Cirque du Soleil's 3D film fantasy

By Lydia Jenkin

Director Andrew Adamson has turned Cirque du Soleil's Las Vegas spectaculars into a 3D film with the help of his kids - and James Cameron. He talks to Lydia Jenkin

A scene from Cirque Du Soleil, from Paramount Pictures and James Cameron. Photo / Supplied
A scene from Cirque Du Soleil, from Paramount Pictures and James Cameron. Photo / Supplied

Mythical creatures, enchanted forests, epic battles, oddball characters leading us into different realms - the past films of Kiwi director Andrew Adamson sure have had their fair share of them.

There was the whimsical fairy tale fun of Shrek which he followed with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the further Chronicles of Narnia.

"I never really intended to do that," Adamson laughs about his inclination for stories of myth and magic. Even when he's back in the real world, it's rubbed up against fantasy.

"I just did Mr Pip as well, up in Papua New Guinea, which is based around this background of a real crisis, and the civil war that happened there. But at the same time, there's a huge fantasy element to that film [too], so I guess I must have a natural tendency [towards it]. That film is a lot about the power of story and the power of imagination, and I guess that's always played a part in my life."

But his next release really dives - and flies and somersaults - into a dreamy, weird, alternative reality: Cirque du Soleil Worlds Away.

The company behind the dazzling circus empire had formulated plans to make a movie from their six permanent Las Vegas shows - O, Ka, Viva Elvis, Zumanity, Mystere, and The Beatles - Love. Adamson signed on and roped in another New Zealand resident film-maker - James Cameron, who came in as a producer with his cutting-edge Fusion 3D camera system.

The result is a 90-minute spectacular with a gentle over-arching narrative. It might be capturing something that's real, but it's not a documentary.

The plot, such as it is, follows Mia, a young woman who meets a performer known as The Aerialist, at a run-down circus and pursues him when he seems to disappear into a parallel universe. Or possibly universes ...

"I wanted it to still be entertainment in its own right. What I found is that the Cirque shows do have a very loose narrative, and I felt like we needed a slightly tighter narrative for the film, that we needed to be a little more emotionally involved with the characters. And I did feel like we needed to be guided in by a normal person, to help take us into this world, and that's what Erica Linz's character Mia does to a certain degree, she becomes our eyes going into the world."

"The sort of Alice in Wonderland, kind of Through the Looking Glass, or Down the Rabbit Hole idea kind of came to me quite early on, and it just developed from there really.

"It was unusual in that there wasn't a script as such. It was an improvised kind of process, because I wanted to at least capture the nature of the shows, that dreamlike sensibility that they have."

Dreamlike is the best way to describe the unconventional film.

"It goes all over the place," Adamson laughs. "And then a rabbit jumps up and walks on his ears, so you know you're not in a normal reality!"

Of course the challenge was finding a way to move between the very different shows. The deep watery world of O, which required underwater filming, is very different to the psychedelic joy of The Beatles - Love, the martial arts gymnastics of Ka are a far cry from the sensual cabaret of Zumanity, while Viva Elvis is strangely bright and bouncy.

"I wanted to use the trampoline act from Elvis with the superheroes, and I had all these different ideas about how to integrate it. But in the end I thought it is weird, even at the best of times, so just let it be weird. Dreams are often weird like that."

One of the most heart-thumping sequences involves a large flying boat which swings high above a pool of water, while acrobats perform a series of trapeze-type acts, throwing themselves round a series of bars and tossing other performers between them.

Being able to convey that sense of peril, and the tension of the acts on the big screen was very important to Adamson, so being able to get up close, and to give a strong sense of height and distance were paramount.

"That was one of the reasons to leave all the wires and nets in when they were there, so you could appreciate it when they weren't. I think that does give you a greater sense of the jeopardy. And the 3D does help with that too, that you actually get to feel the vertigo.When you see it live it's a different experience because anything can happen and that gives you a different sense of danger, but we were able to change the view, and let the audience see things they might otherwise not have seen. You get to see what they're doing up close with high-speed photography. It's incredible, because you realise that every muscle is working to achieve that second where their hands are going to come together or not."

Adamson and crew shot the film in Las Vegas in front of a live audience, and on the show's days off. The opening sequence and desert segments which connect the Cirque shows were shot out in West Auckland (Adamson lives in Auckland with his family); while the final scene of the film is a specially constructed and choreographed aerial ballet filmed in Vegas, where Mia and her Aerialist finally meet again.

"I really wanted it to be like a miniature love story in three acts, the meeting and flirting, getting to know each other, and ultimately finding this euphoric moment that ended in a very classic movie kiss. So they designed and choreographed that with me, and just figured it out together."

The production team made sure it would be suitable for all ages - Adamson's children, who frequently critique his work, gave feedback throughout.

"They saw a lot of it throughout, because I edit at home, and they would come in to watch - they love the 3D, and they love watching the acts. They've gotten to know some of the performers now too, particularly Erica. When she was here shooting, she went on the trampoline with my kids and my 7-year-old asked her 'are you a kid or an adult?' because Erica is tiny and she was bouncing on the trampoline doing flips, so it was a bit confusing."

Being able to work at home in Auckland meant that Adamson was actually working on both Worlds Away and the long-awaited Mr Pip - his adaptation of the acclaimed Lloyd Jones novel - simultaneously.

"I started shooting Cirque initially as like a three-month thing, and it just grew, and then Pip started, and Hugh [Laurie] became available, so I finished shooting Cirque in Vegas, flew to Papua New Guinea, and then shot Mr Pip in Bougainville, and then actually did post-production on both of them at the same time. I was going from one sound stage to the next, doing two entirely different films. When you're fed up with one, you can go to the other," he laughs.

He's effectively finished Mr Pip - it had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year - but he's enjoying having the time to continue tweaking it.

"We had a great reception at Toronto, but there's some things I want to do with helping the international audiences in terms of explaining a situation that is maybe more familiar to Australasian audiences, but not so much to American audiences. So I'm still working, and I'll keep working on it until they tell me I can't any more.

"But then I feel like just having a palate cleanse. I think you've got to allow the space for something to come to you that you really want to do."

Who: Director Andrew Adamson
What: Cirque du Soleil Worlds Away
When and where: In cinemas from Thursday February 21
Previous films include: Shrek franchise, Narnia trilogy

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