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Los Angeles Times

Monday, November 22, 1999

Awakening Burton's 'Sleepy' Vision

A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere. . . . [The people] are given to all kinds of marvelous beliefs; are subject to trances and visions and frequently see strange sights and hear strange voices in the air. . . . The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region . . . is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head.
--Washington Irving, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

By LORENZA MUNOZ, Times Staff Writer

With its eerie stillness, dreamy feel and gothic horror, Sleepy Hollow seemed the perfect place for Tim Burton, a director who has carved a niche for himself by making quirky, fable-like stories ("Edward Scissorhands," "Beetlejuice") come to life on the big screen.

With Burton at the helm, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki ("A Little Princess") and production designer Rick Heinrichs ("Batman Returns") achieved a look that mixes terror with fantasy--along with spurts of humor--for their gory take on Irving's "Sleepy Hollow."

Though there are some special effects--particularly with Christopher Walken's headless horseman--this was no "Armageddon." Burton, Lubezki and Heinrichs, along with costume designer Colleen Atwood and the film crew, went to unusual lengths to bring Sleepy Hollow to life during the shooting.

"We wanted to rely as little as possible on post-production special effects," Burton said. "The village is like a character. When the images are strong, they tap into your subconscious. Everybody had a part in giving the film its texture and right tone of fantasy and reality."

Lubezki immediately understood Burton's vision for the film--one in which lighting, color and camera angles set the tone for the fog-shrouded 18th century town in upstate New York. The Mexican cinematographer's luminescent work in "A Little Princess" garnered him an Oscar nomination. But to replace the bright reds and brilliant hues of the children's fantasy film, Lubezki had to draw on the darker side of his art for "Sleepy Hollow." "The entire film walks this line between the real and the unreal," Lubezki said. "Everything looks a bit metallic and foggy, like it's always dusk. I wanted it to feel cold and unfriendly." To give the film its uninviting blue-gray look, Lubezki saturated it with contrast enhancement, a chemical process that makes blacks blacker and the whites whiter--but all in muted tones.

Lighting, Fabric
Help Create the Look

To go along with the deathly pale makeup, Lubezki lit the actors in such a way to play up their pallor, making them almost translucent. His lighting also created shadows under their eyes to give the impression of dark circles without makeup.

Lubezki and Burton tested the fabric in the costumes, the makeup and the blood to see how they would photograph. In fact, mixing the right color of blood (of which there is a lot) turned out to be one of the biggest challenges. Finally they created a bizarre, almost radio-active kind of orange that looked like a vibrant red when photographed.

Although "Sleepy Hollow" was a $60-million production, Lubezki tried to use some old-fashioned low-budget techniques. He relied on only four types of lenses, mainly wide angle, that could take in the characters and their environment.

He tried to give the film a sense of style reminiscent of cheap horror flicks or the cult classic Mexican wrestling film "The Wrestlers vs. the Mummies." He used soft lighting to give the film a naturalism and pictorialism that evoked an almost surreal kind of environment.

"In the Mexican horror flicks, there was never enough money, so they tried to create elements that gave it its look," Lubezki said. Indeed, Burton--well versed in the cult Mexican wrestling flicks--joked with Lubezki that they were "making the biggest, most expensive Mexican B-movie in the history of Hollywood." In fact, the headless horseman--whose head was chopped off in the Industrial Light & Magic editing room--was actually wearing a blue mask with the eyes, nose and mouth cut out as on a Mexican wrestler's mask.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge for Burton and Lubezki came in the final chase, when the two heroes, Johnny Depp's Ichabod Crane and Christina Ricci's Katrina Van Tassel, are escaping the vicious headless horseman. Most of it was filmed inside a sausage-shaped warehouse, only 80 feet wide but 400 feet long. By the time the horse gathered full speed, it had to slow down so it wouldn't smash into the wall. They were able to photograph only about six seconds worth of film at a time.

Originally, Burton and Heinrichs intended to film in Tarrytown in New York's Westchester County, where Irving based his short story. But they found the quaint town's architecture to be too historically accurate for the fantasy horror film they had in mind.

"We wanted to avoid doing a hard-core period piece," Burton said. "Our inspiration was really the older monster movies. We wanted a strong folk tale rather than a re-creation of the Colonial period."

So they set off for the English countryside, where they built a village. Their miniature town was used for exterior sweeping shots of Sleepy Hollow only. Most of the film was photographed inside sound studios--converted World War II aerodromes--to control the light and maintain its foggy look. In fact, there was so much smoke pumped into the set that Lubezki came down with a pulmonary infection near the end of the shoot.

In keeping with Burton's vision, Heinrichs designed a set with dark, crooked Salvador Dali-inspired trees, moldy cemeteries, leafy dirt roads and creeping fog banks that come alive as if they are characters themselves.

"At first the world of Tim Burton was all graphic art and drawings," said Heinrichs, who has known Burton for 20 years since their days at Disney's animation studio. "It felt like a world you could walk into. What our collaboration did was really make it a habitable world."

'Glowing Presence'

of Ichabod's Beloved

The costumes were also an integral part of the look. Atwood, who had worked with Burton on "Edward Scissorhands," "Ed Wood" and "Mars Attacks!," knew her color palette was limited. Most of the costumes were done in grayish, metallic green tones, which turned into hues of black when put through the saturation process. The characters also had to look dirty and disheveled because in those days, bathing was uncommon and mud often reached knee-high levels.

The exception was Ricci's Katrina. As the daughter of the richest man in town and Ichabod's love interest, Ricci had to wear costumes with an angelic, pure look to them. So Atwood worked with fine velvet in silvery tones for most of her outfits. She also found antique silks, which have a lighter texture than contemporary silk, to give her dresses an airy, almost dreamlike bounce to them.

"Katrina had a light and glowing presence in the village of Sleepy Hollow," Atwood said. "The idea was to see her through Ichabod's eye. To him she was the most glowing, pure presence that he knew."

The darkest figure was, of course, the headless horseman. Atwood invented a special process (that she won't divulge) that gave his costume the look of clothing worn by someone literally rising from the dead.

But the horseman's head complicated matters during filming because it blocked the background. So at least two takes were necessary whenever the horseman appeared--one with the head and another with the background. Jim Mitchell of ILM then edited the takes together. On the set, once the horseman sliced his victims, the prosthetic heads would be tossed on stage by Mitchell or Heinrichs or whoever was handy.

"It's got a cartoonish quality about it, the heads would spin around and tumble out, totally forgoing physics," Mitchell said. "It was absurd how much fun it was to do that. We were just continuing in the tradition of Tim's weird sense of humor."


Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times


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