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Let there be light

Longtime partners Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer use their theatrical lighting skills to give 'em the old razzle-dazzle in 'Chicago.'

March 23, 2003|Alina Tugend | Special to The Times

New York — Broadway and Hollywood, which have always been somewhat prickly cousins, are increasingly poaching each other's techniques -- and perhaps nothing illustrates that more this year than the film success of the Tony Award-winning lighting designing team of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.

Their specialty is lighting musical numbers on stage and in film, and the Oscar-nominated "Chicago" is the most spectacular cinematic showcase to date for their talents. Lighting musical numbers in film, explains Fisher, who worked on both the stage and film versions of the musical, is radically different from lighting nonmusical sequences.

In a nonmusical film scene, there usually are just a few light cues, or changes per take, he notes. By contrast, some of the "Chicago" numbers required more than 150 lighting changes.

Director Rob Marshall "wanted us to take the musical numbers and have them have the vitality and energy you would normally see in theaters," Fisher says.

Adds Eisenhauer: "In 'Chicago,' we felt we broke new ground. We had the opportunity to take our lighting work in theater and bring it to film. The thing that really turned us on was the need to make something artful and communicative and precise and as perfect as something artistic could be."

Fisher, 65, has been a lighting designer for nearly 40 years. Back in 1964, he started his career at the top, when he worked with Noel Coward on his musical "High Spirits" and Stephen Sondheim on "Anyone Can Whistle." Since then, he has lighted more than 150 Broadway productions, including six Broadway shows with choreographer Bob Fosse, who created the original 1975 musical "Chicago."

The result has been six Tony Awards for Fisher individually and one for work done in partnership with Eisenhauer for the 1996 Broadway production of "Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk."

In "Chicago," light functions almost as another character on the screen. It not only leads the audience from reality to fantasy, but also makes the film's myriad moods -- from joy to greed to abject loneliness -- resonate.

"Lighting is static," Eisenhauer says. "We apply the timing to make the lights physically undulate and move as well as dim up and dim down. It creates a visceral experience for the audience."

Miramax's "Chicago" was the team's first joint movie venture. "Chicago" was Eisenhauer's, but not Fisher's, first foray into film; Fisher lighted concert scenes for the Barbra Streisand 1976 remake of "A Star is Born," as well as "Can't Stop the Music" (1980), the film "Beatlemania" (1981) and "The Birdcage" (1996). Coming up next for the team is lighting the live concert sequences for "Marci X," about the world of rap music, produced by Scott Rudin and scheduled to be released in late summer. Eisenhauer and Fisher continue their foray into cinema lighting with a battle-of-the-bands number in "The School of Rock," also produced by Rudin and starring Jack Black and Joan Cusack, that's scheduled to be released in the summer. (Both films are Paramount releases.) "In theater, we use light to communicate a change," says Eisenhauer. "We now may be providing another dimensionality [to film] that has traditionally been reserved for stage."

Rudin, who has worked with Fisher and Eisenhauer in theater and movies, says the two "have the tremendous ability to use light to take movies, which are extremely literal, and find a way to abstract time and space."

Collaborators for 18 years

In his sixth-floor studio, Fisher has expanded his huge Chelsea space into three separate businesses. One centers on architectural lighting -- clients include the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Getty Museum and twin towers of light memorial. A second company focuses on theater design and renovation.

But it is the third business that Fisher is most enamored of right now -- film, theater and live concert lighting. He and Eisenhauer, 40, studied under the same professor of lighting at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, although 25 years apart. They have been partners for 18 years, starting up their own company, Third Eye, in 1985.

In the old days, in both movies and theater, lights were fixed pieces of hardware; to change a light's position, a person would physically have to move it, even if that meant crawling up a pole. During the past 15 years, the development of automated lighting, which can be controlled by a computer, has become a standard for Broadway and movies.

Now, whether for film or theater, Eisenhauer and Fisher painstakingly lay out a map -- which looks like an architectural blueprint -- to signify where each light is and what it will do for each musical scene. That map undergoes continual change as the film or play develops. Once it is considered as perfect as it can get, it is frozen and fed into a computer program.

On the "School of Rock" set, Eisenhauer sits next to a lighting control console known as the Virtuoso and watches the rehearsal unfolding on the stage below.

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