Craftspeople find inspiration in unusual places

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In New Line's "The Golden Compass," the titular object known as an alethiometer shows hidden truths to the film's boundary-pushing 12-year-old protagonist, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards). In real life, it revealed to production designer Dennis Gassner what the focal point of the film's look would be: circles and ovals, which form the basis of everything -- from the airship that takes her to other lands to the cut-glass windows of the wardrobe that she hides in that allow her to spy on a meeting of the oppressive Magisterium.

"(The circle) was the kick off of the philosophy," Gassner relates. "The compass is a circle in its pure form, and I knew that the protagonist had to become kind of the extension of that, which would be an oval, trying to making something bigger out of life than normally should be."

That might sound a like an ethereal foundation upon which to build the design of a sweeping $150 million fantasy, but that's often how the creative process works, even in the circumspect environs of big studio filmmaking. And Gassner is not alone in his methods. A look behind the scenes at this year's Oscar-worthy films reveals a wealth of other craftspeople drawing on unusual sources for both the inspiration and the realization of their artistic visions.

For Paramount's "Beowulf" sound designer/sound rerecording mixer Randy Thom of Skywalker Sound, it was cabbage.

"I was preparing dinner, and somebody was cutting up a piece of cabbage, which is one of these vegetables that makes some really fascinating sounds, partly because it consists of a bunch of fairly rigid leaves with little air spaces between them, and so when you cut or tear apart a cabbage, it has almost a vocal-like quality," Thom explains. "It happened to be during a time when I was working on the sound of (the mythic monster) Grendel's body movements. And the idea is that Grendel's body is falling apart, so you're hearing all of his joints creak and scrape. The sound designer part of my brain kicked in when I heard the cabbage, and I thought, 'Ah, maybe that's one of the elements of Grendel's knees,' and we wound up using that as part of the body parts grinding together as he walked around."

Even when the real sound of an object or an animal is readily available, filmmakers often go to great lengths to create a more dramatically effective sonic substitute. For instance, one would think that the best thing to portray the sound of buzzing bees would be, well, the sound of buzzing bees. But sound designer and supervising sound editor Will Files discovered early on that they didn't work for the cute black-and-yellow computer-animated anthromorphs in DreamWorks/Paramount's "Bee Movie."

"For one thing, they're annoying, and they're also kind of scary for some people," Files says of the real bee sounds. "The main thing is that we felt like if we just had a bee there hovering in the air, talking to someone, it would get in the way of the dialogue."

Files tried to make more pleasant bees sounds by combining synthesizer buzzes with recordings of different animals, bugs and motors and sped-up helicopter and airplane sounds. But that also got in the way of the dialogue. In the end, he settled upon a sound that combined the flapping dragonfly wings with the wuppa-wuppa sound of flapping pieces of film, paper and fabric, sped-up.

"The dragonfly by itself was believable but not very cute," Files observes. "The flapping sound by itself was cute, but it didn't sound like anything real, so you really had to play them together to make them believable to the audience."

This form of compositing is common in the cinema sound arena and, in a broader sense, the film world as a whole. Gassner likes to call the process "kludging." Simply put, it's the art of drawing elements from a disparate collection of influences and combining them to create what is hopefully a unified, cohesive and original new work. In "The Golden Compass," Gassner and costume designer Ruth Myers "kludged" together a parallel universe that's a mashup of Edwardian and art deco looks and pure fantasy, with airships, horse-drawn carriages, mechanical spying flies, armored talking polar bears and soldiers dressed like marauding Mongols.

For the film's cinematography, DP Henry Braham took his cue from the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a mid-19th-century movement whose works were characterized by lush realism, abundant detail and intense colors.

"The Pre-Raphaelite paintings have clarity, but also a great beauty," Braham observes. "You can kind of reach out and touch them. You're there. And that to me is important, in both period films and also in contemporary films, that the audience is able to connect visually very easily."

Production designer Rick Heinrichs drew upon an even wider range of visual references for Disney's two "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequels -- 2006's "Dead Man's Chest" and 2007's "At World's End" -- amassing stacks of old paintings and etchings of ships, seas and landscapes, as well as ethnographic photographs and reproductions of Howard Pyle illustrations from his classic "Book of Pirates." But when delays in production on "Dead Man's Chest" caused them to move up the shooting of a complex series of scenes for "At World's End" set in 18th-century Singapore that had yet to be written, Heinrichs discovered they had a significant hole in their visual reference library.

"We couldn't even find any historical research on early-18th-century Singapore," Heinrichs says. "It probably didn't even exist then, for all I know."

Instead, he looked to depictions of Chinese and Malaysian cities of the same period for reference for the 40-structure land- and water-based set, which was built in a 80-by-130-foot tank on Stage 12 of the Universal backlot. Mostly, he used his imagination.

"We just extrapolated," Heinrichs says. "I mean, it's a fantasy. Not a re-creation."

Production designer Doug Chiang had the opportunity to do an even a more thoroughly fantastical take on history in the computer-animated adventure "Beowulf." Built upon live performances of actors filmed with motion-capture cameras, the film is an adaptation of a 3,000-line epic poem set in sixth-century Sweden and popularized in eighth-century England that mixes Christian and pagan themes with trolls and dragons. But Chiang's most interesting historical touches were the references to the characters' backgrounds that he snuck into the virtual sets, such as Beowulf's mead hall.

"What I wanted to do there is subtly reference his experience in Grendel's mother's lair, which was basically designed as the interior of this gigantic historic beast," Chiang explains. "It's so infused in his subconscious that when he rebuilt Hrothgar's mead hall, he actually put elements of those visual icons of the rib and the spine. It's a very subliminal thing, but if you look at it, you can kind of see the connection where his past has really kind of become part of him."

Focus Features' "Atonement" is more specifically about an author haunted by her past. Precisely how and why isn't entirely clear until the film's conclusion, but it's all tied to a lie about a misappropriated letter. When director Joe Wright was storyboarding the scene in which 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) intercepts the fateful missive, he had the idea of intercutting it with an extreme close-up of a particularly offensive word being hammered out on a typewriter with loud thwacks.

"I started thinking about developing that typewriter sound as a kind
of breathless rhythm," Wright recalls. "I went to (composer) Dario (Marianelli), and I asked him, 'How about composing a concerto for typewriter?' He looked at me with horror, but went away and came up with something that by far exceeded my expectations. And then my editor (Paul Tothill) cottoned on to the idea, and he started using it, so these ideas kind of snowballed out from one moment until the next until they kind of encompassed the whole film," with touches such as the sound of Briony's typewriter clacks morphing into the boom of bombs dropping around the man she wronged (James McAvoy) at the Battle of Dunkirk, realized by Tothill's wife, sound effects editor Caroline Hodgson.

Then there was the idea for the mole on Briony's cheek that serves as a visual shorthand to help the audience recognize that the three actresses who play her at different ages (Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) as the same character.

Says Wright: "That came from a hotel receptionist in Italy who had a mole on her eyebrow."
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