XANADU:A Merger Of Media
Part One: Robert Greenburg

Joel Silver, XANADU's producer initially contracted our studio to design an opening for his them-current project, entitled THE WARRIORS. However, the film was too far along in it's production schedule for our company to create anything unique. Specifically, Silver was looking for the kind of original approach to his film that proved to be so successful in our feature work to date. The Greenburg studio was becoming well known for it's utilization of consistent visual design elements for teaser trailers, television spots and film openings. Campaigns for features such as ALIEN, SUPERMAN and ALL THAT JAZZ are examples of such projects (created by Frankfurt Communications). Since time did not allow for this type of visual development on THE WARRIORS, it was decided Silver's next film would involve the Greenburg's right from the beginning.

In it's early stages, XANADU was to be a roller disco movie, so we were soon going to roller discos to soak up atmosphere and trying out different concepts in storyboards. Since the lead character, played by Olivia Newton-John, was a "muse", early discussions hit upon the idea of the opening the film with a wall painting, from which nine muses, including Olivia, would magically materialize.

It seemed wise to tackle this scene as early as possible, since it was going to entail elaborate use of a complex blue screen technique: each of the nine women would have to be photographed separately against Universal's huge blue screen and the nine takes would then be composed, with each muse bursting to life at a different time.

Also, since the women had to appear to come out of a wall painting, a composite clip featuring the women in their various frozen, or "come-alive", positions had to be projected against the wall so an artist could duplicate their position life-sized. (Since they were being photographed from subtly keystoned angles, a special projector had to be designed to accommodate the lens through which they were filmed, assuring that focal length and keystone distortion remained constant).

With the projected images as a guide, as artist rendered the nine muses on "skin" which could be removed from the wall one at a time; the wall was then filmed ten times, with one "skin" removed for each take. Still keeping the keystoning consistent, a complicated series of dissolving from the "painted ladies" to the live dancers brought our nine muses to life.

Change of direction

Something happened early in XANADU's production period that made us stop and change direction--two other roller disco movies were announced. Since it was clear that both SKATETOWN, U.S.A. and ROLLER BOOGIE were going to be released ahead of Universal's project, it was decided to emphasize the musical aspects of XANADU and, ultimately, to launch a full-blown musical fantasy.

With Olivia still in the lead role, Gene Kelly was recruited for another principal role, thus drawing on his unique identification with the American musical. (The final XANADU script tells of a muse who comes to Earth to grant a California artist a wish. He requests the ultimate disco palace, called Xanadu, which he obtains through millionaire Gene Kelly's help).

With the fantasy element now being emphasized, special effects became increasingly important to XANADU, and R/Greenberg Associates was involved in it's first full feature assignment. It was a logical progression. We had seen the feature in optical effects and control of effects, so the plunge into feature work was probably inevitable. Since we are designers, we have the means to design a sequence and see it to completion, without worrying about going from specialist to specialist to specialist.

Our production capabilities are fairly vast--beside our own set-up, we have an on-going close relationship with two other optical houses in New York, EFX and Computer Opticals. Because of this flexibility, we were able to produce, design and often oversee the direction of special effects with Silver, director Robert Greenburg and cinematographer Victor Kemper; this, I think, was of major importance on XANADU. In fact, using their production crew, my brother Richard would often act as consultant, overseeing the effects so the uncomposited elements were shot in a way that allowed us to work with each element as preoptical. They would then be sent to our New York studio for composing.

Unfortunately, this was not possible in all cases. A great deal of footage was shot before XANADU had become an effects film, and many times we'd try to integrate the effects into live action, by retroscoping, various optical effects or by transitional devises, such as the many complicated computer generated wipes that were used. But working with standard live footage was not that unusual and, in fact, we're sort of used to it, having experience along these lines from much our prior work.

We would often work on the opening of a feature project that may have been shot by the most gifted cinematographer in the business, but still was not shot with an effects team in mind. You just devise techniques for working with this situations, such as using supplied live footage as a background plate for the purpose of further optical composing with graphic animation or optical effects.

By way of example, there is a moment in XANADU in which multitudinous Gene Kelly as observed coming through a series of doors simultaneously, executing a brief dance step and exiting. This was conceived and filmed as an effects sequence, and was, in fact, some more of blue screen photography that is quite a precedent in XANADU. What is tricky about this scene is that Kelly is photographed in a full-body shot, something that is usually avoided since it's hard to pull mattes from a blue screen floor and it's even more difficult to pull mattes on feet (a similar problem with hair).

