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Sleepy Hollow

Headless in Sleepy Hollow

By John Calhoun
Entertainment Design
November 1999

For Tim Burton’s Latest, Production Designer Rick Heinrichs Conjures Washington Irving’s Upstate New York Town in England.

Though Rick Heinrichs has never before acted as production designer on a Tim Burton movie, his association with the director goes back to the short films Vincent and Frankenweenie, made at Walt Disney Studios in the early 80s. As visual consultant, he supervised the 3D stop-motion animation seen in early form on the shorts, and which came into flower on the Burton production The Nightmare Before Christmas, in 1993. He also served as animation effects supervisor on the director’s feature debut, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure; as visual effects consultant on Beetlejuice; as set designer on Edward Scissorhands; and art director on Batman Returns. Now, finally credited as production designer on Burton’s upcoming Sleepy Hollow, Heinrichs has simply moved to another stage in his ongoing work with the director. He says the film, which Paramount Pictures will release November 19, is a full expression of “what comes out between us: a graphic, two-dimensional sensibility, brought into three dimensions.”

Burton and Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” are about as snug a fit as one can imagine. Set in 1799 in a custom-bound, upstate New York town of Dutch derivation, the tale has classic characters—Ichabod Crane, the Headless Horseman—tailor-made for the director’s powers of eccentric realization. Who else to play the lopsided constable Crane but Johnny Depp, who had already essayed Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood for the director? And how else to capture the particular feel of the title town, where a series of murders have allegedly been committed by a decapitated phantom rider, but on a highly controlled movie soundstage—the proper setting, after all, for Burton’s best work?

“In the beginning, Sleepy Hollow was going to be a lower-budget, $30 million film we were going to shoot in New York State and New York City,” says Heinrichs, who launched into the film after a year spent working on Burton’s aborted Superman project. “Various things then happened, having nothing to do with the design of the film, that pushed it to a different level. Apart from that, though, we realized as we were developing the look that it just begged for a hand-crafted feel. The historic locations in upstate New York were interesting but limiting for us—they just weren’t as expressive as we wanted. This wasn’t a history lesson; we wanted to evoke an America that didn’t quite exist, necessarily, but feels like it did. That channeled us into the groove of built sets, of a certain kind of lighting, of painted backings, and lots of fog and smoke. When you hit all of those things in a consistent way, with as much integrity in all the details as possible, you end up with a look that’s imbued with an emotional content.”

From the outset, Burton harped on how he wanted to evoke the Hammer Films style—that is, the artifice-heavy look of low-budget horror movies produced by the English studio in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. He urged Heinrichs to check out examples like the 1968 Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, though the designer says he’s never seen another influential work, Italian director Mario Bava’s black-and-white Black Sunday. The look of Sleepy Hollow is somewhere between the lurid color of the typical Hammer product and the moodier style of Black Sunday—the palette is muted, almost black and white in color, with autumnal tones stressed in Colleen Atwood’s costumes. “I think if Tim had his choice, he would make black-and-white movies,” says Heinrichs of the director who has already made two, Frankenweenie and Ed Wood. “I’m glad the movie’s in color, because it does make a range of emotions possible. But the limited palette is good, because if you start to have stronger primary colors, all of a sudden you’ve got elements pushing into the foreground that don’t really belong.”

As for the Hammer connection, Heinrichs says, “I don’t take that too far. Tim’s very visual, but in our collaboration he’s sketching out the broad strokes of what he’s going for, and I’m processing it.” Nevertheless, the director’s affection for those foggy soundstage environments was one of many elements that drew the production in the direction of London. “[Producer] Scott Rudin has shot quite a bit over in London, and Tim of course did Batman there,” says the designer. “There was a question of cost, I’m sure, and there was the acting pool too. There also is a good pool of art department talent in London; the acquired wisdom is that there are wonderful craftsmen. I say that not at the expense of Hollywood, where there are plenty of great people. It’s just that everything was tugging us towards London.”

