Posted on Dec 18, 2019
This megamusical has now transferred its feline fantasy to the silver screen, but Cats has caused controversy from the very first trailer…
Words Julian Mitchell / Pictures Universal Pictures
After 8000 performances in London’s West End and over 7000 on New York’s Broadway (and many worldwide productions), it’s time for Cats the movie. There is plenty of precedent for a successful musical to be turned in to a cinematic experience: Oliver!, Chicago, Les Misérables, The Sound of Music, Hairspray, Grease… there’s a big list.
But Cats is different. First, it’s primarily a dance musical and it’s just cats, so you have the anthropomorphic hurdle to cross. And then, how do you stage it?
But all these questions were ones already served up back in 1981 when Cats first opened at the New London Theatre and the following year at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. Definition talked to cinematographer Chris Ross while he was still grading the 1900 shots from the movie (he was actually balancing Rumpleteazer’s white levels at the time).
The initial concept for the movie was to bring the world down to the size of cats
When asked how he got the job on Cats, Ross recalls: “I had finished a movie called Yesterday for Danny Boyle and, behind the scenes, Danny and Tom [Hooper] had a conversation, and I was invited to meet Tom and have a chat.
“One of the things I like to do to trigger conversation is to bring some references to the meeting, so I made a list of things I thought were good for us to talk about. I knew that the film was set in London’s Soho of the late twenties, early thirties – the idea being that it was the back streets of Soho that hadn’t been redeveloped at the time. I’d seen some concept art that production designer Eve Stewart had done, so I pulled together some references for a rain-soaked, neon-and-gas-lit London street of the time. After reading the script, I also read the original TS Eliot poems and read a little bit about the musical. The one thing – if you listen to the songs from the show and the movie – is that it’s a musical journey that Andrew Lloyd Webber is taking himself on. He is exercising his different genres. There’s a charleston-style song, a big sweeping ballad, a jazz tap number – it’s quite eclectic, so I wanted to bring a sense of what that mix of musical influences brings to the table.”
Ross brought some images from influences like Busby Berkeley, An American in Paris, West Side Story, Cabaret, Sweet Charity, Grease, La La Land, The Greatest Showman and the music videos for Lemonade and This Is America. A hugely wide-ranging list of dance and musical material. “I wanted to create a list of what’s common and what’s iconic, and how do those two worlds collide?”
The initial concept for the movie was to bring the world down to the size of cats, which meant creating an oversized world. Ross explains the process. “We had to then calculate the size of things like double beds, dining room tables, that kind of thing. If you’re going to make a film based on scaling something, then the best reference for that is Toy Story. I also brought a bunch of images from Toy Story and it was like, ‘This is how you make a world inhabited by little creatures’. We had a great meeting and Tom invited me to join him on the adventure. It was great to be part of an amazing team with the production designer Eve Stewart, Tom’s editor Melanie Oliver and sound recordist Simon Hayes. It was a phenomenal creative team behind the project.
Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer and Victoria ransack an oversized bedroom
“What’s great about the scaling is it’s kind of like a double-edged sword. It offers up some huge logistical challenges, but from a framing perspective, it offers up loads of fun to be had. For instance, we’re currently grading the Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer song and that exists in an oversized garden that leads in to an oversized bedroom, to an oversized staircase, to an oversized dining room. They ransack the house, kind of thing. Eve built the huge armchairs, the double bed, the enormous gramophone – every item in the room was created as a real element and the choreography team, led by Andy Blankenbuehler, did a great job of bringing the dance routine into the space. Of all the routines, Rumpleteazer and Mungojerrie is the one where we have the most fun with scale.”
Previs and planning
The director Tom Hooper and Eve Stewart had been working together for about four years before Ross became involved. Stewart had hundreds of concept art drawings of what the different cats could potentially look like and what the sets could look like. One of things they had decided upon was to include the idea of what Great Windmill Street in Soho would look like as an enormous set in its own right.
