“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” COUNTDOWN: 20 DAYS
Are you ready for a trip down the rabbit hole? Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Disney are adding a strange new chapter to the Lewis Carroll classic with their “Alice in Wonderland,” a film that presents a young woman who finds herself in the world of the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen. She is welcomed as a returning visitor — but is she, in fact, the same Alice who roamed the trippy realm as a child? Time will tell. Here at the Hero Complex, we’re counting down to the film’s March 5 release with daily coverage. Today it’s a chat with director of photography Dariusz Wolski.
The cinematographer Dariusz Wolski enjoyed his work with Tim Burton on “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” so he said yes when the director offered him the director of photography post on “Alice in Wonderland.” At the time, though, Wolski didn’t know that, like Alice, he was taking a tumble into a strange and unsettling world.
“‘Alice’ was the most unusual thing I had ever done in my life,” said the 53-year-old native of Warsaw. “Tim called me and said ‘I am making this movie, will you do it?’ I said sure because I like the guy. I had no idea what it was going to be.”
And how would he describe that experience?
“A debacle,” Wolski said with exaggerated distress. “I think Tim hated the green more than I did by the end.”
The green, of course, is the vast emerald -surface set for the film; the actors did their work for Wolski’s camera while moving through a green void that was designed to hold space for the computer artists who would later fill in the digitally designed landscapes of Wonderland.
“It was quite absurd,” says Wolski, who previous credits include the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, “The Crow” and “Crimson Tide.” “You look through the camera and all you see is green. ‘OK so there will be a castle there, a tree here and a hill there. And a moat, yes, a moat about there. There’s this entire world that will be created but but it’s not there on camera. It’s…difficult.”
The nature of the film changed as it went along — it’s a hybrid of animation and live action, but the ratio changed as it got underway as Burton tilted toward more performances by live actors. The green set became vital to the vision Burton desired but the director — and his cinematographer — had never spent so much time experimenting in that particular type of movie-making laboratory.
There were other challenges. The character Alice changes sizes and that means Wolski and Burton had to compute the angles and orientation of each scene.
“Sometimes she is six inches, sometimes she is two feet, sometimes she is eight feet. The eye-lines change, everything changes. It was a very bizarre project. And lighting? You’re lighting blindly. everything will be filled in later after you are done. There is a lot of use of your imagination.”
Wolski will be back on familiar ground — or familiar waters — with his next project, the fourth “Pirates” film. There a certain amount of relief in going back to the deep blue sea after so much time in an ocean of green.
After “Alice,” would he answer an invitation to the some new green-set Wonderland the same way today? “Uh. If it’s Tim? Maybe.”
– Geoff Boucher
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IMAGES: Top, Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland” (Walt Disney Studios). Dariusz Wolski in a handout photo (Douglas Kirkland). Depp in posters for “Sweeney Todd” and “Alice.”