In another scene, the muses are dancing on a kaleidoscope platform when suddenly they turn into streak of light and vanish through the ceiling. Since were given footage of women dancing, we couldn't fall back on a blue screen background and had to diverse another method of getting rid of the muses. We did have the film of the same scene without the dancers present, and the method we chose was basically to dissolve from the platform with the dancers to the platform without dancers. Rotoscoping was done by means of a precision print that was made of the scene, and the streaking effect was created on the animation stand and composed on an optical printer.

Blue screen process sparse on East Coast

Before it begins to sound as though blue screen is a nice easy device to fall back on when you're looking for an impressive effect, I should remind that R/Greenberg Associates never had produced blue screen mattes before. In fact, nobody on the East Coast dose any major work in this area, owing to the incredible complexity in the lighting and separations. Furthermore, it is generally used several seconds at a time in an individual take (even the wall painting sequence is filmed in cuts from two to three separate angles, which was in part Victor Kemper's idea to keep the scenes from looking like a standard process shot.

So there was an added challenge to a musical scene in XANADU in which Olivia, now in heaven, sings the song 'Suspended In Time' in a single 300-foot take while the camera dollies in for a eventual medium close-up. Additionally, while Olivia sings, she stands on the "floor" of glowing color beams done in a series of "tube streaks". (Described most simply "tube streaks" are a series of backlit dots photographed in time exposed zooms.)

It sometimes seems ironic that elaborate blue screen process shots rather closely resemble the television device by which weathermen appear to be superimposed on their maps, or newsmen in front of videotaped graphics. The difference is that on TV all you have to do is chroma key; film can't use this video matting process, because you can't project video with quality resolution one can achieve on film. In fact, a lot of the effects techniques in XANADU are based on ideas and tricks that have appeared in one form or another in network broadcasting (such as the opening graphics of TV movie shows), special effects commercials and even our own feature promos. But although they are based on the same technology, the use to which they're being put in XANADU is often quite new and original for feature films.

We used slit wipes quite often in the film in order to execute visually interesting transitions from one scene to the next; the action dissolves (disintegrates might be a better word) into a series of slits that reorganize into the next sequence. This is something we used most recently in out trailers for THE EMPIRE STRIKE BACK, but the wipes were executed on still photographs of the starts of the film and not on actual live footage, as in XANADU.

Elevating the technique

The very first live-action slit wipes were done for an industrial film for Champion Paper, but the feature film resources of a project like XANADU elevates the whole technique to something unique. (A more outstanding example of a commercial effects would be lettering that we used for the credits for SUPERMAN, with the clear, dimensional letters exploding out of space and forming the names of the stars. That design is based on something that was done for Banco de Ponce, a bank of Puerto Rico. When we sent it to England so SUPERMAN's director Richard Donner could see it, someone from their production was in our New York offices within a week to discuss our working on the titles.)

Time tended to be a tricky opponent on XANADU. The film completed principle photography in January, but our work began the previous September, so on certain scenes and certain effects we could only go so far, since you must have a lock down print of what they're going to use for timings and rotoscope position before you can start to do effects on the footage that exists.

Staying on schedule

As various fantasy conception began to take hold of XANADU, the principles involved (Silver, Greenwald, Kemper) started wanting more effects, fancier effects, heavier effects. Then with it's Christmas 1980 release moved up by Universal Pictures to summer 1980, we found that in many ways working with the techniques we'd come to understand and developed was invaluable in meeting the workload. Still, we tend to handle 15 projects at one time, so eventually a specific groups had to be assigned to work exclusively on XANADU.

The animation stand and the optical bench became our creative tools. Animation effects in XANADU mark a sharp departure from the cell type of animation of Disney studio days, in which cels were opaqued and top-lit. In the case of Disney's work, animation occurred on the cells, an image subtly one frame at a time, creating the illusion of movement. With bottom lighting, the animation techniques in XANADU (and this speaks for the entire changing nature of graphic film animation) are done in the camera, using an open lens to create lighting effects.

Throughout XANADU, we were creatively guided by the central concept of the script-namely, that out main character was not a mortal, and thus needed to be persuasively supernatural. As early as the wall painting sequence, the muses who appear are given a glow, which is achieved through the use of a diffusion filter. (In a small way, the glowing outlines on our muses were something of a blessing, since they were successfully eliminate any of the blue screen fringing that betrays some matte work.) And before the film was several minutes old, the viewer hopefully has been dazzled by the sight of nine young women exiting the image as streaks of light, executed on the optical printer with high-contrast stock with the contrast increased, then doing time-exposed zooms.

