It may seem hard to believe now, but Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are caused quite a stir when it was first published in 1963. Despite winning the coveted Caldecott Medal for Most Distinguished Picture Book, the slender, tableau-style volume — which has a grand total of just 10 sentences — drew strong criticism from child psychologists, who deemed its images too disturbing for children. Visually echoing the work of Francisco Goya, one of Sendak’s favorite artists, Wild Things springs straight out of Freudian psychoanalytical theory, which maintains that children learn to deal with strong emotions by projecting them onto fantasies.
Now considered a classic of children’s literature, Wild Things tells the story of Max (played in the movie by Max Records), a 9-year-old boy who is sent to bed without his supper after making mischief. Using his imagination, Max transforms his room into a jungle where he tames a group of fantastic creatures: cantankerous, furry, two-legged beasts resplendent with claws, teeth, scales and horns.
In bringing Max’s rambunctious adventures to cinematic life, director Spike Jonze reunited with his longtime collaborator, cinematographer Lance Acord, ASC. “Working with Spike again was the great attraction of doing this film,” offers Acord, who is quite familiar with the psychological complexities of Jonze’s work after shooting the features Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (AC Dec. ’02). “I initially thought the project might involve extensive use of animatronics and greenscreen, but Spike’s enthusiastic reconceptualization was unique and very exciting. He was adamant about not making an effects-driven movie.”
Principal photography took place in Australia during winter and early spring of 2006. Locations were shot around the state of Victoria, while studio shoots were undertaken at Central City Studios in Melbourne. “We had a nice low sun path for the entirety of the shoot, and when the wind blew from the Antarctic, the light was so clear and bright I was getting meter readings higher than anywhere else I’ve shot,” recalls Acord.
AC caught up with the cinematographer while the production was doing night shoots in Gembrook Forest, north of Melbourne. The location had been transformed into a menacing land of smoke and fire, with large, mysterious silhouettes visible on the ridgeline. A recent bushfire had burnt away all the undergrowth, leaving behind scorched earth and blackened trees with white leaves. Dotting the barren landscape were structures resembling huge bird’s nests — the homes of the wild things. “Gembrook is a perfect example of the type of location we wanted for the land of the wild things,” Acord notes while keeping a watchful eye over preparations. “We can see deep into the forest with long lenses, and the strong contrast provides a unique palette. Production designer Keith ‘K.K.’ Barrett was the driving force in creating a forest that wasn’t something we’d already seen on film. Whenever possible, we’ve excluded the color green. Photographically, green can be a comforting color because it looks tranquil and fertile, and we want the forest to be a wild, untamed place of danger and adventure.”
In the sequence that was being shot, Max is crowned king of the wild things and issues his first royal proclamation: “Let the wild rumpus begin!” Acord observes, “The wild things occasionally like to build large, dangerous fires. They are not mean in their destructiveness — just somewhat rowdy!”
To create the wild things onscreen, Jonze opted for suit-performers whose work was augmented with minimal visual-effects work — a decision designed to allow realistic emotional interaction between Records and the other actors. “Spike wanted the experience to be tactile for both Max and the suit-performers,” Acord explains. “He didn’t want to use CG creatures or force Max to perform to a greenscreen. He knew that using suit-performers would create some limitations, but it was a worthwhile tradeoff — the opportunity of having the suit-performers interact with Max adds so much to the naturalism of the young actor’s performance. Spike found an amazing group of actors, many from here in Australia; they had no experience as suit-performers, but they were really attuned to the subtleties of the script and the nuances of the voice performances.”
Watching the suit-performers go through rehearsals with the naked eye, it’s readily apparent that one of the main challenges is their bulky costumes, which restrict their physicality and range of motion; the performers have difficulty simply moving around and walking down the forest paths. When viewed on monitors fed from the sequence’s three cameras, however, each of the wild things appears dynamic, nimble and strong. Acord points out, “Achieving that energy onscreen all comes down to establishing the best combination of lenses, framing, camera movement, staging and blocking. Getting those elements right is a constant learning curve. When the creatures are running around and ‘rumpusing,’ the operator’s right in there with them — the crazier the camerawork, the better the result. The depth of the frame is accentuated with handheld camerawork, point-of-view shots and very long lenses to compress the space, and we also use lots of foreground elements, such as unexpected glimpses through trees. I’m constantly amazed at how lifelike their movements appear.”
Enabling some of the more elaborate stunts with the wild things were lightweight versions of the creature suits that were specifically designed for the second-unit stunt performers. This group was directed by John Mahaffie and photographed by Brad Shield. Acord explains that the lighter suits “incorporated bracing where the head connected to the body. That meant less nuanced motion, but the stunt-suit performers were able to run and jump and generally move more than the performers in the more refined suits.”
The lighting of the Gembrook sequence involved a simple approach that nevertheless required a week of rigging. A circular area measuring approximately 600 square meters, the location was surrounded by eight 12-Light Dinettes and another eight Nine-light Maxis gelled with ¾ to Full CTO. The lamps were run through a series of dimmers that kept them at levels ranging from 25 to 80 percent. “These lamps provide backlight for the smoke, silhouetting the creatures and the back- to midground trees,” explains gaffer Karl Engeler during a break in filming. “The fire effect, which plays subtly on the foreground trees, is extended with flame bars, Par cans and Ground Rows.” A varying mixture of Lee 250 and 216 diffusion was applied to these lamps, as well as the 12- and Nine-lights. A very soft, top-to-three-quarter back moonlight effect was provided by two 24Ks and two T12s on 30' scaffold towers, with Engeler and his team using the existing landscape to get the right height. The four lamps on the towers were gelled with either gridcloth or 252 1⁄8 White Diffusion. “Lance doesn’t like the spray effect you get by punching through smoke with a hard light, but we also don’t want to diffuse the lamps so much that they negate the flicker effect of the fire,” continues Engeler. “At various angles, these lamps provide the soft moonlight and also backlight the smoke high up in the trees. Around the camera, Par bars provide the firelight effect; for moonlight, six Ruby Sevens are directed straight up into a 20x20 Ultrabounce, which provides an ambience for the foreground.”
“The intention is to maintain a sense of depth in the forest,” Acord explains between setups. “The forest is quite dense, we’re shooting at night, and the creatures themselves are quite dark, in the same tonal range as the trees and groundcover. So we have different layers: there’s a deep background layer of backlit smoke; a row of trees silhouetted in front of that; a layer of trees more frontlit by the firelight; and, finally, the creatures, which are silhouetted in front of that.”