Into the Woods is the third musical that Oscar-winning director of photography Dion Beebe has lensed for director Rob Marshall, and compared to Chicago and Nine, the most complicated yet to be put on the screen. The movie is a faithful rendition of one of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s most fanciful and intricately woven shows. It has 25 songs and requires 17 principal actors who do the actual singing. Stars include Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp and Tracey Ullman.
The plot of Into the Woods takes traditional fairy tale characters such as Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Rapunzel on a journey into a dense dark forest where happy endings get upended and simple stories become emotionally confused and psychologically complex.
In Beebe and Marshall’s first two musical collaborations, also based on Broadway shows, the songs and dances are distinct numbers and the dialogue is something separate. In Into the Woods the song lyrics comprise much of the dialogue. “Capturing the intentions of the songs was very important and also quite difficult,” noted Beebe. “From the outset, the challenge was creating a world that could embody all the fantasy and fairy tale elements, but also be grounded enough to support these emotional journeys.”
The 50-day shoot took place in England, starting on location in several historic forests, and moving to Shepperton Studios near London where sets were built on one of the largest soundstages in the world. Lighting was a big task because of the need to integrate illumination on the set — including effects used in the theater along with cinematic techniques — with the natural light on location, which Beebe also augmented. “There wasn’t a scene in the movie I didn’t have to light and control,” said the DP. “Avoiding discontinuities was important so the audience believes what they’re seeing is one world and doesn’t feel we’re jumping around.”
One of the big showpiece numbers in the film is “The Last Midnight.” It is sung by Streep who starts as a haglike witch, then whirls into a virtual tornado before she’s transformed into a beautiful witch. “I think we shot that all in a day,” recalled Beebe. That was only possible because of the long preparation and rehearsal time Marshall employs, so that everything is blocked out precisely before the camera rolls.
“We’d prepared the whole number so that she knew and I knew how I needed to capture this,” Beebe said. “It was all choreographed and programmed, so I could trigger the lighting effects and cue the wind and get this tempest going as she ascended the mound.” Streep’s dress was made of a light fabric that was tested in advance so when the wind came up the fabric lifted up. Beebe added dramatic top-lighting. “Watching the physicality of her performance gave you goose bumps,” he said. “She gives you everything.”
Very little CGI was used in the film. “It was there to enhance a bit what we were doing, including some set extensions,” said the DP. “But Rob is not a fan of greenscreen, he thinks it takes away from atmosphere, and also fears it affects the tone on the set. He wants to be submerged in the world that’s being shot.”
One impressive location shot starts in the forest and lifts up over the trees to a view from above without resorting to CGI. This was pulled off by first putting the camera on a crane, to lift up into the canopy of trees, and then cameras fitted on drones were used to continue the movement above the treetops. “As much as possible we tried to integrate real elements in camera,” Beebe noted. Instead of using CGI for part of the forest the decision was to go old school and use a painted backdrop. “Someone who has been doing this kind of thing for years did a half-mile of 30-foot high scenic forest,” he marveled.
Beebe won the Academy Award for best cinematography in 2005 for Memoirs of a Geisha, another film directed by Marshall. He also received an award from the American Society of Cinematographers and a BAFTA for his work on the movie. He was nominated for a best cinematography Oscar in 2004 for Chicago. The DP has photographed two pictures for director Michael Mann: Collateral (where his co-cinematographer was Paul Cameron) and Miami Vice. Beebe is currently prepping to shoot Spectre, the next James Bond movie, to be directed by Sam Mendes and tentatively set for release in 2015.