Bringing The Spirit to Life


In 1940, when The Spirit was introduced to audiences by way of the Sunday paper, creator Will Eisner didn’t have the luxury of fantasizing about a big Hollywood payday. But now, graphic novelist Frank Miller is bringing Eisner’s story to the big screen—along with the spirit of his mentor’s innovative techniques. Filming entirely on green screen, Miller and his crew were able to make the impossible possible. “What I love about CGI in film is that if I can think it, it can be there,” explains Miller. “What’s happened with computer technology and CGI is timed perfectly for someone with my set of skills.” But more than that, it’s timed perfectly for a world where Comic-Con is a don’t-miss event and miniatures, like those used in 1994’s adaptation of The Spirit’s contemporary, The Shadow, are a mark of style, not technical achievement.

Miller, co-director of Sin City, was always high on the list of directors for the project, “but I didn’t know if he’d want to adapt someone else’s material,” explains producer Deborah Del Prete. “At that point I hadn’t realized how close he’d been to Will.”

Indeed, Miller and Eisner shared a mutual appreciation and close friendship before Eisner passed away in early 2005. It was a relationship that served the production well, allowing Miller to guide his crew on the cornerstones of Eisner’s legacy. “Frank taught us that Eisner was interested in detail but he would use the bare minimum to tell you a huge amount,” says senior visual effects supervisor and second unit director Stu Maschwitz. “He could tell you everything you needed to know about a private investigator’s office by just the matchbook on the corner of his desk. Often, in animation, you want that kind of instant readability of something. You need a taxi cab and think, ‘What is the quintessential taxi cab?’ and you find a bunch of quirky, weird taxi cabs and throw those away because you’re trying to find the perfect one. Eisner would do the exact opposite: Find the weirdest, strangest, most unusual taxi cab ever—the one that tells you, at a glance, all the quirkiness of the guy who’s driving it.”

“What the movie looked like was important to everyone,” adds cinematographer Bill Pope. “We all felt it should look like both Eisner’s work and Frank’s. There are probably an equal number of references to both.”

Before production even began, Miller distributed a booklet of his favorite Spirit stories and “references he wanted to use for visuals… Everyone tried to duplicate it exactly: The Eisner crate, the Eisner lamppost, the Eisner garbage can,” Del Prete says.

“We would sketch out set designs based on Frank’s storyboards and the production designer would even make models,” explains Maschwitz. “Then we’d sit with a green highlighter and a pink highlighter over them. Green would be something that would be rendered in CG; pink would be something that would be filmed practically. We had very detailed conversations so that the visual effects weren’t just something that would be applied in post-production, but a part of the well-considered plan from the get-go.”

The first feature to film at New Mexico’s Albuquerque Studios, The Spirit used “two gigantic, side-by-side stages with an elephant door in between,” Del Prete explains. The crew rotated between the two setups, with Miller and Del Prete on one side and Maschwitz working simultaneously on the other with his second unit.

“Stephen King, in his book On Writing, talks about how moviemakers are always doomed to show too much, but a writer could describe only the parts of a room or a scene that matters to the story,” says Maschwitz. “It’s such a great insight into what’s difficult about film, which is you point a camera at the thing that’s telling a story, and there’s all this other stuff in your frame competing with it. There are a lot of tricks we use in film to mitigate that problem—like shallow depth of field and selective framing and art directing the backgrounds carefully, and obviously turning the lights off. But it becomes more work, the process of subtracting away parts of the image… So, the reason to shoot on green screen was creative, not technical. Shooting against a green screen enabled us to include only that which helped push the story forward.”

“We knew the image was going to be very graphic, manipulated to a high contrast,” Pope explains. To accomplish this, he used the Panavision Genesis HD camera, which allowed him to see the movie’s progress while on set and achieve the near-black-and-white look he wanted.

To stay true to the movie’s visual aesthetic, Pope often turned to his lighting crew and the Phantom HD camera, a high-speed camera capable of capturing more than 6,200 fps that is typically found in scientific settings. Pope used the Phantom to create the illusion of water when none was allowed. For example, in order to maintain the jaw-dropping beauty of Eva Mendes as Sand Saref swimming underwater, the actress was unable to get wet. So Mendes was strapped into a harness and filmed with the Phantom. The result? “We got what we asked for: Totally believable underwater,” says Del Prete. “Eva looks like a goddess—her makeup and hair absolutely perfect.” No water required.

Production on The Spirit was completed in 48 days, followed by eight months of special effects and post-production work and is, finally, in theaters now.

+TECH SPECS: THE SPIRIT
Cameras Panavision Genesis (Panavision); Phantom HD (Abel Cine Tech)
Lenses Primo Primes: 17-75 Zoom, 24-276 Zoom (Panavision, Woodland Hills)
Lighting Supplied by Albuquerque Studios
Camera Support Chapman Dollies
Technocrane Panavision Remote Systems.
Steadicam WorkGreg Lundsgaard

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