Since fantasy is XANADU's dominant trait, certain mattes, including a couple of time-lapsed cloud effects matted over the departure along the highway of one of the muses, and another matted above Gene Kelly as he sits on a beach playing a musical instrument, don't look 100 percent realistic. This was intentional, done with the hope that the various sequence take a mythical ambiance that looks unreal, rather than phony.

There was a definite challenge to XANADU that effects teams on movies like STAR WARS and ALIEN often managed to avoid (although SUPERMAN frequently faced the same difficulty). Except for the sequence set in heaven, XANADU is and earthbound fantasy, and many of the elaborate matting effects had to be successfully worked into naturalistic settings, street scenes, etc. One of the muses even exits as a live-action tapered streak (that technique's official name) from within the metal superstructure off a large building, to cite a particular example. Unlike the even the most complicated space films, XANADU doesn't get to pull off it's most impressive effects within the comfortable black limbo of space.

Many of our discoveries can be considered state of the art. This sort of fortuitous discovery is in many ways at the root of some of the most creative effects work in the industry. At any rate, XANADU is intended as a movie about the fantastic; the craftsmen of R/Greenberg Associates worked to make a movie that looks like nothing you've never seen before. When you think about it, at least occasionally, it looks like nothing we've ever seen before either.

XANADU:A Merger Of Media
Part Two: Robert Greenwald

As Xanadu was originally concerned, the use of special effects was going to be minimal. However, as the style of the film became less real and more fantastic, the special effects grew, for they seemed the absolutely ideal way to capture in the visual form a movie based in the real world but essentially non-real. What was particularly interesting about collaborating with Richard and Robert Greenburg was that we worked on a creative-concept approach, not the "it can't be done because...." school of special effects.

One of the unique things about a musical film is the number of people involved in the various areas, from music to choreography to costumes to effects. No decision is made that doesn't affect dozens of key collaborations. Consequently, I insisted on stressing the overall point of view of the film. I knew that for the movie to work it needed to have the music, dance, effects and camera deeply and inextricably integrated. The only way to achieve that was to have all the key people aware of what the overall was.

In effects, three main areas emerged: 1) the opening, 2) Fiorrucci dance, and 3) Special Place. In dealing with these three areas of the movie, the discussion was primarily conceptual and creative. Only after the groundwork was laid did wee get down to the nitty gritty of implementing it technically. As a result of this thematic approach to the material, rather than a technical/effects one, we achieved a total integration of the effects into the fabric of the film.

The Opening

The opening of the film became more and more important as the fantasy element grew, for it was in the opening that I needed to establish a style and feel so the audience would accept entering a seemingly real contemporary world mixed with total fantasy. If the fantasy premise was established and accepted in the beginning of the movie, then all of our story about muses would work. If we didn't get the audience to accept this premise up front, we could never catch them later on.

The opening provided for Michael Beck to be at the end of his emotional rope, and in need of assistance. At the very point he gives up his artwork, Olivia Newton-John, a muse, enters his life to help him with his dreams.

In the pre-production meetings, careful and elaborate plan emerged which would take us from reality (Michael Beck painting and tearing up his artwork) to a mixture of reality and non-reality (real paper traveling across real buildings in a totally fashion via use of the blue screen) to total non-reality (the paper drops in front of a wall mural of nine women who comes alive and begin to dance and turn into streaks of light).

The effects for the opening had three parts: a) the paper traveling in front of the mural and bring the women to life; b) the dance; and c) the women turning into streaks of light. The paper activating the women was perhaps the key effect for me conceptually, for at that moment we were making a transition that lies at the heart of the movie-we were taking real paper, created by a real person with real behavior, and utilizing it magically to transform a seemingly real wall mural into a musical fantasy of dancing women surrounded by a glow.

If this effect were to work, I felt that the movie would not be off to an unusual beginning, and we would taken our audience thought a process that our lead character goes through, accepting a fantasy figure in his life. The process work, the creating of the wall painting, the sue of video, the extensive blue screen work, all came about only after we clearly and specifically conceptualized this key transition moment in the style and mood of our film.

The dance itself I shot against blue screen, and matted in the realistic background; this way I got not only the glow around the women, but some of their shadows so that it seems as if they were magical figures in a real place. In that sense the dance is the perfect metaphor for the film itself-a real place with magical mysterious and wonderful figures.

While the camera was not able to move in the dance sequence, hence limiting some what I would have liked to do, there were numerous other dances where it could move and the potential excitement of these muses glowing and being on a real street was worth the necessary sacrifice.

