True story: Once upon a time, a little boy grew up in his family's Russian circus. He trained as a contortionist when he was three. By five he was learning to fly as an aerialist. When he was 14 he kept running away to work on building sites because he wanted to be a carpenter.
Director Andrew Adamson can't help but laugh at the irony.
As it turns out, the boy couldn't escape circus life, and little Igor Zaripov grew up to become a star of the world-famous Cirque du Soleil. He also has a sideline in pulling double-decker buses with his teeth.
Adamson, whose new film Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away was released last week, is the New Zealand-born and based director of the first two Shrek and Narnia movies ("Notice I always do one sequel and then move off "). With a career that began in visual effects departments before he moved into directing animated and visually effected movies, this latest film presented Adamson with a completely new challenge. Extracting key acts from seven of the Cirque du Soleil acrobatic/aerialist shows as they ran in Las Vegas, he has built a cinematic experience out of the live performance.
Already a big fan of Cirque, Adamson says it appealed to him to do things "that feel a little bit creatively risky". With a typical lack of ego he admits that because this was his first time working in 3D, he was glad when producer James Cameron, with whom who he had worked years ago on True Lies, came on board. "I was like, ‘Give me information - tell me what I need to know because I need to learn this'."
He describes a similar relationship with the "very supportive" Sir Peter Jackson. "There's not really a sense of competition - when you get together you find there's only so many people, particularly in New Zealand, that do what you do, and you can actually talk about shared experience." Adamson attended the Hobbit premiere in November "to support a friend's film".
Rather than simply shoot a "concert movie", Adamson watched all the Vegas Cirque shows in order to choose the scenes he wanted in the film, then returned twice with his crew to shoot with hi-tech equipment, capturing the performances in 3D with high-speed photography and extra lighting where necessary. Some of the resulting footage is from the live shows, performed before an audience; other parts were filmed specially, so the cameras could get up close and capture the detail of the breathtaking choreography.
In compiling his storyboard, Adamson took a different tack. "The initial thought was you take all the biggest acts from all the shows and string them together, but that was just like listening to music turned up too loud the whole time [so] I started to think about the shows themselves and how they have these big moments and then these very intimate moments, and then tried to create that dynamic within the film." He wrote a simple narrative thread about a girl's quest to find a handsome young aerialist who disappears, aiming to provide an emotional connection for a cinema audience.
Given he couldn't shout "Cut!" and demand to reshoot a movement in the middle of a sequence, Adamson explains this method of film-making differs greatly from the highly controlled and constructed production of his previous movies. "Animation is very technical. Everything that's on there, you have to think of - nothing happens by accident. With Cirque it's more about capturing."
The result is spectacular, as the capacity for close-ups of extraordinary moves gives the audience a sense of how strong and agile the performers are. Adamson also exploited the nature of film to slow down various shots so we can truly marvel. The leads were surprised at some of his choices, explaining that one highlighted move was just a transition, not the main part of the trick. His response was "Look what you are doing there - that's particularly beautiful . . . I can see you twisting your body in a way that to me seems impossible and so I want to concentrate on that."
Audiences will agree that most of the performance looks impossible to mere mortals. Yet the stars manage to conduct complicated and strenuous moves without a grimace. Adamson recounts how performers would come up to him after a shoot "and they're dripping with perspiration and breathing heavily and you go, ‘well yeah, that's really hard but it doesn't look it'." The musical accompaniment is integral to the experience. One show, Love, uses Beatles' songs; others have an orchestral soundtrack that matches the specific moves on stage. Adamson was somewhat bound by the music Cirque prescribes for its acts, but also had a piece composed specially for the breathtaking finale where performers are dancing in mid-air with one arm holding a strap so they appear to be suspended from the sky.
Maybe one day Igor will build his dream house, but for now he's creating dreams for his audience.
Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away is now screening.
- Sunday Star Times