I have worked with Mike Connor on many projects over what seems like an enormous period of time. In retrospect, perhaps it was after working on some of the Mulino Bianco commercials in the early 90's that our desire to raise the bar for visual effects for films in Italy was born.
I had spoken, around that time, with the artistic director of the Venice Film Festival, Gillo Pontecorvo. He was very much in agreement that most Italian filmmakers did not know what could be done with digital technologies, a thesis advocated by Maria Grazie Mattei, and who had put me in touch with the famous director. So he suggested we take charge of the beautiful Salone degli Specchi at the Hotel Excelsior in Venice, and spend time during the Festival explaining our work, showing that it was not just about creating dinosaurs like those in Jurassic Park; and explaining that digital visual effects can also save money and offer spectacular virtual sets.
As soon as I explained the possibility that Gillo and Maria Grazie Mattei had offered us, Mike enthusiastically agreed to bring his Motion Control equipment to Venice, so he could show the directors what could be done by shooting and post-producing using that equipment.
Well, the ten-day demonstration turned out to be a success, in fact we didn't have to wait long before we were asked to take part in a major film project. The first Italian director to understand the potential of motion control, and to wanted to use digital techniques, was Giuseppe Tornatore. He told me that he wanted to make his next film 'The Legend of the Pianist' look like a film with an international budget, even though he didn't have a large budget. He had understood how virtual sets could offer the creative solutions he was looking for, and at a reduced cost compared to construction costs etc. So, the story board artist got busy after Giuseppe's creative explanations, and I discussed with Mike how we could do the visual effects and virtual sets for all of these.
In the end we worked on some 450 shots, for which I put together a temporary consortium of post production companies in Europe. It would take a small book to explain everything, but suffice it to say that we discussed many different scenes with Giuseppe at the table and then realised them on set.
Many of the scenes were particularly fascinating, and one of the most inspiring was, without a doubt, the piano dance. In this scene, Tim Roth sees his trumpet player friend suffering from seasickness because the Virginian is in the middle of a violent Atlantic storm. Tim Roth suggests to his friend to take the brakes off the piano and come and sit with him. The trumpet player, played by Pruitt Taylor Vince, says the idea is madness, but eventually allows himself to be convinced.
Thus begins one of Giuseppe's many brilliant creative ideas, the grand piano dancing to the rhythm of the stormy ocean, and our trumpet player friend gradually feels better, even sipping a bottle of champagne grabbed from a passing table.
There were several meetings with Giuseppe, and with the film's set designer Francesco Friggeri, to decide how to realise this scene. In the old days we knew that the great Fellini had used a hydraulic platform to move the set, but this was not very practical for the ship's 1,000 square metre first class salon. At the very least it would have taken some engineering, time to build, and a substantial amount of money. Giuseppe also explained that the piano with our pianist and trumpeter would have to break through a decorative glass wall at the end of the scene and fly down a narrow corridor before crashing into the captain's cabin.
We all talked about it together, and came to the conclusion that it would make more sense to move the camera, not the set. Especially since Mike could program his motion control to create the rolling and pitching of the ship, allowing the very skilled camera operator Enrico Lucidi to follow and dynamically frame the dancing piano. The piano itself was moved by men dressed in green who pulled or pushed it along with our actors, always staying behind the protagonists and the piano in the 23 shots in which we broke up the sequence.
We prepared an audio tape with timecode so that we could run motion control at precise points, and to give playback to Tim Roth. We shot empty shots with the same camera movement to make post production very simple.
Giuseppe wanted an animatic of the scene and we submitted it to the great Ennio Morricone for his opinion, especially in sync with his music. Ennio wanted it to be a little faster, and we satisfied him.