(L-R) Carla Gugino, AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig, and Dwayne Johnson in a scene from Race to Witch Mountain. (Photo by Ron Phillips © 2008 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.)
Race to Witch Mountain, which is available this August on DVD, is an extremely complex, effects-laden film that required cinematographer Greg Gardiner to maintain a realistic, grounded look throughout a fantastical thrill-ride of a storyline. The film, produced by Walt Disney Pictures, required thorough planning and a very close collaboration with director Andy Fickman and production designer David Bomba. The filmmakers created a number of strange, yet recognizable environments. In some cases, the surroundings were industrial, including a series of underground tunnels, and in other cases, more organic, such as a grotto full of alien plant experiments.
|(L-R) Cinematographer Greg Gardiner and director Andy Fickman on the set of Race to Witch Mountain. (Photo by Ron Phillips © 2008 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.)|
"Race to Witch Mountain is the most farfetched real movie you will find," Gardiner says. "It was my job to find practical ways to achieve very complicated shots while lending the images mood and believability."
In the story, a disillusioned Las Vegas wheel man-turned-cabbie finds a couple of kids who urgently need a ride, and have the cash to get his attention. The kids are actually aliens being chased by malefactors from another planet. The chase leads to Witch Mountain, a secret government facility. That's just the beginning The 65-day shoot took place on sets at Disney Studios in Burbank in existing tunnels underneath the lot, in warehouses in Santa Clarita, California, and at exterior locations near Las Vegas, among many other places. The project employed extensive bluescreen and greenscreen composite shots, but Gardiner believes in doing as much of the practical effects work as possible in camera.
"It is part of keeping things grounded," he says. "When a movie has too much computer graphics, it can start to look like a CG movie, and it loses a sense of reality."
Gardiner used Panavision cameras and shot in four-perf Super 35mm format, resulting in a 2.4:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The majority of the film was photographed on KODAK VISION3 500T 5219 film. "This new film brings more contrast to the images," says Gardiner. "The visual effects team found that the grain was fine enough for us to shoot effects elements with it, making matching and low-light situations easier and faster."
There were three major interiors where Gardiner used KODAK VISION2 200T 5217 film as part of a strategy to keep the look dark and moody with smooth, rich blacks. He also used KODAK VISION2 100T 5212 film for bright, highly-detailed exteriors in the desert.
Gardiner designed interactive lighting for many sequences, including a spaceship attack where the ship and its "missiles" were tied to the on-set photography by five different lighting elements, some of which were flown on Libra heads and Technocranes.
Another typically complex sequence takes place in a grotto deep underneath Witch Mountain. The grotto, a built set, is filled with "pods" that are biochemistry experiments being conducted by the aliens. The pods contained LED lighting made by Production Resource Group (PRG) that was computer controlled and constantly undulating. Overhead were more than 50 Mole top lights, each with one of three different gels ranging from blue to aquamarine. This edged the plants below with an ethereal glow.
Another scene starts in a room where convention attendees are treated to a tacky simulation of red Mars light. The alien kids use their powers to suddenly transform the room into an amazing, out-of-body experience of the cosmos. Gardiner created the transformation by using a PRG rig used in rock-and-roll lighting that fed video to a semi-circular matrix of LED panels. He pulled images of planets off the Internet, and applied a complex color spectrum. The otherworldly images evolved and changed colors to Gardiner's cues.
But the most conventional scenes, where characters interact, are what Gardiner finds most fulfilling. "I love action but I think audiences don't really begin connecting to the movie until they get to know the characters," he says. "Without some foundation in reality, the fantastical elements lose their impact."