If the movies represent the point where creativity, commerce and technical skill converge, then the rotating movie set is probably the perfect example of those three disciplines working to create cinema magic. Requiring intense planning, expensive materials and an army of builders, the use of a rotating set – essentially an ordinary stage suspended within a steel gimbal, like a shoebox wedged in a washing machine drum – has been used to occasional yet jaw-dropping effect over the past 60 years.
This article doesn’t claim to list every instance of a rotating set ever captured on film, but it does, we hope, provide a good example of the different ways they can be used. Whether they’re used to make us believe an evil spirit can fling helpless humans against a wall, or that Fred Astaire can dance on a ceiling, the results are often unforgettable.
Royal Wedding (1951)
One of Hollywood’s most respected directors, Stanley Donen has been responsible for some of the best musicals ever made, including On The Town, Singin’ In The Rain and Funny Face. From a technical standpoint, one of his finest pieces of work appeared in 1951 – Royal Wedding, and its show-stopping song-and-dance sequence in which Fred Astaire appears to defy the laws of physics.
At first, it looks like typical, fleet-footed Astaire; he glides around an opulent yet sparsely-furnished room, clambering on and off furniture to Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner’s twinkly You’re All The World To Me. But then, gradually, Astaire begins to perform miracles – dancing all the way up the walls until he’s tapping his toes around the light fixtures.
The entire sequence lasts for more almost four minutes, and if our modern eyes (and the title of this article) give us a clue as to how it’s done, the reality is only slightly less magical; the entire film set was constructed inside a metal gimbal, which gradually rotated the stage around to give the impression that Astaire can dance his way around gravity itself.
In order to pull the sequence off perfectly, Astaire had to memorise not only all his dance moves, but also time everything to coincide with the rotation of the room; the slightest error would have left him staggering around, sliding to a heap in one corner of the (which is essentially a tumbling box) or worse, suddenly falling a fairly hefty drop and seriously injuring himself.
The video above – brilliantly made by Galen Fott – doesn’t so much shatter the Hollywood illusion as reveal just how stunning Astaire’s technique was. At no point in the sequence do we notice just how hard he’s working to keep balance, keep time, and maintain the stamina required to perform an extended dance routine in a giant tumble drier.
“The way he did it, you never knew he was fighting gravity,” Donen said years later. “The furniture and fixtures were all nailed down, and the room was placed in the middle of a rotating barrel. Cameraman Robert Planck was strapped to a large ironing board, along with his camera, so he could rotate with the room.”
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is perhaps the most famous film to use rotating sets. Kubrick was willing to push the frontiers of what was practically possible to create the impression of weightlessness in space, and these sequences were not cheap to film.
The engineering company Vickers Armstrong were hired to build the interior set of the Discovery space craft – a 30-ton metal centrifuge which measured some 38 feet in diameter and 10 feet in width. This hulking mass of steel cost $750,000 – a fair chunk of Kubrick’s estimated $10 million budget – yet the result was one of the most mesmerising shots in a movie packed full of striking images.
As the Discovery floats serenely through space towards its rendezvous in deep space, Doctor David Bowman (Keir Dullea) is shown running around the hub of the craft, its rotation providing artificial gravity for the travellers inside.
In reality, Dullea’s essentially running on the spot with the entire set rotating beneath his feet, while the camera (mounted on a rig independently from the ‘centrifuge’ set) rolls along after him. While the theory sounds simple, the technical process of putting it all into practice was often incredibly difficult; in a shot where actor Gary Lockwood appears to be serenely sitting and enjoying his space food, he’s actually strapped into a chair and hanging upside down – his food’s glued to the stage in order to prevent it from falling straight past his head.
“All lights and large banks of 16mm projectors also rotated with the set, so that exploding bulbs, loose junk, and reels of film constituted a serious hazard to people nearby,” explained Douglas Trumbull in the article Creating Special Effects For 2001: A Space Odyssey, published in American Cinematographer. “Hard hats had to be worn by everyone involved, and the control area from where the centrifuge was driven, and action directed by closed-circuit television, was netted over with chicken wire and heavy plastic.”
A rotating set was also used for the scenes aboard the Aries shuttle near the start of the film, where a stewardess performs a 180-degree walk around a cylindrical corridor. The technical brilliance of this shot is made all the more breathtaking by Kubrick’s almost geometric cinematography. Like Astaire’s ceiling dance, these and so many other sequences in 2001 are carefully designed to fill us with wonderment.
If those early uses of rotating sets filled us with awe, two post-Exorcist horror movies used almost identical techniques to make us feel a sense of chaos and dread. The first was Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, in which used all kinds of practical effects tricks to convince audiences that an ordinary American family was in the presence of the supernatural.
