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Motion Control and Visual Effects

A note from David Bush a VFX supervisor... 

With Mike, 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 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 during the Venice Film Festival and spend time explaining to many of them that there was a whole lot more to cgi than making dinosaurs like those in Jurassic Park; digital visual effects and cgi 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.


Making of Toshiba

Making of Toshiba

Well, the ten days of continuous demonstrations were 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 explained to me that he wanted to make his upcoming film "The Legend of the Pianist" look like a film produced with a rich budget, yet he didn't have loads of money. So, I asked him to explain what he wanted. I worked at discussing story boards with him, and discussed with Mike how we could make these visual effects and virtual sets.

Images and stills from the "LEGEND OF THE PIANIST ON THE OCEAN"

Resolving some of the production issues led us to end up working on some 450 shots, and, to manage this volume of work I put together a temporary consortium of Domino Owners and operators around Europe to work on them.


It would take a small book to explain all, but suffice to say, we discussed many different scenes with Giuseppe, and helped make them happen on set. The task was helped by the stimulating noble creative heart of the film - a story about the loneliness of the Artist amongst many other things. and, of course, the kind of timeless material of an Oscar winner such as Giuseppe.


Many of the scenes were particularly fascinating, and amongst these a particularly stimulating scene was the piano dance. In it Tim Roth sees his friend the trumpeter suffering from sea sickness, due to the fact that 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 carry out the operation.


So starts one of many brilliant creative ideas of Giuseppe, the grand piano dances with the rhythm of the Ocean and our friend the trumpeter gradually feels better, alleviated by swigs at a passing champagne bottle. 

We held 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 in Cinecittà to move the set on his film "And the Ship sails on", but this wasn't very practical for the 1000 square meter first class saloon of the ship. At the very least it would have taken some engineering, time to construct and a substantial sum of money.


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.


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 accurately by Tim Roth, and we shot empty plates of the background without the piano so that post production was almost as simple as painting by numbers!

David Bush.


Images and stills from the "VAJONT"