In a cluttered studio hidden away in a charmless strip of Scarborough, director Kevin Sullivan is issuing instructions to singer Mireille Asselin as she tries to run across the set without tripping over her flowing gown: "You're in a world you have never seen before . . . You have to look up . . . over your left shoulder . . ."
No wonder Asselin needs reminding of where she is. All she can see is the unadorned floor and walls of the set, painted a blinding shade of green. Once the film is made, however, the green will be replaced with exotic animated backdrops and she will appear to be running through dripping old catacombs alongside an underground river.
Sullivan, best known as the creator of the Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonle a television series, is using a technique called "green screen," whereby a different backdrop can be slotted in behind the actors. It's a venerable bit of film trickery, better known as blue screen or chroma key, that has been updated in recent years to permit live actors to perform in digitally generated settings. The leading example is Sin City, the 2005 noir thriller based on Frank Miller's graphic novels that successfully created a live world with a comic-book feel.
Sullivan's project, however, is a little more tony. His film is partly a screen adaptation of Mozart's The Magic Flute as staged by Opera Atelier, the renowned Canadian baroque opera company. It also features a contemporary, behind-the-scenes story about two singers who are performing the opera in Salzburg, Austria. Eventually, the opera and the contemporary tale come together against many, many layers of digitally enhanced backdrops created from photographs shot everywhere from Salzburg and Vienna to Rockwood, Ont.
"My goal is to take that antiquated, reserved world that people think is high art and make it contemporary," Sullivan said during a brief break from filming.
"When we are shooting the Queen of the Night, it's like we are shooting a music video," he added, referring to the flamboyant character who sings some of the opera's best-loved arias. "The camera is down her throat, the camera is up her nostrils." Sullivan wants to match the excitement of Mozart's music with spectacular effects -- when the Queen of the Night hits a high note, the screen will appear to smash -- and looked for ways to update baroque stage devices. For example, there's a scene in the opera where three spirits (usually played by angelic children) fly onto the stage, an effect often created with some painted clouds and a trapeze. On film, Sullivan will use thousands of digitally generated bubbles for their entrance.
Sullivan's idea for the film came from a variety of sources. Partly, he was inspired by the city of Salzburg itself, after hearing about it from his 13-year-old daughter who visited Europe with her school orchestra for the celebrations of Mozart's 250th birthday last winter. Partly, he was inspired by The Woman in White, an Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical that recently completed a 17-month run in London's West End and which used animated three-dimensional backdrops. And then, although he wouldn't describe himself as opera buff, he had always loved The Magic Flute. He approached Jeannette Zingg and Marshall Pynkoski, artistic directors of Opera Atelier and specialists in staging opera with techniques faithful to the baroque period, and suggested a collaboration.
"They are the very antithesis of the opera world; they are very sexy," he said, praising the way their recreation of baroque staging has reinvigorated the form. "They are doing things as they were done in the 18th-century: There isn't that wall of opera reserve."
Sullivan's script includes many scenes from the Opera Atelier Magic Flute, supposedly being staged in Salzburg with Pynkoski playing the character of the opera director. (The company is actually remounting its stage show, first produced in 1991, in Toronto in November -- around the time the movie will hit cinemas.)
The rest of the story is a modern one that mirrors the opera: The singer who plays Pamina, daughter of the domineering Queen of the Night and captive of Sarastro, is a Serbian performer married off at a young age to a powerful Russian businessman. She is then rescued by her leading man, the singer who plays the hero, Prince Tamino, in the opera.
To create the backdrops for this romantic tale, Sullivan and a crew shot still images of glorious baroque buildings in Austria and Germany -- theatres, monasteries, palaces and castles -- as well as industrial ruins in both Canada and the United States. One scene may include several layers of these images: The dripping catacomb has stone archways lifted from the old mill in Rockwood, Ont., supported by the ceiling of the Residenz, a royal palace in Munich. Bits of a derelict power plant in Ithaca, N.Y., are thrown in for good measure.
Visual-effects supervisor Tony Willis, who runs the Toronto special-effects company Alumini Designs, marries the pieces and advises Sullivan on how the live action should be shot before his computer-graphics team animates the backdrops in postproduction. On the set, Willis and Sullivan get some idea of the final effect by watching a small monitor on which they see the actors superimposed over the digital backdrops.
Sullivan is also using conventional sets: Salzburg scenes featuring a sidewalk café and town square were shot on the back lot, where the main street of a Northern Ontario town recreated for Sullivan Entertainment's Wind at My Back series was repainted to look suitably Austrian. A European cathedral will then be dropped in digitally.
"You can create effects that are kind of like The Matrix and then bring them into a different genre," Sullivan said.
To give his story a contemporary appeal that matches the special effects, he wanted young performers to play the romantic roles rather than the more senior singers who will star in the Opera Atelier show. Pynkoski suggested that he go to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. There Sullivan discovered Asselin, who is still completing her degree in opera. She will do most of the onscreen singing for her role, and will sing in the chorus for the stage production.
"It was interesting to adapt to the format," Asselin observed of her first-ever film role. "On stage, you do a show from beginning to end, you get in character. . . . On the first day here, I was thrown into something from the middle of the movie; it was a very emotional scene . . . definitely a challenge."
She got help from her co-star Warren Christie, the Vancouver actor who plays both Prince Tamino and the performer who rescues her character. He's a stranger to opera -- his arias will be dubbed in by a professional singer -- but not to television and film. His many roles include episodes playing Tarn on Battlestar Galactica, as well as appearances on The L Word. He's used to ignoring the on-set bustle so that he can act. "You've got to use your imagination a fair amount. You lock on to that person you are working with and you try to create a little space and block out the rest."
He remarked that the green-screen work is actually a lot quicker than shooting on location, because there is no need to travel all over the place or wait for the perfect weather or light. Still, it requires a great deal of technical direction, and Sullivan gives his performers top marks for being unfazed by either the technology or the fanciful storyline.
"Our actors make things that are very fantastical seem emotionally real. I think it's because they are brought up in the world of computer games. They don't think the least of it; they just walk on and do it," Sullivan remarks, returning to the set where he directs with one eye on his cast and one eye on the monitor.
"No," he tells Christie, "You can't step back -- you're right on the edge of a river."