Opening with a Flourish

Some title sequences set up a film’s storyline, whereas others establish a mood. The opening credits for Vanity Fair are more like a haiku: spare, elegant and suggestive. A peacock’s iridescent head fills the screen, followed by a rose, then a female hand closing around a strand of pearls, then a swirling Indian skirt, and then a dry leaf falling into a lily pond. Each fleeting image is presented in extreme close-up against a pitch-black background, and each suggests an underlying theme in Thackeray’s classic novel: the mating dance, surface beauty, the corrupting power of money, Orientalism, the passage of time. “When you’re watching the titles for the first time, these things won’t necessarily resonate,” says Joe Wright of Trollbäck and Company, the New York graphic-design studio that created the title sequence. “But as you watch the film and think back to the titles, the themes start to slide into place.”

Like any good haiku, the sequence looks easy but required great care. “The whole sequence falls flat if every image isn’t just stunning,” notes Jakob Trollbäck, whose firm also designed credits for Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and Hysterical Blindness.

At first, Wright and Trollbäck considered using layered imagery in the transitional shots. They tried shooting through prisms, rippled Plexiglas and other transparent objects that would distort, split or move the image. The aim was to create something dreamlike, as though “you see something that’s real, then reach out and find it’s gone,” says Trollbäck. Despite the beauty of some shots, all but one were rejected. “It seemed cheap, in a way,” explains Wright. “It felt like we were adding effects just for the sake of it.”

But the iconic objects definitely needed to be special, almost “hyper-real,” he adds. “The idea was to have deep depth of field and make these amazing objects come out of the black.” To achieve this, director of photography Declan Quinn decided to use Cine Magic’s Revolution lens on his Arri 435. Often used for tabletop work, the modular lens system has a snorkel configuration that allows for live horizontal panning. “One of the great advantages is that it can be reached out over a table or can ride right on the surface, and the camera body doesn’t get in the way,” says Quinn. “The optics use smaller lenses so you can get more depth of field, creating this sense of a smaller creature’s point of view.”

The Revolution was initially selected in order to film a moth drawn to a flame, an image that was later dropped. “We needed the depth on that tiny macro world,” says Quinn. “Then we decided to shoot the whole sequence with the same lens so it wouldn’t have a jump in perspective.” Different lenses were used only when necessary — to track the peacock’s unpredictable movements, for instance (which required a 10:1 Angenieux zoom), or when the Revolution wasn’t available for a specific shot (in which case Cooke S4s served instead).

The success of the title sequence, which Quinn shot on Kodak Vision2 500T 5218, also depended on perfect lighting. Though the objects needed to be brilliant against a black background, “we didn’t want a harsh spotlight,” says Wright. “We didn’t want it to be theatrical. We wanted a soft, diffuse light, which is really difficult to get just right. It’s not just a matter of getting a few lights and diffusing them.” Says Quinn, “We wanted to use cleaner light than we used in the movie, something with pristine clarity. We wanted a soft side source that would create a nice graphic sense. We used a couple of Maxi-Brutes through heavy gridcloth, and we had to have a lot of stop — we were shooting at T8 to T16, depending.”

The trickiest part was lighting the lily pond. In the credits’ sole moving shot, a leaf gently drops through darkness and hits the calm, dark surface of water, creating ripples that catch a white edge of light. The camera then glides over the pond, revealing lily pads in bloom. To film the shot, Quinn put the camera on a dolly with a Fisher jib arm and Weaver-Steadman underslung head to track over the pond. Because the water’s surface acted like a mirror, everything in the studio had to be meticulously covered. “It took a little time to find all the lighting angles,” says Quinn. “We had a light source just for the ripple, a couple of 10Ks aimed at a 16-by-4-foot white bounce; and a more ambient source for the leaf, a Nine-light Mini-Brute warmed with CTO going into an 8-by-8 piece of white material in the ceiling.” All sources needed to be out of the reflection area of the water, a 9'x15' pond constructed in Ceco Studio in Manhattan. The task was trickier still because of the facility’s low ceiling — approximately 13' to the grid.

In the end, the team got what it wanted: a series of iconic objects with richly textured and lustrous detail. The only thing they couldn’t capture was a shot of the peacock opening its tail feathers in all their glory. Wright notes ruefully that despite the presence of an alluring female peacock, the male subject just wouldn’t strut his stuff: “It was apparently the wrong time of year.”

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.