With Mike Connor I have worked on many different projects over what seems like a vast amount of time. Thinking back, perhaps it was after having worked on some of the Mulino Bianco Commercials together in Italy that our desire to raise the benchmark in visual effects for films too matured.
I had spoken to the Venice Film Festival's Art Director Gillo Pontecorvo round about then. He agreed that most Italian film directors had little knowledge of what could be done using digital technologies, so he suggested we take over the beautiful Salone degli Specchi of the Excelsior Hotel in Venice, and spend time explaining to many of them that there was a whole lot more than making dinosaurs like those in Jurassic Park; digital visual effects could mean saving money and offering spectacular virtual sets too.
As soon as I explained the possibility that Gillo had offered to us, Mike enthusiastically agreed to bring his motion control systems to Venice so that we could show directors what could be done shooting and post producing with real equipment there and then.
Well, to put it lightly the ten day demonstration was a success, and we didn't have to wait for long before a major film project would ask us for our services. The first Italian director to understand the potential and to want to use digital techniques was Giuseppe Tornatore. He said to me that he wanted to make his upcoming film "The Legend of the Pianist" look like a film produced with a huge International budget, yet he didn't have that kind of money. So, I asked him to explain what he wanted, and we worked at producing story boards on his creative requirements, discussing with Mike how we could make these visual effects and virtual sets. I could feel very confident with Mike's expert cinemographic and motion control experience, and we came up with numerous solutions to help achieve the goals and save production money overall.
We ended up working on some 450 shots, and I put together a temporary consortium of post production facilities around Europe to work on them. We discussed the, by now, numerous scenes with Giuseppe, and supervised the technical aspects on set.
Many of the scenes were particularly fascinating, and amongst these a particularly stimulating and somewhat challenging scene was the so called "piano dance" scene. In it Tim Roth sees his friend the trumpeter suffering from sea sickness, due to the fact that our ship the "Virginian" is in the middle of a violent Oceanic storm. Tim Roth suggests to his friend to take off the grand piano's brakes, and come and sit with him. The trumpeter, played by Pruitt Taylor Vince, says that the idea is madness, but decides to do as he's told.
So starts one of many brilliant creative ideas of Giuseppe, the grand piano dances with the rythmn of the rolling Ocean and our friend the trumpeter gradually feels better, especially since he takes passing swigs from a champagne bottle.
We held a number of meetings with Giuseppe and the film's production designer Francesco Friggeri about how to make this scene. In the old days we knew that the great Fellini had used a hydraulic platform to move the set, but this wasn't very practical for the 1000 square meter first class saloon in the Virgininan's case. At the very least it would have taken quite some engineering, time to construct and all with a substantial price tag. Giuseppe also expIained that the piano with our pianist and trumpeter had to break through a wall of decorative glass at the end of the scene and fly down a narrow corridor before crashing into the Captain's cabin.
I talked it through with Mike, Giuseppe and Francesco and we mused that it made sense to move the camera and not the set. Especially since Mike could program his motion control rig to create the rolling and pitching of the ship while enabling the brilliant operator Enrico Lucidi to follow and frame dynamically the dancing piano with the traditional "wheels" controls.The piano itself was moved by grips dressed with green costumes who pulled or pushed the piano and our actors so that they were always behind the protagonists and piano in the 23 shots that we had broken the sequence into.
A pre time coded playback track fired off the motion control so that each sequence could be played in playback by Tim Roth, and we shot empty plates of the background without the piano so that post production was very simple.