In an extended coda, JoBeth Williams’ character, Diane Freeling, is drying her hair in her bedroom, blissfully unaware that her house is far less ‘clean’ of poltergeists than Zelda Rubinstein’s spiritual medium had led her to believe. After a lengthy build-up, the ‘beast’ attacks, throwing Diane around her bed (almost certainly an allusion to Linda Blair’s demon-possessed movements in The Exorcist) before sending her rolling up the wall, across the ceiling, and down the other side.
Again, the shot was achieved with a static camera and a rotating set, with JoBeth Williams timing her rolls with the gradual shifting of gravity. What’s surprising about this sequence is that Hooper and his effect people would spend so much time, money and effort on such a brief shot – all told, it amounts to little more than a few seconds in the finished film.
Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
If the inclusion of a rotating set on Poltergeist – a movie already full of intricate effects – was surprising, its use in the much cheaper Nightmare On Elm Street was more unexpected still. Wes Craven had about $1.8 million to play with when he shot his 1984 hit, yet he managed to fill it with some incredibly creative visual effects.
In one imaginative dream death sequence, we see the unfortunate Tina (Amanda Wyss) slashed by Freddy as she sleeps, and then roll around her bedroom in a dervish of gore and screaming. It’s a great effect, especially given that the entire thing had to be made so cheaply.
“Considering it was a low budget film, we had to be creative in the way we put it together,” explained special effects man Lou Carlucci in the movie’s Making Of documentary. “The room was not motorised. The room was so totally balanced after we were finished, that one person could actually turn the room by hand. One pull would start spinning that room. The camera was secured in the room and locked off, also. So the only thing you’d see moving in that room was the person. That was a lot of fun.”
The rotating set was cunningly recycled for another memorable death scene – Johnny Depp’s character, Glen. When he’s sucked into a hole in his bed, the subsequent geyser of blood isn’t belching up into the air, but pouring down from the rotated set. In one take, the set was turned in the wrong direction, causing blood to flow out of the bedroom door and all over some nearby camera equipment – this caused a brief power cut, but thankfully, nobody was injured. On a later DVD commentary track, Wes Craven described it as the “Ferris Wheel from hell.”
The Fly (1986)
In any rotating set, special consideration has to be given to how the interior’s decorated. In many of the examples we’ve seen so far, the sets have been sparsely decorated, with a bed, perhaps, and a few tables and chairs. In his 1986 horror classic The Fly, director David Cronenberg didn’t have such a luxury; by the film’s second half, protagonist Seth Brundle’s mutation into the BrundleFly has begun, and his entire flat is full of empty sweet packets and other detritus. This created a bit of a problem when it came to Jeff Goldblum’s ceiling walks, which involved a rotating set and the careful securing of anything anything that could fall and ruin the gravity-defying illusion.
“At this point, the plot is very messy, and he [Seth Brundle] likes to eat things that are very sugary and sweet,” Cronenberg explained in his movie’s Making Of. “So we have donuts and decaying rolls and all kinds of stuff all over the place. All of these have to be nailed, bolted and glued down, so when the set turns upside down, everything doesn’t just fall and reveal what’s going on. So it’s actually very, very tricky to do.”
Interview With The Vampire (1994)
A more playful use of a rotating set came in Neil Jordan’s lavish adaptation of Interview With The Vampire. In it, Stephen Rea’s Santiago dances a sardonic waltz around the stones of a dimly-lit tunnel. It’s said the sequence was directly inspired by Stanley Donen and Fred Astaire’s work on Royal Wedding, and it shows – the sequence may be brief, but it’s full of decadent mischief, and extremely well-staged.
The dizzying zero-gravity fight sequence in Christopher Nolan’s Inception may be the most famous of its type since 2001: A Space Odyssey. Special effects supervisor Chris Corbould oversaw the construction of a 120-foot-long, 30-foot-wide rotating set, which required seven steel rings to be placed every 16 feet along what would become an ordinary-looking hotel corridor in the finished film.
The set was powered by electric motors, allowing it to rotate six times per minute in either direction; but while the film’s handsome budget – not to mention the use of computer-controlled motors – made certain aspects of its planning easier, actually performing the sequence was still a painful experience for actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
“It was six-day weeks of just, like, coming home at night battered,” Gordon-Levitt recalled after the shoot was over. “The light fixtures on the ceiling are coming around on the floor, and you have to choose the right time to cross through them, and if you don’t, you’re going to fall.”
“It was like some incredible torture device,” agreed Nolan. “We thrashed Joseph for weeks, but in the end we looked at the footage, and it looks unlike anything any of us has seen before. The rhythm of it is unique, and when you watch it, even if you know how it was done, it confuses your perceptions. It’s unsettling in a wonderful way.”
One of the most memorable scenes in the movie, the Inception corridor fight sequence is proof of how versatile a technique like the rotating set can be. The planning and construction of a such a scene is time-consuming and expensive, but when imaginatively applied, the results can be captivating, frightening, and in Inception’s case, exhilarating.
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