Philippe Rousselot, ASC, AFC reteams with director Tim Burton on the whimsical fantasy Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

In the 1920s, a 13-year-old boy of Norwegian extraction was sent to an elite English boarding school. He was horrified by the tyrannical cruelty of adolescent prefects and adult teachers alike. “I was appalled,” he wrote many years later, “by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely. I never got over it.” The only bright spot he found in the gloomy world of the British “public school” was the nearby Cadbury factory, which occasionally enrolled the schoolboys to test new chocolate bars.

The schoolboy, Roald Dahl, grew up to become a writer of children’s books, and his teenaged fantasies about working in a Cadbury laboratory, and the possible cruelty of children and adults, inspired Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, first published in 1964. The book’s blend of dark fantasy and quirky humor has enthralled young readers for decades, and it spawned a popular film adaptation in 1971, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

This month will see the release of a new adaptation of the book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, directed by Tim Burton and shot by Philippe Rousselot, ASC, AFC. Burton’s work ranges widely from the violent comedy of Mars Attacks! to the fairytale fantasy of Edward Scissorhands, and Rousselot notes that “the encounter between Dahl and Burton is pretty exceptional, a very good marriage. Tim wanted to be very close to the spirit of Dahl; he didn’t want to make a nice film for kids. Dahl is very ironic about childhood and the world of adults, and Tim wanted to preserve that. He wanted to make a film for children that is not childish.”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is Rousselot’s third picture with Burton, after Big Fish and Planet of the Apes (see AC Aug. ’01). The French cinematographer is renowned for the elegant, sophisticated lighting he has brought to films that include French avant-garde projects and Hollywood fantasies. His credits include Constantine (AC April ’05), Antwone Fisher, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Merci la vie, Too Beautiful for You and The Emerald Forest. Rousselot earned Academy Award nominations for Henry & June (AC May ’91) and Hope and Glory, and he won the Oscar for A River Runs Through It (AC June ’93). He has garnered three ASC Award nominations, for Dangerous Liaisons (AC May ’89), The Bear and A River Runs Through It.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory recounts the story of Charlie, a poor, good-hearted boy who lives in the shadow of Willy Wonka’s impressive chocolate factory. Isolated from his own family, Wonka launches a worldwide contest to select an heir to his candy empire. Five lucky children, including Charlie, draw golden tickets from Wonka chocolate bars and win a guided tour of the candy-making facility, which no outsider has seen in 15 years. Each child brings a parent, and the group is guided by Wonka through an amazing series of giant rooms in the mysterious factory. The chocolatier’s workers are short, impish beings called Oompa Loompas, who punctuate the many twists and turns of the tour with music and dance.

The production built a variety of dazzling sets onstage at Pinewood Studios in England. Rousselot spent eight weeks in preproduction at Pinewood and recalls that much of the communication with Burton was indirect. “Tim and I spoke very little. He is not someone who likes to talk a lot — he gives you a few key words. He said, for example, ‘Everything that is candies and sweets has to look very appetizing.’ In a way, that sufficed, because once I understood that, I knew how to proceed, or at least what I needed to discover.

“Obviously, Tim is very visual,” he continues. “He and the production designer, Alex McDowell, gave me an enormous amount of visual information in the form of drawings and other images. The walls of my office in Pinewood were covered by colored images of the characters and the sets in different versions and formats. From time to time, we’d look at them with Tim and he’d indicate which looks he preferred, and we spoke very precisely about technical issues. I started to feel a little guilty — I thought, ‘Here I am, preparing a very big film but having very few conversations with the director.’ But then I realized we’d already made two films together, and if I didn’t know what Tim wanted, it meant that I hadn’t understood anything. So, in fact, there was no need to have exhaustive conversations.”

As he worked on the lighting design, Rousselot often felt he was in uncharted territory. “I couldn’t start looking for images to inspire me — nothing else resembled the visuals from the art department and Tim’s indications for this film! I’d look at the art department’s research for, say, the Chocolate Factory, and a lot of that came from German imaginary architecture of the early 19th century, along the lines of Metropolis. But I couldn’t tell myself that I was going to make a German Expressionist film! I started with a blank slate. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory wasn’t a visual reference because it’s incredibly dated. There are films like The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, but they belong to an era when Hollywood films were made very differently.”

The largest of McDowell’s surreal sets was the Chocolate Room, a grassy expanse divided by a chocolate waterfall and river and dotted by candy trees. Rousselot started with a “crazy idea”: to shoot and light the gargantuan set, which was built on Pinewood’s “007 Stage,” without actually touching it. “This was one of my fantasies from the start,” he recalls. “The set was very impractical for shooting because it was all curves and extraordinarily fragile — as soon as you stepped onto the grass, you destroyed it. So I started out with the twisted idea of doing most of the shots with a Cablecam to avoid putting down a flat, tracks and a dolly. With the Cablecam — a system with two wires that cover the X and Y axes and an additional capability for a Z axis that can go up and down — you can theoretically put the camera anywhere in the set.”

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.