. We’d start with a wide-angle pass, then do medium and close passes. Finally, we’d come in for specific moments we didn’t get from those three perspectives.”   

Nine was shot in 3-perf Super 35mm for a final aspect ratio of 2.40:1. “The most obvious reason to shoot 3-perf is to save a little money, of course, but it also made sense because we knew we’d finish with a digital intermediate,” says Beebe. “With Super 35, you never use that extra portion of the negative, anyway; the only thing you lose is the ability to rack up and down in post, but I’m happy to make that commitment to the framing.”   

Some portions of the story are Guido’s flashbacks to his childhood, and these are presented in black-and-white. Marshall and Beebe advocated shooting on black-and-white negative instead of the more common practice of shooting color and draining the color out in post. Beebe explains, “We wanted to create a language to distinguish Guido’s actual memories from his fantasies, and shooting real black-and-white was also a nod to the period and Fellini. There’s a very distinct look and grain structure to black-and-white negative that’s hard to emulate with a color negative. I felt it was a difference worth fighting for, and Rob agreed. Our first day of shooting was a flashback sequence set on the beach at Camber Sands in Sussex. When [producer] Harvey Weinstein saw the dailies, he said we’d made the right choice.”   

The principal challenge of Nine was enacting its 14 musical numbers, all of which are set primarily in a massive soundstage — H Stage, the largest stage at Shepperton. “The big question for Rob, [choreographer] John De Luca, [costume designer] Colleen Atwood, [production designer] John Myhre and myself was how to have all those numbers play out in one space and keep things fresh. We found ways to change the architecture of the space by adding specific set pieces for specific songs, building the choreography around certain parts of the set and creating multiple lighting changes.”   

As he did on Chicago, Beebe enlisted a theatrical-lighting specialist to assist with the musical numbers. “We brought on Mike Baldassari, who’d worked with Rob on a revival of Cabaret on Broadway,” says the cinematographer. “Mike and I collaborated to plot out the lighting and technically achieve each number on our budget prior to commencing any of the pre-light. We dropped in a massive grid to accommodate all the different numbers.”   

“I suggested to Dion that we set up a large truss layout comprised of single ‘sticks’ of truss,” says Baldassari. “We decided which types of fixtures we wanted on each stick, as though we had an unlimited amount of gear. Each stick was rigged and cabled to be completely independent, so we could customize the lighting plot for each number. For example, after we saw the choreography for the opening number, Dion suggested adding two circle trusses, which we also used in two other numbers to give us a different kind of motion from the moving lights and to make the grid more song-specific. Everything was drafted in CAD by Kristina Kloss using Vectorworks Spotlight.” The lighting system was patched through an MA lighting network comprising a full-sized GrandMa board, a GrandMa light, four network signal processors that distributed the commands from Ethernet to DMX, and numerous laptop links into the network. Peter Lambert, a West End theatrical-production electrician, installed and maintained the massive system.   

“The set needed to feel like a 1960s soundstage, so we kept the modern units hidden above the period gantry-type fixtures up in the ceiling,” notes Beebe. “Everything was broken into two principal hangings because we didn’t have time to re-hang everything after each number. The first accommodated five or six numbers, the second another five or six numbers, and finally, we did specific hangs for the last few numbers.”   

The film’s opening number, “Overture,” proved to be one of the most complex to plan out because it required most of the cast to be onstage at the same time. “It was a daunting task to begin with, and what added to the challenge was keeping the volume of the space without anything feeling repetitious,” says Beebe. “The song introduces the style of the movie. We start with the dark and atmospheric outline of an incomplete set, which magically comes to life through Guido’s imagination as he sits alone on a camera crane. One large Vari-Lite floor unit projects a silhouette of Claudia Jensen [Kidman], Guido’s muse. She is completely backlit as she steps into a toplight, and then we gradually introduce the frontal spotlight. Claudia steps down and kisses Guido, and that sparks a musical cue that causes the set to come alive. We slowly push into Guido’s face as multiple lighting cues reveal the stage. But before we’re able to escape into his fantasy, he is interrupted, and we abruptly return to reality.”  

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