Making History Fun

By Thomson, Patricia | American Cinematographer, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Making History Fun


Thomson, Patricia, American Cinematographer


John Schwartzman, ASC captures a cavalcade of famous figures in the madcap comedy Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.

A hero's welcome greeted Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian when the produc- tion arrived at the titular museum in Washington, D.C., last May. "It was like being an American soldier in 1945 driving through Sicily, where everyone's throwing prosciutto and bottles of wine," recalls John Schwartzman, ASC, who joined director Shawn Levy to film the sequel. Smithsonian staffers were well aware that the orig- inal Night at the Museum (2006) had boosted attendance at New York's American Museum of Natural History by 20 percent, so they wel- comed the sequel with open arms. The filmmakers even received per- mission to shoot inside the National Air and Space Museum, a first for a Hollywood production.

Battle of the Smithsonian picks up with Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), now a successful businessman, as he visits his old friends at the museum and discovers that interactive displays are replacing the old-fashioned dioramas, which are being shipped to the Smithsonian for storage. When he realizes the materials include the Egyptian tablet that gives life to the museum's inanimate inhabitants, Daley dashes to Washington to try to retrieve the tablet before dark, but doesn't arrive in time. Among the newly awakened is the evil Egyptian king Kah Mun Rah (Hank Azaria), who intends to use the tablet to open the doors to the underworld. He recruits other bad guys, including Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest) and Napoleon (Alain Chabat). Meanwhile, Daley gathers a team that includes Gen. George Custer (Bill Hader) and Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams). The action peaks when Daley and Earhart steal her aircraft and the Wright brothers' plane from the Air and Space Museum and escape to New York with their precious cargo.

Like its predecessor, which was directed by Levy and shot by Guillermo Navarro, ASC, Battle of the Smithsonian features few scenes without visual effects; even a simple two-shot often has animated elements, such as a dancing Degas ballerina, in the background. Nevertheless, says Levy, he retained the philosophy of the first film: "This was a comedy first and an effects extravaganza second."

Comedy was one reason Levy decided to shoot widescreen. He had never done so, but Schwartzman convinced him it would allow the comedy to play better. "The wider frame allows you to unify multiple stars, which is a treat for authences," says Levy. "To see Ben Stiller improvising in the same frame as Hank Azaria or Christopher Guest just maximizes the comedy trip." Of the decision to use Super 35mm instead of anamorphic, Schwartzman explains, "I would have preferred anamorphic, but we were going to have many units going, and we had to be sure we'd have enough equipment for everybody. And nowadays, with digital intermediates, Super 35 isn't a bad way to go."

For Schwartzman, one of the challenges of the production was balancing the story's nighttime setting with the mandate that comedy shouldn't be too dark. "The studio [20th Century Fox] wanted Night at the Museum to look more like Day at the Museum" he notes wryly. "That was a battle Guillermo [Navarro] had to fight pretty much all the way through, and I have to give him credit for fighting the hard fight. On this film, the studio knew it had a successful franchise, so I didn't have to fight as much."

Indeed, Schwartzman had access to plenty of gear during the 72-day shoot. Two Technocranes (30' and 50') with stabilized Scorpio remote heads were constantly onstage in Vancouver, where most of the movie was shot, and Schwartzman says they were valuable for enhancing the comedy. "If an actor suddenly stops 4 inches to the left of where he should be and you don't have any more track, you're stuck," he notes. "You don't want to call 'Cut' if the actors are riffmg, so we used the Technocrane like a dolly and kept shooting. …

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