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Cirque du Soleil’s Big Top Comes to the Big Screen

James Cameron and Andrew Adamson weave acts from seven live Cirque shows into their new 3-D film, Cirque du Soleil Worlds Away 3D.

An image from one of the CG scenes showing the lead character Mia walking between circus tents. Image © 2012 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved..

To describe a Cirque du Soleil show as an innovative acrobatic circus is akin to describing the Grand Canyon as a big hole in the ground carved out of rock by a river.  What began in 1984 with 73 people is now a huge international enterprise, comprised of over 5,000 employees that will perform across 20 different touring and resident shows for close to 15 million people this year alone. 

While there have been numerous filmed performances and documentaries focused on the making of various Cirque shows, there has never been a narrative film based on or involving Cirque performers or the shows themselves.  Cirque du Soleil Worlds Away 3D represents the first attempt to bring the dreamy, epic spectacle of Cirque du Soleil performances into just such a story-driven feature film showcase.  The project began in earnest when Shrek and Chronicles of Narnia director Andrew Adamson was approached by former Walden Media CEO Cary Granat, his collaborator on the first two Narnia films, to write and direct a Cirque-based feature film.  According to the director, “We had to find a natural, cinematic way into the world of Cirque. I started thinking about the way Cirque live shows work. There is a very dreamlike quality about them. A thin thread of narrative that weaves in and out of each but allows these acts to exist within the worlds that are created. I thought this movie could do the same thing. I could find a narrative that threads these completely different shows together.”

Director Andrew Adamson and executive producer James Cameron. Image © 2012 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

The story Adamson came up with is centered on two people who meet in a real-world circus – a young girl looking to escape her life, who instantly falls in love with an aerialist, only to be dragged with him when he falls through the circus ring into another world.  They spend the rest of the story searching for each other, traveling within the various circus worlds, ultimately finding each other in an aerial ballet dream sequence.  The film integrates performances from “O”, , Mystère, Viva ELVIS, Criss Angel Believe, Zumanity and The Beatles Love.  Each time the film peels back the curtain and steps inside, another Cirque world opens up.  It is interesting to note that despite a director and producer steeped in animation and visual effects, the film’s only CG is in desert scenes where the two main characters travel between tents.

From the beginning, it was not the director’s intent merely to capture live shows.  "What I wanted to do” says Adamson, “is take the audience to see these shows in a way that they hadn’t seen them before, to get the camera in close and give a different perspective of what these artists do and show that perspective in high speed, slow motion 3-D.”

Executive producers Jacque Méthé and Ed Jones discuss the film. Image © 2012 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

Enter executive producer James Cameron.  As Jacque Méthé, one of the film’s executive producers and Cirque du Soleil’s general manager, explained, “We knew that Jim Cameron was interested in Cirque. So I met with him.  By that time we had started working with Andrew Adamson, who had come up with the basic elements of the story. Jim was excited by this and he came on board.  He brought with him first and foremost his enthusiastic approach to handling challenges and his fabulous knowledge of 3-D. We needed someone who understood how to tell a story in 3-D. Andrew had a fabulous idea and a great sense of storytelling.  So the combination of these two minds was very exciting.”

Executive producer Ed Jones described how Adamson and Cameron together made Cirque’s vision for the film come alive. “Jim Cameron is always going to push the technology to its fullest.  When you have shows like Cirque, we wanted to have an immersive experience. We wanted to be in the middle of the shows, not as the audience watching the shows. Working with Jim and Andrew, their ideas and concepts, allowed us to do that.”

Cameron and his CAMERON | PACE group partner Vincent Pace shot the film with their Fusion 3D stereoscopic camera system, technology made famous on Avatar. Filmed in 37 days over three time periods beginning in October, 2010, Worlds Away presented numerous practical and logistic challenges for both filmmakers and performers. Cameron and Adamson were not looking to sit back and just film live shows in 3-D.  10 3-D cameras were employed, including Steadicams used to shoot close-ups right in the middle of performances.  Cameron himself would often dangle 50-100 feet in the air from high camera positions to capture that feeling of vertigo and danger that comes from performing 90 feet above the ground.  As Cameron described, "The live experience of these shows is incredible. But in the movie theater, what we can give you is the experience of being right in the middle of a show where you will really get to see the detailed work that's gone into the characters, the costumes and the choreography. There is pageantry to the live experience, but there is an intimacy to the 3-D experience."

Racks of costumes for the Cirque show KÀ.

Some of the dozens of headpieces used in KÀ.

Some of the elaborate footwear used in KÀ.

Some of the wigs used in KÀ.

Some of the harnesses used for aerial acrobatics in KÀ.

Cameron continued, “Andrew had to walk a fine line working with such diverse elements from these shows. It was never meant to be about effects but to showcase the raw, pure physical human talent and their amazing ability. While it starts in this sort of run down circus, it plays out as discovery of this other dimensional circus world they fall into, but it is still very much a circus. There are wires, harnesses and you see it all, no effects hiding it. In seeing it, you experience the ingenuity of staging, costume design, the strength and agility of their talent that seem so effortless, so fluid. But the preparation and work that goes into it is anything but effortless. What you see is pure Cirque.”

From the performer’s perspective, filming within a live acrobatic-driven theatrical show changes the acting dynamic considerably.  High-tech 3-D filmmaking requires complicated camera angles, cranes and other gear, which in turn require time to position and setup.  Live shoots often involved a “hurry up and wait” schedule that was difficult for the performers, who require time to warm up after a certain period of inactivity.  In for example, the stage is an enormous, quarter the size of a football field apparatus that lifts vertically and spins completely around.  There’s no simple place to put a camera or a giant 5,000 pound Technocrane. Special platforms had to be built in many instances.

The stage in KÀ is 1/4 the size of a football field, an immense platform that can rotate in all directions, from flat to completely vertical to the ground. Safety nets sit 60 feet below.

As lead actress and long-time Cirque performer Erica Kathleen Linz explains, “When you’re doing film, if you need to change camera angles, if you need to reset something, suddenly there might be a 20 minute break. When you’re doing acrobatics, you have to warm-up.  You have to keep your body fresh every time. It’s a really taxing process.”  Linz also described the dynamic of performing alongside big 3-D camera systems.  “There was one point where we were shooting an acrobatic sequence and I accidentally kicked a camera on a techno crane. It’s a rather expensive camera.  I was worried about it a bit. But nobody was hurt and it was no big deal.”

The film opens in theatres across the U.S. and Canada December 21st. Check out the trailer below and 4 uniquely designed graphic posters from the film on the following pages.

Cirque du Soleil Worlds Away 3D - Beatles

Cirque du Soleil Worlds Away 3D - Contortion

Cirque du Soleil Worlds Away 3D - Horseman

Cirque du Soleil Worlds Away 3D - Trapeze


Dan Sarto is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Animation World Network.