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Lights, Camera… Hollywood Glamour Meets 1970s Liverpool

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Whether you're watching a post-apocalyptic thriller, film noir, or period drama, lighting is one of the elements that helps convince you of what you're watching. It is one of the many devices used by cinematographers, directors of photography and lighting gaffers to pull viewers deeper into the fictitious world and immerse them in the story.

This was especially true for BAFTA-nominated biopic 'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool'. Directed by Paul McGuigan ('Wicker Park; Lucky Number Slevin'; 'Victor Frankenstein'), the film is based on the memoir of Peter Turner. The story follows the romance between a Hollywood leading lady, Annette Bening ('American Beauty'; 'The Women'; 'The Search') and a young actor, Jamie Bell ('Billy Elliot'; 'Fantastic Four'; '6 Days'). It takes place in the late 1970s in Liverpool, and bringing this unique point in time to life was the job of McGuigan, director of photography Urszula Pontikos ('Humans'; 'Glue'; 'Second Coming') and VFX consultant Stefan Lange ('Casino Royale'; 'Mission Impossible'; 'Batman').

Mr Lange, a long-time proponent of the innovative Rotolight LED range, carries with him a small inventory of equipment, including a pair of the Anova PRO studio and location lights and a set of three NEO 2 on-camera lights.

"These lights are something that I would never be without," explained Mr Lange. "The Rotolights are versatile, powerful and with the convenience of being battery powered, they are portable and easy to use. I've also always been a fan of the Anova PRO with its CineSFX™ feature."

CineSFX is Rotolight's patented set of customisable special effects that enables users to simulate lighting situations such as lightning, police sirens, gunshots and paparazzi. In the company's newest light — the Anova PRO 2 — these effects have been improved to offer enhanced realism and the light features a brand new "chase" effect, which emulates the effect of motion on static sets.

On set, the Anova PRO was used in the cinema scene within the film — where Gloria (Bening) and Peter (Bell) watch the 1979 sci-fi thriller 'Alien'. The director wanted to project the film's flicker onto the faces of the audience and the unique 'film' SFX feature within the Anova PRO allowed him to do so.

There was quite an elaborate set-up in a cinema location, which captured the ambience of a movie theatre beautifully, but rather too beautifully. That all important story-telling flicker effect wasn’t very strong. The director and DOP wanted more close-up shots in the scene, which led to a discussion about needing more flicker on the actors’ faces.

"Using the CineSFX feature on the Anova PRO, we just flicked a switch and generated the randomised 'film' effect we needed. There were no additional cables needed, no time wasted, just an instant solution with an easily adjustable dial to help us get the correct, subtle effect. The light is fast to modify, quick to move and powerful enough to light a substantial area, even with full white diffusion. For me, one of the main benefits of using the Rotolight LEDs has always been their portability and convenience, and this was clearly demonstrated on-set with this scene," said Mr Lange.

Director Paul McGuigan was keen to use traditional visual effect methods that were contemporary with the period of the film and the lead character's earlier career.

In later scenes, like the live action exterior shots and car driving scenes, the team used a rear projection technique instead of blue/green screen process work. The Rotolight NEOs were used to supplement the lighting package, and the use of the CineSFX feature helped give the scene a more dynamic feel.

"In driving scenes, for example, where DOP Urszula Pontikos had moving lamps, we used NEOs as some of the static lights using the flicker effect in the SFX suite to help create that scene-changing effect.  We also found the Designer Fade™ feature particularly useful to fade up from zero output to 100% and back again to zero. It allowed a handheld lamp to be moved and create a shifting shadow — but with a source that came from nowhere, and simply went away again. It created a seamless effect and makes the light very nice to work with."

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool also stars Julie Walters ('Calendar Girls'; 'Mamma Mia!'; 'Paddington') and Vanessa Redgrave ('Call the Midwife'; 'Letters to Juliet'; 'Atonement') and was nominated in the Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Screenplay (adapted) categories in this year’s BAFTAs.

By Rod Aaron Gammons, MD of Rotolight

This article is also available in the April edition of Broadcast Film & Video.
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