Legit lighting adds pizzazz to film music

When helmer Steve Antin was looking to add eye-popping energy to the dance numbers in “Burlesque,” he turned to Broadway.

He wanted the kind of dramatic lighting he had seen in “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls,” and who better to design the lighting on “Burlesque” than the duo that gave those pictures their dynamic look.

Peggy Eisenhauer and Jules Fisher started collaborating on theatrical lighting design for Broadway and off-Broadway shows in 1985, and have applied their art to several films.

Antin met with Eisenhauer in January 2009 and, with encouragement from choreographer Denise Faye, became convinced theatrical lighting would enliven the film’s dance numbers.

At first, Screen Gems prexy Clint Culpepper was not convinced. “He didn’t see the point of bringing in a team from New York,” Eisenhauer recalled.

But Antin prevailed and Eisenhauer and Fisher became attached to the film.

“Often, lots of people involved on the project have no idea what we do,” Fisher said. The movie industry doesn’t have a credit called theatrical lighting, so “we have to explain to them (that we change lighting) with every beat of the music, with the emotion of the song and of the story.”

Lights are a dynamic part of filmmaking, adds Eisenhauer. “They can work like cameras. They pan, they tilt, they zoom, they iris, they filter color.”

And now they’re automated. Fisher recalled the days when individuals operated theater lighting using dimmer boards equipped with knobs and levers that varied power to each light. Today a computer programmer deploys software that adjusts color and intensity according to the music and other variables.

But while they manipulate lighting to add to a film’s emotional power, Fisher and Eisenhauer defer to the d.p. on most matters. In the case of “Burlesque” it was Bojan Bazelli. “We are in service to the cinematography,” said Eisenhauer. “Sometimes the d.p. doesn’t understand our methods, and we spend time explaining the process. Our goal is to make the film lighting and the theatrical lighting look as one.”

“Peggy and I understand theater, drama and emotion, but when it comes to film we trust the cinematographer,” said Fisher. “If we’re lighting a musical number, we might turn to the d.p. and say, ‘We’d like to start red, turn blue, and move lights from front to behind,’ and ask him if he can capture this. He might say, ‘It looks terrific to the eye but I can’t get it on film.’ “

“He knows,” added Eisenhauer. “These days we’re seeing dailies on HD so I don’t know what I’m looking at,” she said, a reference to concerns that HD rushes are not as clear as film. “The d.p. could say it’s fine and we got it. There are food fights occasionally, but that’s how it works.”

When Eisenhauer attended the Hollywood premiere of “Burlesque” on Nov. 15, she was one of three clients at the event repped by the late publicist Ronni Chasen, who was killed on her way home that evening.

To many in Hollywood, Chasen’s death overshadowed everything about “Burlesque” — its pairing of Cher with Christina Aguilera, the mixed reviews, a respectable $17.2 million opening weekend, reports of on-set friction between Culpepper and Antin.

Fisher and Eisenhauer are now working on John Guare’s “A Free Man of Color,” which just opened at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater. Eisenhauer interrupted her schedule on that production to fly back for Chasen’s funeral.

Bookings & Signings

Gersh has signed production designer Jon Billington (“Big White”), d.p.’s Jeffrey Kimball (“Expendables”) and Peter Zeitlinger (“Rescue Dawn”); editor Billy Rich (“Body of Lies”); and line producer Marty Ewing (“Blades of Glory”). Agency has booked line producers Mark Huffam on Ridley Scott’s “Alien” prequel, Denis Stewart on Tommy Wirkola’s “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” Colin Wilson on Marc Forster’s “World War Z” and Grant Hill on Kathryn Bigelow’s “Triple Frontier.”

Murtha Agency has booked second unit director/d.p. Alexander Witt on Daniel Espinoza’s “Safe House,” Justin Lin’s “Fast Five” (the latest pic in the “Fast and Furious” franchise) and Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class”; and Steadicam/camera operator Ralph Watson on ABC Family movie “Lemonade Mouth.”

Montana Artists signings: line producers Buddy Enright (UPM on “Burlesque”), Lena Cordina (“Committed”) and Bill Wilson (“The Dragon Pearl”); 1st AD Bruce Speyer (“388 Arletta Avenue”); costume designer Simonetta Mariano (“Immortals”); d.p.’s Alejandro Martinez (“Memories of My Melancholy Whores”), Gregor Hagey (“The Yard”) and Lloyd Ahern (“Army Wives”); production designers Eloise Stammerjohn (“Unanswered Prayers”) and Patrick Lumb (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”); and 2nd unit director Eric Schwab (“Valkyrie”).

Innovative Artists has signed d.p. Theo Van de Sande (“Grown Ups”) and editor Jacques Gravett (“Sons of Anarchy”). Agency has booked exec producer Butch Kaplan on Hany Abu-Assad’s “The Courier”; d.p.’s Phedon Papamichael on George Clooney’s “The Ides of March,” James Carter on CBS’ “Hawaii 5-0,” Chuck Minsky on Garry Marshall’s “New Year’s Eve,” Checco Varese on ABC Family pilot “Nine Lives of Chloe King,” Van de Sande on Jon Benito’s “Carjacked,” Alex Nepomniaschy on Nickelodeon’s “Supah Ninjas,” Steve Yedlin on Rian Johnson’s and Zoran Popovic on Julian Richards’s “Shiver.”

peter.caranicas@variety.com

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