Taylor Swift as Bombalurina, performing her big number
Ross explains: “Eve had drawn up these sets by the time I was involved and the VFX house had rendered them in 3D, so we could basically walk a camera around any of the sets in a rudimentary kind of a way. We had these little figures that were the size of the cats and placed them wherever we wanted to and did an approximate previs of what it was that we wanted to do.”
The Great Windmill Street set was built on Leavesden’s L Stage, which is 80ft wide and 440ft long
He adds: “But the choreography side of things has a huge influence, so it was really only when Andy [Blankenbuehler] was able to start working with our amazing collective of dancers and cast that he was able to piece together how the sets were going to be inhabited. As a result, Tom and I photographed a lot of the rehearsals and dance workshops.”
The Great Windmill Street set was built on Leavesden’s L Stage, which is 80ft wide and 440ft long, taking the entire width of the stage, fire lane to fire lane. Construction on that set was around 12 to 14 weeks. So you could see the frontage of the Windmill Theatre and the Milk Bar and the Meow Club. “The front doors of our buildings were 24ft high and we quickly got to feel how this was going to affect the imagery. So, we did a few tests in half-built spaces with different camera systems and lens combinations. We also shot a couple of dancers scampering around like cats and then had a look on the big screen to see what was most convincing scale wise. That’s what led us to the Alexa 65 camera,” says Ross.
Living with the 65
In these pages, we have already hugely appreciated the Arri Alexa 65 cameras, but there is a drawback to the use of the camera handheld within a musical setting: it’s big. Ross and his crew had a plan for this. “We did a bunch of tests in prep, I’ve used every variety of stabilised system over the years including the Stabileye, Movi, Arri Trinity, Oculus head, that kind of equipment. The Alexa 65 doesn’t fit on any of these devices, it’s either too long, too fat or too heavy. We did a tech test with everybody by shooting previous tests to analyse what we felt was the best camera and lens combination for dealing with scale and then we shot another test to that was like a full, almost a workflow, test with cast members in their Lycra outfits that they were wearing for the film, again on a variety of camera systems. With the Arri Trinity, a regular Steadicam, handheld with four different weights of camera, it was a pretty full-on test for a day’s worth of dancing.
Tom Hooper’s assessment was that the true version of the film was just the Alexa 65
“Tom looked at it all and made the assessment that the true version of the film was just the 65. He understood that the Stabileye might allow us to do this and do that but: ‘Why don’t you just shoot as stable and handheld as possible? Why don’t we make that our aesthetic?’ So, we ended up with four Alexa 65s, three of which were in variable shooting modes, one of which was stripped down and on a Steadicam for the duration of the job. Most of the sequences I guess are shot conventionally, inasmuch as on a mixture of dollies, Steadicam and cranes. Then occasional sequences are shot handheld for a bit of visceral, first-person intimacy,” explains Ross.
“It worked like a charm. When I first started on Cats when Tom asked me to join him, I did a day rehearsing with the dancers and realised that they were about 30 times fitter than me. I bought myself a treadmill to get fit and then didn’t have a single opportunity to use it, because we were working so hard. But the Alexa 65 was the exercise regime of choice! The imagery stands up for itself, it’s a phenomenal camera and there are four or five lens choices now via Arri Rental. I tested a bunch in the rental house for MTF for technical reasons and then decided against some before we shot a lens test for real.”
Ross looked at the lenses on the optical bench and then shot a test for three different sets. He chose the Prime DNAs as his set, as “they have the lowest contrast, softest roll-off of their lens choices and they worked perfectly”.
Large format and cats
Despite being around for about 60 years, large format cinematography is a lens and camera system that somewhat vanished from theatrical cinematic production in the late seventies. It became the remit of the IMAX or omni-theatres, as they were the only ones who were doing any R&D on large format systems. The rebirth of the system with the Alexa 65 means many DOPs have turned to Panavision’s older 65mm market to have a look at the Ultra Panatars and other similar lenses.
