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Estelle Daniel, producer:
... One of the largest set-pieces we tackled was the burning of the Gormenghast library, which involved a line-up of most of the stars, a lot of smoke and complicated special effects work.
Andy Wilson, director:
In the library sequence we had all eight principals, a real baby and a white bird supposedly locked into a burning building. I had to detail how the building catches fire from a little match struck outside which lights a cloth that Steerpike has laid all around the books. The sequence starts off with just smoke and then flame appears and then a conflagration appears. The flames were just gas burners which are distributed around the set, with hidden pipes and tubes. The smoke is this disgusting stuff called cracked oil, that is supposedly safe and non-carcinogenic, but is a hideous substance to breathe in. After every take it clears away and you start again.
Obviously you can't do it in real time, and you can't burn or choke the actors. If you want really heavy thick smoke in front of the camera, the maximum that they can stay in there is about twenty seconds. So I had to look at the sequence from the point of view of building the visual impression of the fire taking hold on a very expensive set, behind very expensive principal actors and not kill them in the process! The trick I had to pull was to break it down into enough shots so that the special effects people in the background of each shot could start to build first the smoke, then a bit more smoke, then a bit of flame, then a bit more flame and then I could actually shoot simple lines of dialogue. I had to break it down virtually into individual lines, and I had to be sure that I was going to get the right dramatic impact for each line, while filming it in isolation. It appears that the action is going on continuously, but in fact it is done in twenty-second bursts. It was pretty hairy. The actors sat outside having a coffee while the other people did their line, and then they would go in and do their own lines. It is a rapid cutting sequence so I just got away with that, and I couldn't use stunt people as you normally would for a fire, because you are close-up on the actors all the time.
For more about the library, visit:
The Producer's Diary/May 24-27
Set Design: The Library
Some text excerpts courtesy of HarperCollins Entertainment, The Art of Gormenghast by Estelle Daniel (2000).
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