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Versatile Martin trips the light fantastic

Designer performs double duty

Catherine Martin, the creative force behind the look of “Moulin Rouge,” demonstrated a can-can-do attitude by taking on production designer and co-costumer duties on the eight-time- Oscar-nommed pic. She’s nominated for both roles.

The recognition is rare but not unprecedented. Cecil Beaton won Oscars for art direction/set decoration and costume design for “My Fair Lady” (1964) as did John Truscott for “Camelot” (1967). Even so, while the highly cultivated sensibility of the best designers lends itself to crossing over into both disciplines — which, when most effective, blend together seamlessly — Martin’s creative range cannot be underestimated.

Martin — “CM” to friends — isn’t a stranger to this kind of artistic multitasking. Her collaboration with the pic’s helmer, Baz Luhrmann, goes back to their native Oz, where she created award-winning sets and costumes for Luhrmann’s legit stagings of “Strictly Ballroom” and “La Boheme,” among other productions.

Martin moved into film with Luhrmann on the feature version of “Strictly Ballroom” (1992), then “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” (1996) and “Moulin.” She served as production designer on each — she was Oscar-nommed for “Romeo + Juliet” — and shared costume design credits with Angus Strathie on “Strictly” and “Moulin.” (Kym Barrett designed the costumes for “Romeo + Juliet.”) Martin’s work even extends to film title design.

Luhrmann, Martin’s real-life partner of nearly five years, calls her “the captain of the visual gesture.”

“I work in parallel as a designer to Baz,” explains Martin on the phone from Gotham, where she and the Bazmark team are mounting Luhrmann’s “La Boheme” on Broadway. “He is very much the driver of the idea. I’m lucky to be one of the first few to get in on the ground floor and experience the creation.”

The designs for “Moulin Rouge” — completely shot on soundstages in Sydney — evolved over a period of several years. Martin created a series of books, or “visual bibles,” to document inspirations and looks. “Ostensibly it’s a research thing and we start adding more art department over a period of time,” she says.

That meant collecting everything from original images of the Moulin Rouge — the famed turn-of-the-century Parisian club that’s the anchor of the film — to researching brothels, social life in Montmartre and star can-can dancers of the time.

“I try to get an atmospheric sense,” she says, adding that she pulled a lot of contemporary photography alongside some “enlightening” photographs of artist Toulouse-Lautrec (played by John Leguizamo in the pic) “on the beach in the process of relieving himself.”

“We tend to think of (artists of that time) as fuddy-duddies in a smock with an easel, but he was 4-foot-9 and talked like Daffy Duck on speed. He was the life of the party and got heaps of attention from the girls,” says Martin.

It’s that kind of detail and historical texture that informs her work. Understanding what life was really like in the late 1800s helped the creation of the costumes and environments. “It’s about understanding the history of the people, who they really were,” says Martin. “Can-can was a working-class dance.

“Each dancer had a gimmick. They didn’t wear costumes, they actually wore street clothes.”

But “Moulin Rouge” is a far cry from a gritty historical piece. As a musical and Luhrmann’s very own “Spectacular Spectacular,” it’s an artful mix of historical detail and fictional fanfare. In the case of costumes for Satine — the Moulin Rouge’s singing and dancing “Sparkling Diamond” played by Nicole Kidman — Martin says she didn’t sacrifice Kidman’s look for the sake of period correctness.

“The fact that she would have been wearing a woolen body stocking to perform in is an unnecessarily realistic reference. Instead, we looked to the glamour of classic film divas like Dietrich and Garbo and Joan Crawford. We also considered Nicole’s innate glamour because glamour is so intrinsic to the world we created.” Living up to her stage name, Satine literally sparkled in elaborately bejeweled costumes.

That sense of the theatrical also infused the sets for “Moulin Rouge.” A colorful three-story papier-mache elephant served as Satine’s boudoir. The Moulin Rouge’s immediate environs of Montmartre were sepia-stained and absinthe-washed, while the city of Paris glittered like a fairy tale in the distance.

To create outer Paris, Martin had to learn to work with several new elements, such as digital mattes, 3-D models and digital motion-controlled models.

“I’d never worked on a miniature set before,” she admits. But to ensure that the visual language transferred from production to post, she was called upon to be involved with the pic’s visual effects.

Martin is quick to add that “Moulin” is the result of many artists working together. “I don’t draw out everything myself. I work with exciting artists and shamelessly use them. They push my ideas to be better. Baz sees moviemaking as orchestral. Every element is part of this symphonic model and we fill out the orchestral sound.”

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