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Cinderella: A Disney Classic Brought to Life

  • March 06, 2015

Together, Haris Zambarloukos, BSC and Kenneth Branagh have made the otherworldly Marvel pic Thor, the stylish Michael Caine vehicle Sleuth, and the spy thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Each of those projects also was made on 35mm film. Their latest collaboration, a live-action update of Disney's Cinderella, adds yet another completely different project to their body of work.

When he got the call, Zambarloukos was initially hesitant. "When I read the script, I began to realize what a great opportunity it was," he says. "It's an ancient, timeless story with versions in many cultures. Within Disney's version of the tale is a tragic orphan story that is almost Dickensian. And after our first meeting, I realized why Ken wanted to do it - it's a chance to make a classic, the first of its kind, in a new way. It's a big responsibility."

Behind the Scenes on Disney's live-action CINDERELLA Ben Chaplin; Crew; Kenneth Branagh ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Envisioning the right look for Cinderella, said to be the first in a series of classic Disney animated properties to be updated to live action, the filmmakers referred to Fragonard, a Rococo painter best known for exuberant paintings like "The Swing."

"The film is set in a pseudo-16th century Europe, and we could take liberties with it," explains Zambarloukos. "Fragonard did the same thing - that's what Rococo was, taking elements from the culture of the time but adding playfulness to it. It was an exceptionally clever reference point, and it guided me very well. We were also inspired by the original Disney version - there are some spectacular frames there - in the sense that things were hand-drawn and meticulously made. There's an exceptional humanity to it."

That meticulous and humane approach extended to every aspect of the new production, from the sumptuous costumes to extensive, complex sets reminiscent of a grander era of filmmaking. The choice to shoot on 35mm film, with lower-speed emulsions, in the anamorphic format, was in tune with that aesthetic.

Setting up a scene from Cinderella. (Photos by Jonathan Olley, ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

"There's something quite special about 50 ASA, or 200 ASA, and [PANAVISION] PRIMO anamorphic lenses," says the cinematographer. "We wanted to echo the feeling of 70mm, and those lenses, so crisp and clear, have some of that. Also, it makes the technique harken back to those classic films. We wanted shots to breathe, to stay back, with very slow takes, master shots and precise compositions."

Zambarloukos planned to shoot at about T4, which required a tremendous amount of light. He says his eye became accustomed to the bright levels, and his imagination learned to translate to what the film was seeing.

Ramping up to this large-scale, studio cinematography is done in steps, he says. "One of my heroes is Laird Hamilton, a champion big-wave surfer. He says that to get to the point where you can ride a 100-foot wave, you have to do it one foot at a time. That's a great analogy. I take things one step at a time, and Ken's trust makes me feel secure."

The film was shot almost entirely on sets and stages at or near Pinewood Studios in the U.K. The visual effects are surprisingly few, mostly around transformation scenes, such as when a pumpkin becomes a carriage. All the interiors were shot on KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213, and exteriors were shot on KODAK VISION3 50D Color Negative Film 5203, usually done with just reflectors and natural light.

Zambarloukos and Branagh.(Photos by Jonathan Olley, ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

The rich colors of the production design - every costume was handmade - play an important part in the look of the film. The three-week test period helped Zambarloukos dial in on an approach. He generally overexposed by a third of a stop, which is standard procedure for him.

"Kodak has a way of reproducing colors very authentically," he relates. "When you start combining certain hues within a frame, you've got to be careful that they're all replicated and you actually get that richness. And at the same time, we wanted warmth and warm light, so we used almost exclusively tungsten. There's no LED and no HMI on this film at all."

Calling it "an exercise in subtlety," Zambarloukas says he maintained a delicate balance between warmth and darkness by carefully wrapping keylight, using touches of warm fill, and factoring in skin tones, candlelight, and color in the production design. The most important example is a breathtaking scene where Cinderella enters the ballroom, shot on the 007 Stage at Pinewood.

"There's no formula for it," he reveals. "It's that process of imagining, creating and seeing it. We had to be quite subtle in our lighting and just let the faces and costumes come through, without being bright or flat. Ken has a way of blending the action and the drama, and that choreography helps the emotional aspect effortlessly."

Cinderella is in theaters this spring. "The images in the original, animated Cinderella have inspired an appreciation for art in children for decades," notes Zambarloukos. "We also hoped to make something inspirational and worthwhile to show to kids, and I think we succeeded."