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THE ILLUSIONIST

Shooting In Prague
To re-create the world of The Illusionist—Vienna at the turn of the 19th Century— filmmakers turned to Prague to provide a period-appropriate setting, with principal photography beginning in and around that European capital in March 2005. Burger comments, "Prague is a perfect stand- in for 1900 Vienna—most of the streets are still paved in cobblestones and lined with gas lamps. The locations in and around the city are incredible. For example, we were able to use Archduke Ferdinand's home for the Crown Prince's hunting lodge. Ferdinand was an obsessive hunter, shooting something like 15,000 animals in his life, and the character I had written was the same kind of killer. The place is covered in trophy heads, dead animals everywhere. It's an unbelievably strange and opulent place—it couldn't have been more perfect.” (Filmmakers were also able to magically find two theatres to use as practical locations for filming—one in Prague and one in the nearby rural town of Tabor.)

Yari observes, "Filming on location in Prague was challenging, but well worth all of the effort. You're surrounded, literally, by centuries of European history – and we were able to achieve our turn-of-the-century setting with several well-chosen locations. Our film is about magic and believability, and I think that extends to the setting as well. There's a bit of a fairy-tale feeling to the city, but what makes it even more interesting is a hint of darkness that lies just beneath the surface. So like our magician, nothing is really as it seems at first glance.”

All of Prague's atmosphere physically represented the mental look Burger was after: "I wanted the film to have an almost ‘hand-cranked' feel to it, not that we were actually going to use a hand-cranked camera…although for a time I did consider it. I wanted that look, not to make it seem old, but rather to take it out of time, beyond the world of rationality and into the realm of mystery and dream. Everything you see is real, recognizable, but somehow heightened. I wanted it to have a kind of sinister beauty—lovely on the surface, but with a disturbing, unnerving undertone.

"My other main reference for the look of the film,” continues Burger, "is an early color photography process called autochrome. It was invented by the Lumiere brothers, who, in the late 19th Century, were instrumental in creating all sorts of early cinematic effects. And they were also magicians! Autochromes have a very different kind of color and contrast palette. Some people think they're hand-tinted, but they're not. They are indeed photographic color, but what I like is that they have the emotional impact of black and white. I showed these references to [director of photography] Dick Pope and then together we translated it into the particular look for this story.”

Autochrome photography flourished from 1903 to the 1930's and is unique in that each autochrome is a singular transparency image—there is no negative. Each image is captured on a specially-prepared glass plate that has been coated with tiny, colored starch grains (of red, green and blue), which is then covered in a layer of carbon black, filling in the spaces between the grains. Finally, a silver gelatine emulsion is applied over the color screen. When the plate is exposed, the base side is turned towards the subject being photographed, and the color screen acts as a filter over the emulsion. The developed plate renders a positive image with delicate color qualities.

Award-winning cinematographer Dick Pope (Topsy-Turvy, Nicholas Nickleby, Vera Drake) tells of the book that Burger showed him that contained color photography from the early 1900's: "Neil had obviously been carrying this book around with him for some time that explained the autochrome process, which very simply consisted of glass negative slides with a primitive kind of emulsion

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