Ross explains: “We wanted to shoot spherically with the flatness of field that you only really get with those lenses. The eclectic mix of MTFs and lens design of the DNAs was a great mix – I tend to pick my camera and lens choices because they have an element of unpredictability about them. I’m not a big fan of the homogeneity of very high-end lens manufacture, because I think it loses some of the fun of storytelling. I quite like sitting on the edge of technical capability, and that’s why the Prime DNAs were perfect.”
When Ross shot Cats last year and early this year, Arri Rental offered a tuning service for the DNAs, but not on all the focal lengths. “One of the things that is very apparent in Tom’s previous work is that he’s a real lover of low contrast and shallow depth-of-field. I wanted to bring that sensibility to shooting on the Alexa 65, but we needed to minimise lens aberrations and a propensity for veiling flares, that kind of thing. These were things that our VFX team would struggle with,” recalls Ross.
“One thing that we knew we wanted to do was to add loads of smoke to the sets, which is counter to what the VFX team was working on. So, one of the compromises that we could make was to use a cleaner lens to render the imagery. The DNAs were the right level of low contrast and fast T stop to satisfy all of the conditions.”
Prima ballerina Francesca Hayward as Victoria was hard to light as she moved so fast
Shooting an oversized set with a scale element like the small cats is one thing, then you have to carefully choose your focal lengths on the wide end when using large format aesthetics. Ross says: “One thing you really notice when you jump to large format is that the wide end is where the large format bonus comes. When you talk about using a 21mm or 28mm, those lenses in the Alexa 65 world have the same angle of view as a 12mm on a 35mm format camera, but without any of the linear distortion.”
One thing you really notice with large format is that the wide end is where the bonus is
From the first trailer, Cats’ digital fur capture was a talking point
Even though the sets were big, the team wanted to make the sets feel even larger in relation to the cats and, as a result, Ross tended to stay at the wider end of the focal lengths. But one of the things he was very wary of, and one of the reasons the team did so many tests was that, once you begin to distort perspective, you start to lose the scaling.
“The viewer feels like the horizontal and vertical lines are converging in an unnatural way,” explains Ross. “You realise that your centres are being lied to, you don’t see building as bigger, you end up using the humans as your scale reference. So you see humans in an oversized set, rather than ‘this is a living room, and look how small the cats look!’ It’s a fine line between those two perceptions and it was always important to stay on the second perception.
He continues: “We’d typically use the 28mm to 45mm range – pretty much every close-up in the film is shot on either a 35mm or a 45mm. However (this is where there’s a bit of discrepancy in the world of large format), once you get to 28mm, it starts getting a little disappointing below that. So we ended up with a Prime DNA 28mm and then a Signature Prime 21mm and also a Sigma 16mm and then a Prime DNA 12mm. The wide end is always a bit of a mixture, because those focal lengths are so hard to make cover the large format. We only used the DNA 12mm on about four occasions, mostly for the Rum Tum Tugger scene, because it needed to feel like a Missy Elliott music video. It was also one of our smaller oversized locations, so in order to give it grand scale, we also found ourselves on the widest end of the lenses.
He adds: “Also, once you go above 80mm, at least in terms of a character close-up, there’s little difference between a 110mm on the Alexa 65 and a 65mm on a regular 35mm camera; the perspective you’re seeing is roughly the same.”
The cast, especially the dancers, were on an eleven-hour shift, so it was imperative that as much of the dance was captured by Ross’s team as possible. “We shot with three cameras all the time to achieve the live vocal scenario and to get as much of the dance as possible. A typical set-up with the cameras would be a 28mm, a 45mm and a 65mm on the three cameras. Ollie [Oliver Loncraine] who was on the C camera would often find himself at 90° to Iain [MacKay] and I, sometimes going as high as the 110mm, but normally somewhere wider.”
Ross shot 12-hour days every day and the dancers did 11-hour days, with an hour warm-up. “We’d still run the routines many times, but we’d run a routine, reassess, watch back maybe for ten minutes and then run it again. So we were still probably doing on the big numbers, four or five takes an hour of running a two-minute routine. It was like dancing boot camp, but very exciting.”
