I, ROBOT Breaks New Ground with Use of Automated Lighting on Film
Published Thursday, March 18, 2004

Twentieth Century Fox's epic adventure I, ROBOT, directed by Alex Proyas and starring Will Smith, will be one of the most talked about films of 2004 - both by moviegoers and by lighting professionals in the film industry. Director of photography Simon Duggan's use of 42 VARI*LITE® VL3000™ Spot luminaires to create special effects pushed the functionality of automated lighting in filmmaking into uncharted territory.

Taking advantage of the fixtures' powerful 1200W arc source lamp, Duggan generated special effects that enhance I, ROBOT's action scenes and saved time and labor during filming. With assistance from gaffer Owen Taylor and automated lighting operator Tracey Ploss of Q1 Production Technologies, Duggan used the VL3000 Spot luminaires to create illusions of speed and movement in sequences ranging from car chases to building destruction.

While filming, the option of time to explore new technology is limited. Lisa Ploss of Q1 Production Technologies was able to make available 12 VL3000 Spot luminaires for Taylor and Duggan to show them the versatility of the strobe on the fixtures. Lisa Ploss also made arrangements with rigging gaffer Rod Feldmeier to create a small set at the location where they were shooting at the time so that the Duggan, Taylor, Proyas and members of the Art Department could see exactly what the shoot would look like and how the luminaries would fit into the rig for final construction.

"The best feature of the fixtures is their versatility, and the fact that they are contained within a single unit," Duggan said. "It was easy to program different effects from the remote control desk, and it was easy to experiment with the fixtures. We could have achieved some of the effects otherwise, but it would have involved a lot of R&D with lighting devices built from scratch, with time and resources we didn't have."

There are several scenes in I, ROBOT where vehicles are driving at high speeds through an underground network of tunnels. The stationary vehicles were mounted on hydraulic gimbals so that they could be tilted in any direction and also do a 360-degree spin. The vehicles were to be filmed against a green screen with background details composited later. Duggan needed realistic lighting effects and movement over the cars for the scene.

Using the VARI*LITE fixtures, Ploss programmed a very convincing chase sequence that verged on strobing yet gave the feeling of high-speed movement. From there, the crew scaled up the lighting rig and mounted the 40 VL3000 Spot luminaires to a dual 50-foot run of diffused panels. Ploss then programmed different strobe and chase speeds to match the speed of the vehicles.

"The look was very convincing," Duggan said. "The source of the lighting reflected exactly as it would from banks of fluorescent lighting in an underground tunnel on the vehicles and actors traveling at high speed."

While the gimbal-mounted car was positioned on one end of the stage, another car, used for interior shots, was fixed at the other end. The entire lighting grid was built on a track system and moved from one end of the stage to the other to maintain the identical lighting and set-up. It took the crew only five minutes to move the entire grid from car to car.

"Without the automated fixtures, we would have had to have used a lot more mechanical devices to create the same types of effects," Taylor said. "It would have been a lot more time consuming and not nearly as versatile. If we had all of the mechanical devices, it probably would have made it impossible to shift the whole grid like we did."

With Ploss's programming, the lighting sequence gave the impression that everything was traveling at the same speed. Another flexibility bonus with the automated fixtures was the ability to quickly and easily vary the rate of the lighting chase. When the vehicles were not supposed to be going as fast, Ploss simply adjusted everything down.

"What's great is being able to program several different reads and immediately show them to the director of photography," Taylor added. "It's all right there at your fingertips. If you did it with conventional fixtures, you would have to raise the rig and bring it back down and then try to duplicate it. With the automated fixtures, it's always there and it's always the same. That repeatability is another big factor."

Originally, the film called four just four VL3000 Spot luminaires, the idea was to used the fixtures to create the illusion of a robotic demolishing machine chasing an actor down a narrow hallway. As the robot progresses down the hallway, it is surrounded by demolition and destruction.

The automated fixtures were attached at two levels to scaffolding on a 4-wheel-drive vehicle between five and 15 feet above the ground. As the jeep was driven at about 40mph down the hallway, the fixtures were bombarded with falling debris and dust.

The angle of the VL3000 Spot fixtures was set to match that of four 7000 Xenon spotlights used in a previous scene. The color was also kept consistent to match the color temperature of the Xenons. Ploss set up a searching pattern on each of the units and contained all movement to within the walls of the hallway.

"There was a lot of vibration and shocks when the vehicle was stopped suddenly by debris jammed under the wheels," Duggan noted. "I was amazed at how robust the units were. Nothing seemed to worry them."

For one particular take, Duggan decided not to drive the vehicle down the hallway. By refining the search pattern and using the fixtures' zoom feature to match the width of the light beam on the actor from the start of the show to the end - a distance of about 80 feet - Ploss was able to achieve the feel of movement using only the VARI*LITE fixtures. Once programmed, the sequence was simply repeated for each take with the push of a button.

Another scene, described by Duggan as a "nebulous void of brain matter" was also shot using the VL3000 Spot fixtures. Ploss used two of the units to backlight a frosted set piece. After dialing in the desired cyan hue, Ploss introduced opposing, rotating and slightly softened gobo patterns and then slowly cross-faded between the two laps to achieve a dramatic effect.

"It took Tracey only a few minutes to achieve what could easily have taken hours with other devices in front of traditional lighting fixtures," Duggan said.

And to also prove that creating dramatic effects for film using automated lighting fixtures is no longer science fiction.

All of the VARI*LITE fixtures used during the filming of I-Robot were provided by Account Manager, Lisa Ploss of Q1 Production Technologies.

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