In Britney Spears’ music video “Circus,” the singer performs in the titular setting among burlesque dancers, elephants and pyrotechnics, creating a kaleidoscope of visual and aural sensations. It’s a typically dynamic milieu for director Francis Lawrence and cinematographer Thomas Kloss, whose ongoing partnership has yielded bold results on an array of music videos, including Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi,” Aerosmith’s “Jaded” (for which Kloss was nominated for an MTV award for Best Cinematography), and The Backstreet Boys’ “The Call” (AC July ’01). “I’ve worked with Francis since early in his career, and the relationship hasn’t changed very much,” says Kloss. “From the beginning, he never overburdened me with information or requests, but he always had good visual references that were essential to the project.”
While prepping “Circus,” Kloss and Lawrence looked at old circus photographs but didn’t really find what they were looking for. “We didn’t want the video to look like a period piece,” explains Kloss. “We wanted to give it a contemporary look but also play with well-known images that people understand.” Although Kloss didn’t use other films as references, he found inspiration by chance at the local cinema. “I went to see the restored Lola Montès , and it had exactly the kind of soft, organic look Francis and I wanted for the video.”
To create that look for “Circus,” Kloss tapped Otto Nemenz for some Arri Swing & Tilt lenses — “but we used them without the swing-and-tilt actually in place,” he notes — and Cooke Panchros. (He shot Super 35mm with two Arri 435s.) “All modern lenses are so well-designed and sharp that even with flares, there’s very little distortion or refraction,” Kloss observes. “Francis and I didn’t want to make the video pristine-looking; we wanted a softer, silkier look.” The production’s package also included a few Cooke S4 primes, which were used on the B camera.
“When we used filters, we applied grease or Vaseline in a very specific way, and we put a little more of it on the filter when we were using an S4, of course,” continues the cinematographer. “We would look through the lens, see the highlights, and then paint onto the filter with our fingers to create certain abstractions and refractions, or to stretch lines in the frame.” He used a 1/4 Tiffen Black Pro-Mist for diffusion. “I wanted to stay away from a completely crisp image, and because post is digital, you can go a little stronger on that diffusion because you can always bring it back in the transfer; you add a little bit of black, and the image becomes sharper again.”
Kloss carried out the transfer with colorist David Hussey at Company 3. “Our goal on the shoot was to [create most of the look] in-camera, creating flares and shafts and beams of light that looked good coming through the lens,” says Kloss. “In the last 10 years, we’ve seen so much electronic post work in films and music videos that I think it’s good if the pendulum can swing back a little bit. It’s nice to shoot something with classic beauty lighting and compositions and let the story play.”
This sensibility extended to every aspect of the production. “Francis built a lot of practicals into the art direction,” notes Kloss. “There were hanging lights next to the circus banners with Britney and the dancers walking through, and lights on the burlesque stage, along with other old theater lights. For wide shots, we used Nine-light Maxi-Brutes, but everything else was done with old-fashioned tungsten lamps as practicals. We started with those and then just accentuated them.
“I feel that Francis has always called on me for things that have a darker, more intense look, and I tend to paint out of the black, not the white,” he adds. “I like to start with all the lights off and start lighting a step at a time, and this project lent itself to that approach. We started with a dark stage and no light, then slowly illuminated what we wanted to see.
“We wanted the lighting to have two distinct looks, one natural and one theatrical. For the natural look, we used very simple paper China balls around the camera to give Britney the minimum amount of fill and put a bit of glow in her face. The other look was for the reverse, which we lit to look like there’s a strong light coming from a follow spot, from the audience area or from the other side of the stage. When Britney’s dancing on the burlesque stage, one strong follow spot creates a pure silhouette.” Lighting the reverse shots with strong spotlights had an added benefit: “On a big stage or in a big space, it helps you create a fake 3-D feel with a little bit of smoke and backlight. It instantly creates the sensation of a theatrical performance.”
For most of the shoot, both Arri 435s were handheld. “That helped make everything feel a little more organic,” says Kloss. “Our idea was to give it a strong basic look with strong contrast and then shoot for coverage. I tried to light in a way that we could constantly keep moving without stopping between each setup to relight, so we decided on a general 45-degree backlight with soft fill light; that way, we had most of the situations pre-lit with dimmers. We adjusted up or down a bit while Britney was getting ready or changing wardrobe. Then, as soon as she showed up on set, we were ready to get maximum coverage. On a music video, it’s important to get enough angles to avoid repeating shots, because people always want to see new angles and images.”
“Circus” was shot on Kodak Vision3 500T 5219, which Kloss rated at ISO 320. “It was perfect for what we wanted,” he says. “There’s so much latitude and contrast control with that negative if you really expose it well. A project like this lets you really use that latitude and maximize the palette from the absolute jet black on the edges of the frame all the way to the blown-out whites of the highlights.”
“Circus” was not without challenges — including working with elephants and a wall of fire that could only stay lit for 15-20 seconds at a time — but Kloss says his longtime partnership with Lawrence kept things on schedule. “We shot two 12-hour days and got everything we needed. That’s one of the advantages of working with a director who has the experience to know what coverage he needs.”
Although Kloss has shot features, including Fear and Showtime, he notes that short-form projects have distinct advantages. “On a movie, you usually establish a look and just continue it for months. Videos and commercials keep you fresh.”