The third element of the opening, the streaking and turning into the light. I wanted it to be a continuous gradual transition, rather than a sudden startling effect. What I wanted was to conclude the opening by seeing our lovely dancers transformed before our very eyes into streak of light in a real setting, hence, ending the sequence and taking us back to reality. In order to do this we shot not just plates, but actual live action shots of the women moving through the real environment. This turned out to be effective in rooting them in reality, in giving the movement a sense of creditability, and once more combining the sense of fantasy figures in the real world-an easy sounding task by, in fact, conceptually and technically a very difficult one to full off.

Fiorrucci (Department store dance)

The second major use of special effects came about in a manner opposite to the opening. As we edited the number, began to feel that the transition from sequence to sequence, which had been storyboarded and shot for visual excitement, could be improved by the use of optics. So, in contrast to the opening, the effects were added after the shooting was finished and without planned.

As conceived, the dance was non-realistic: Olivia, Gene and Michael enter a store and the dancers and the clothes all turn into an old-fashioned musical dance number. However, it was more an absence of reality (like the barn building number in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS).

Each time we introduced an optical to take us from a face to a car, from glasses exploding to a skating wheel, from the doors exploding to a yellow cloud, to a new sequence, it became clearer and clearer that not only did the opticals not validate the style of the sequence; they in fact added to it and moved us from a musical dance number in the Broadway stage sense to a total musical movie number. Here, particularly, the Greenberg's ability to use existing footage that had not been shot with opticals in mind was unique and exciting experience for me. I was able to talk in terms of, "here should be a color of explosion where the yellow from the doors fill the frame," and from such discussions, with the film we already shot, effects can produced-Gene Kelly going to a pinball machine for instance, or where feathers come out, they turn into color and fill the frame. So the resulting number has stylistic unity and a contemporary feel, most of which was the result of post-production creative discussions rather pre-production.

A Special Place

A third section of the film where we utilized effects involved Michael Beck's reclaiming Olivia Newton-John, who has disappeared into the world of the muses. This world could look and feel an infinite number of ways, I was curtain that this place should not be a movie "heaven" or Disney-like environment. I wanted to create a place of infinity, of beauty, and of abstraction-something that would not scare off the children, and yet something not based on literal references.

The decision was made before filming began that this environment would be created via special effects; the dialogue, therefore, was all shot against blue screen. However, exactly what the background would look would be was only decided, through experiment and trail-and-error. Only slowly and painstakingly did we create an environment: the "floor" that connected the actors to each other suggested an infinite perspective with a pulsating feel.

The glow around Kira was planned from the beginning, but the background behind Kira, the rising stars for Zeus, and the force field of lights to hold back Michael, all evolved as the overall feel of the place became clearer to us through our experiments.

There are a variety of other effects throughout the movie, a mixture of these pre-planned and shot of effect, and other created after the footage was shot. Throughout this very difficult endeavor with too little time to do everything we wanted, the integration off effects into the overall proceeded with a consistent principle of combining, advancing and highlighting the musical fantasy aspects.

XANADU:A Merger Of Media
Part Three: A Boost From Bluth: Don Bluth Animation

Also with an animated contribution to XANADU was Don Bluth Productions in Studio City, California. The brief segment incorporates a contemporary look of sparkles and glowing effects with traditional lines of classic animation styles, accomplished with conventional methods on a Fax animation camera.

The action follows Olivia Newton-John and her partner falling in love through a lyrical metamorphosis from live actors to animated characters, then to a variety of forms; fish, birds, and finally, people again, this time enveloped in the folding petals of a rose blossom.

Bluth had the option of doing most of these effects optically, shooting the several segments of film and combining them through a printer, or using multiple passes on the same piece of film. The latter technique was chosen for speed, cost efficiency and to exercise the extra degree of control that keeping the job in-house would permit. Interestingly, portions of the art have the flashy futuristic look of computer graphics. These were hand drawn for the most part, with sparkles added by back lighting.

In order to increase the sense the depth and perspective, all the artwork was filmed at least twice. Scenes with water, for example, were shot with several passes, like double exposure. First the cell art without the water was filmed at a 40 percent exposure; then, the same art with the water at 60 percent, giving the final result of 100 percent for the backgrounds, 60 percent for the water, creating a desired effect of translucence. In order to calculate these exposures, explained Disney expatriate Don Bluth, a series of range tests were conducted to decide on the optimum means of preparing the artwork and camera setting.

Don Bluth Productions is in the process of adding a series of multi-plane camera systems, with stands designed by Mechanical Concepts and a camera by John Monceaux, for use in their upcoming feature, MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMM.