Images from "The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean" courtesy of New Line, Medusa and Sciarlò

Mike Connor - Motion Control & Visual Effects on films

"The Legend of the Pianist" and "Vajont"

By Kind permission of RAI Cinema & Martinelli Film

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 during the Festival explaining to 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.

David (bottom left) leaning on Mike Connor’s Milo Motion Control rig with extended arm, seen while shooting dam segments for Renzo Martinelli’s film “Vajont”.

In order to create the dam both under construction and finished David and Mike came up with the idea of creating a 1/8 th, segment of the dam, mounting this on semi-circular rails with the same length and width as the top of the real dam, and then shooting it in eight different positions with the same motion control moves.

Mike's suggestion of the extended arm was to enable making camera moves that could go up and over the dam.

In agreement with the production designer Francesco Friggeri this was all done near the actual location so that the backgrounds were shot with the actors in camera and did not, on the whole, require green screens.

This also meant that extras could be multiplied to gtve the illusion that hundreds of workers were busy on the construction aind completion of the dam.

Two dam segments were made as set constructions; one for the dam while under construction, and the other with the completed dam. The lower part of the dam was created by extension in cgi.

For some types of visual effects, and especially those where we try to capture as much as possible in camera, the possibility of making extremely high quality vfx composites on set also makes sound creative and economic sense.

As a visual effects supervisor that has worked for decades with the equivalent of a blindfold over my eyes, I have always dreamt that I would have been able to see all of the elements we had just shot put together. Well, now its become possible, and with a calibrated 6k Apple XDR the completed visual effects can be shown to director and approved, or, if there is a need, re-shot then and there.

Making visual effects directly on set

Mike Connor directs cinematography in 5K and 8K of "My Story" by Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in Dubai. The documentary, directed by Ahmed Kamel, was a World first for the 8K Lab, and was edited and colour graded in a hotel in Dubai as it was being shot. See link.

David supervises visual effects with his assistant Ashish Tyagi in Rajasthan, India for Rose Movies' "The Legend of Drona" Measurements were useful for matching the real and virtual worlds.

David stereo 3d and colour grading in E-Motion, Genoa. A technique  that gives exceptional results, as in painting, to the extent that David's work was recently praised after a test by a very accomplished director as a result that looked like Caravaggio paintings!

Mike director of photography and producer of "Appassionata", a short film that was awarded an Oscar for "Best Foreign Film" at Long Island short film Festival. Exhibited in 29 Festivals Worldwide, including Shanghai.

Mike making an exciting recruitment film for the Swedish Air Force. Made with "Travel to Romantis" producer Patrick von Faber-Castel.