Let there be light

Special to The Times

Broadway and Hollywood, which have always been somewhat prickly cousins, are increasingly poaching each other's techniques -- and perhaps nothing illustrates that more this year than the film success of the Tony Award-winning lighting designing team of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.

Their specialty is lighting musical numbers on stage and in film, and the Oscar-nominated "Chicago" is the most spectacular cinematic showcase to date for their talents. Lighting musical numbers in film, explains Fisher, who worked on both the stage and film versions of the musical, is radically different from lighting nonmusical sequences.

In a nonmusical film scene, there usually are just a few light cues, or changes per take, he notes. By contrast, some of the "Chicago" numbers required more than 150 lighting changes.

Director Rob Marshall "wanted us to take the musical numbers and have them have the vitality and energy you would normally see in theaters," Fisher says.

Adds Eisenhauer: "In 'Chicago,' we felt we broke new ground. We had the opportunity to take our lighting work in theater and bring it to film. The thing that really turned us on was the need to make something artful and communicative and precise and as perfect as something artistic could be."

Fisher, 65, has been a lighting designer for nearly 40 years. Back in 1964, he started his career at the top, when he worked with Noel Coward on his musical "High Spirits" and Stephen Sondheim on "Anyone Can Whistle." Since then, he has lighted more than 150 Broadway productions, including six Broadway shows with choreographer Bob Fosse, who created the original 1975 musical "Chicago."

The result has been six Tony Awards for Fisher individually and one for work done in partnership with Eisenhauer for the 1996 Broadway production of "Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk."

In "Chicago," light functions almost as another character on the screen. It not only leads the audience from reality to fantasy, but also makes the film's myriad moods -- from joy to greed to abject loneliness -- resonate.

"Lighting is static," Eisenhauer says. "We apply the timing to make the lights physically undulate and move as well as dim up and dim down. It creates a visceral experience for the audience."

Miramax's "Chicago" was the team's first joint movie venture. "Chicago" was Eisenhauer's, but not Fisher's, first foray into film; Fisher lighted concert scenes for the Barbra Streisand 1976 remake of "A Star is Born," as well as "Can't Stop the Music" (1980), the film "Beatlemania" (1981) and "The Birdcage" (1996). Coming up next for the team is lighting the live concert sequences for "Marci X," about the world of rap music, produced by Scott Rudin and scheduled to be released in late summer. Eisenhauer and Fisher continue their foray into cinema lighting with a battle-of-the-bands number in "The School of Rock," also produced by Rudin and starring Jack Black and Joan Cusack, that's scheduled to be released in the summer. (Both films are Paramount releases.) "In theater, we use light to communicate a change," says Eisenhauer. "We now may be providing another dimensionality [to film] that has traditionally been reserved for stage."

Rudin, who has worked with Fisher and Eisenhauer in theater and movies, says the two "have the tremendous ability to use light to take movies, which are extremely literal, and find a way to abstract time and space."

Collaborators for 18 years

In his sixth-floor studio, Fisher has expanded his huge Chelsea space into three separate businesses. One centers on architectural lighting -- clients include the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Getty Museum and twin towers of light memorial. A second company focuses on theater design and renovation.

But it is the third business that Fisher is most enamored of right now -- film, theater and live concert lighting. He and Eisenhauer, 40, studied under the same professor of lighting at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, although 25 years apart. They have been partners for 18 years, starting up their own company, Third Eye, in 1985.

In the old days, in both movies and theater, lights were fixed pieces of hardware; to change a light's position, a person would physically have to move it, even if that meant crawling up a pole. During the past 15 years, the development of automated lighting, which can be controlled by a computer, has become a standard for Broadway and movies.

Now, whether for film or theater, Eisenhauer and Fisher painstakingly lay out a map -- which looks like an architectural blueprint -- to signify where each light is and what it will do for each musical scene. That map undergoes continual change as the film or play develops. Once it is considered as perfect as it can get, it is frozen and fed into a computer program.

On the "School of Rock" set, Eisenhauer sits next to a lighting control console known as the Virtuoso and watches the rehearsal unfolding on the stage below.

She brings her skill as a trained concert pianist to perfecting the interplay between the light and the music. A squawking order comes through the walkie-talkie: "Take it down 15%." A button is punched and the light dims.

"This is a glorified version of the knob that turns your bedroom light on and off," Fisher says.

Lighting has historically been the purview of a film's cinematographer; no separate Academy Award exists for lighting design. And Fisher and Eisenhauer are very careful to give full credit to Dion Beebe, "Chicago's" cinematographer.

"Our job is to serve the cinematographer in ways he's never been served before," Eisenhauer says. Adds Fisher, "Ultimately, the cinematographer is capturing what we do on film. He's the final arbiter to the look that will appear on your neighborhood screen."

Beebe says that he and Marshall fought to get Fisher and Eisenhauer on the film.

"Our greatest challenge was integrating the theatrical into the movie," he says. "It was a great collaboration. We went through a rigorous process of sitting through numbers and breaking them down, working side by side" to get the lighting right.

Fisher and Eisenhauer say they love working in both film and theater because they offer such different challenges. Theater provides the thrill of a live performance in which nothing is ever exactly the same twice -- and it is unmistakably a world of fantasy. Film, on the other hand, allows them to pursue perfection through its ability to try an idea over and over and then capture it forever. It also can create a reality that is impossible on stage.

"The best environments require the best of us," Eisenhauer says. "It's all about style. How do you find just the right style to communicate an atmosphere, a period? The further you get into it, the less tangible it is.

"For instance, a wonderful director will say to us, 'It needs to feel more lonely' or 'I need to see her confusion more.' What is the quality of light that makes someone feel lonely? It's the same as communicating to an actor, but we translate it into light."

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