The lighting of the movie within the huge sets with the story mostly told at night was a major undertaking for Ross. “Lighting on that scale was probably the hardest thing we had to do. Working out where to place cameras was a fairly straightforward procedure, but lighting at that scale was difficult. For instance, Frankie, the prima ballerina, in three seconds can take four steps and those four steps can cover 45ft of a set and so what you’re trying to do is light that 45ft from a distance of 60ft away, so you can give the dancers the floor
A very challenging light design relied on a number of Dino light rigs giving a long-distance punch effect
“That’s the biggest challenge, how do you cosmetically deal with lighting over such a distance? Your wide shot needs to see a set that is 80ft wide by a 100ft deep and then your close-up needs to be rendered almost in the same conditions. You can’t bring a light in, because it’s in the way, even if it’s not in the way of the character you’re shooting, the camera is in the way of one of the other dancers who is trying to get behind the actor that you’re shooting half way through the dance. They also have to start in one position and end in another.”
It was difficult to change, as the only way to pan a light left to right was to bring in scissor lifts
A lot of Ross’s work involved watching rehearsals in a dance workshop, then plotting those on his drawing of the set that was being constructed, then formulating a lighting plan according to that choreography. He also had to work four or five weeks ahead, because of how large the sets were. He says: “Just running the cable into the L Stage set took two weeks, just to run power to service the lighting. The pre-rig to get that lighting in took three weeks.”
As the Great Windmill Street set was 12 sets connected to each other, Ross worked on one set for the prelight one day and then the next set the next day. “This was a huge challenge, and my gaffer Mark Clayton and my rigging gaffer James Summers did an incredible job,” he says. “I worked with a set drawing from the art department that was hand drawn, but to scale of every lighting unit that I’d like to put on to the sound stage. That would be shared with all of my team and then we roughly placed them in those positions with James, and I would finesse it. If the choreography evolved to send the dancers into a different place I hadn’t previously figured, we’d then make a plan to move something somewhere or make an adjustment somewhere. It was difficult to change, because the only way to pan a light left to right was to bring in scissor lifts. It’s obviously not something you can do in between takes.”
A film production like Beauty and the Beast needed to recreate daylight over a whole village set, so had over 700 Kino Flos in banks embedded on giant rigs. Cats is a hybrid of cinema and theatre and needed a different approach, explains Ross. “The most Skypanels we had, for instance, were part of the long set which was the street. One of the things that happens in the street is daylight – most of the film is set at night until the end. So I had 100 Skypanels in softboxes above the rigging. Because we were scaling our world up so much, the sets went all the way to the Reds in the studio, so we had to put the lighting above the Reds.
“We made the unusual decision in the L Stage to rig a secondary rig 15ft above the Reds, nearer to the roof of the building, so our softboxes sat above and didn’t dangle down and get in the way of the set. There was about one Skypanel every eight feet in the centre section of the street to give me a very low-level soft room tone concept to the fill light of the street. But most of the lighting was using six, nine and 12-bulb dino lights, which are like collections of Par Cans in an array, because I needed that punch over a big distance. Most of the light positions were 40ft away from the cast, so you need to be able to get the light level to right at that distance,” he says.
Another thing Ross had to keep in mind is that, when you scale down your world or scale up your world so your cast feels smaller, you also need to scale your light sources. He explains: “I scaled all the light sources by a factor of two. If you were used to shooting an actor’s close-up using a 1K Reefer light for example, which is 1x1m square, then you have to change that dimension to a 2x2m light in order to keep the same continuity of shadows, so your shadows feel softer. The dinos helped me make these bigger light sources. We dropped a lot of textiles from the ceiling, and we used a light source from quite a long way away to keep the floor clear, then hung a textile much closer to the cast member, so effectively the light source quadrupled in size near the cast member to soften the close-ups.”
Cats is on worldwide general release from December 20.
Below: Go behind the scenes for a first look at Cats.
Below: Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber have written a new song for Cats.