The opening sequence of Cirque du Soleil Journey of Man featuring the ancient Japanese art form of Taïko, is actually the only scene shot on a set. Constructed out of sculpted Styrofoam, the Taïko Drummers cave was not shot inside a remote mountain range but inside a warehouse in Las Vegas. According to Co-Producers, Antoine Compin and Charis Horton, the 30 by 40-foot cave was made in different sections and the various pieces were placed on a raised stage with eight turntables underneath to maneuver the set.
"We shot on a set because we could not move the Taïko drums out into the elements, they are fragile and tuned very finely," says Horton. The Taïko Drummers play at Mystère in Las Vegas. The filmmakers had only two days to rehearse and shoot the scenes since the performers and equipment were only available on two days of the week.
"Since we could only film the Taïko performers the two days out of the week that there are no shows scheduled, we could not take time out to move the performers and equipment to a remote shoot. So instead, we shot the scenes in a warehouse in Las Vegas and we put the drums on a flatbed trailer and moved them to the warehouse at night," says Compin.
However, throughout most of the film, the performers were faced with the challenge of performing their acts out of the protective setting of the big top or fixed theater and in the unpredictable environment of the great outdoors. The filmmakers shot in just about every type of location imaginable, from underwater, in the desert, to being suspended in mid-air.
It was necessary to find a body of water that was 85 degrees for the Synchronized Swimmers to perform. "For the underwater scenes, we originally tried to find tanks so that we could have more controlled shooting conditions, but there are a limited number of tanks in the world and we could not find one large enough to suit our purposes. So we realized that we had to shoot outside and there are only a few places in the world where the water temperature was suitable to shoot in December," remarks Producer Peter Wagg.
Although they shot in the Bahamas, it was still not an easy task in December. "We had to create new temperatures for the swimmers because the highest temperature we could get at that time of year was 65 degrees. To keep them warm, we had to create special suits and put weights within all the costumes because of the buoyancy factor of the saltwater," adds Wagg.
Before the shoot began, the swimmers rehearsed at the underwater stage at "O" at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Never having swam in open water, the swimmers were brought in to the Bahamas early to get acclimated to swimming in the ocean where they were filmed in 30 feet of water.
During the shoot, the underwater crew consisted of director Keith Melton, three camera operators, three to four gaffers and grips, seven underwater swimmers, and two to three support divers. The support divers were there to assist the swimmers, two of the support divers held large air tanks that had four umbilical regulators attached to it. There was also a support crew in boat on water that contained a generator and another that held a bank of state-of-the-art underwater lights. The underwater team developed a system of hand signals to communicate with each other. From behind the camera, Melton used a horn to alert the crew and the performers as to when filming was to begin.
The IMAX® Solido camera was encased inside a huge metal bubble, suspended by a crane and then dropped from a boat into the water. A series of weights attached to the camera enables the camera to maintain a balance while it floats in the water guided by the operator and his assistant.
Shooting underwater was very time-consuming. Since each film load contains only enough film to shoot for three minutes, the crew had to repeat the process of lowering the camera into the water and placing it into position, shooting the scene, taking the camera back to the crane, raise it out of the water, lift it onto the boat, remove the film, clean the camera, reload more film, close and seal the camera, drop it back into the water, and move it back into position to shoot the rest of the scene. While the film was being reloaded, the underwater crew took advantage of this time to get out of the water and warm up. Turnaround time between each shot was approximately one hour!