After two months’ prep in Los Angeles, during which time he made two scouting trips each to New York and London, Heinrichs moved his art department across the Atlantic for good in early September 1998. “Quite a bit had been done look-wise in LA, before we knew where we were going,” he says. “I had about 10 people there, and then came to New York and was about to hire people, until we decided to go to London. Then I had to go to London to interview and hire. I ended up with about 20 people in the London art department,” including supervising art director Les Tomkins, art director Ken Court, and set decorator Peter Young, an Academy Award winner for Batman. Staffing an art department is one of those managerial tasks Heinrichs, whose other production design credits include the Coen Brothers’ Fargo and The Big Lebowski, is still growing accustomed to: “It’s very key to how a movie ends up looking. Your set looks like how it’s built, and how it’s built is a function of the structure of the art department. It’s like casting a film in a way. There’s no school for it, you’ve just got to experience it.”

Principal shooting on Sleepy Hollow began about November 20 at Leavesden Studios, which had recently been vacated by Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. By then, the design of every set and sequence had been thoroughly worked out and tested. Apart from architectural surveys of surviving 18th-century structures in the Hudson Valley, Heinrichs’ research delved into American folk art of the period. Then came a progression through concept, drawings, and detailed models of every location, done in close concert with Burton. Exteriors of the village of Sleepy Hollow, for example, evolved first from practical considerations—“We needed a main street that featured a church at the end of it, we needed a position to introduce the town from that took the whole thing in, and it needed to say hollow in its location” —to more atmospheric concerns—“It needed to have a mysterious, fog-enshrouded quality.” Drawings and a model of the village helped the feeling of the town take shape.

“I took influences from the Dutch, with the stepped-gable look, and also French domestic architecture, and the half-timbered English Tudor style,” says Heinrichs. “I threw them in a baggie and shook them around to get a jumbled American style, and then piggybacked things with each other, to get a sense of almost abnormal growth going on. The idea was of a town that feels huddled and afraid, like the wagons are drawn up in a circle, and that also has an out-of-control, chaotic element to the architecture. We put window gables onto roofs, and added elements to one style that you’d never see in real life.” On the models and in the constructed sets, the last major element was texture. “They had great textures in those days—stone and brick and wood and shingles. Everything feels handmade. Since my background is in 3D sculpture, tactile sculptural qualities are very important to me: elements that utilize the space, thrust into the space, and take light.” In this, the designer felt himself particularly in synch with the London craftspeople. “They have a way of building in England in which they do everything on pipe scaffolding, which is different than in LA,” he explains. “They attach skins to things to get the textures.”

The village exterior, comprising 11 structures and an array of livestock, was the film’s one major outdoor location, built on a private preserve in Lime Tree Valley, an hour north of London. “The up side of the English winter is that we weren’t pushed into an October window of opportunity for shooting something as fall,” says the designer. “We ended up shooting the town in January and February.”

But before that, interiors were shot. The first set to be photographed at Leavesden was the interior of the Van Tassel Manor House, Sleepy Hollow’s largest home belonging to its leading citizen, Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon). It is here that Ichabod Crane meets his true love, young Katrina Van Tassel (Christina Ricci). The indoor finishes and textures followed from the exteriors. “We were always trying to exploit the look of the time, using the exposed beams as elements in the design of the shots,” says Heinrich. “We also did a painted mural inside the Van Tassel estate which was very evocative of the paintings of the time. And fireplaces, which figured big in those days. I lost count of how many fireplaces we did, of all kinds of shapes, sizes, textures, and materials.”

Leavesden Studios, a converted airplane factory, presented a bit of a hurdle for the production because of its relatively low ceilings. (This was less of an issue for Phantom Menace, in which set height was generally achieved by digital means.) What this meant, says Heinrichs, is that “your visual choices get channeled, so you end up with liabilities that you tend to exploit as virtues. When you’ve got a certain ceiling height, and you’re dealing with painted backings, you need to push atmosphere and diffusion.” This was particularly the case in several exteriors that were built on soundstages. “We would mitigate the disadvantages by hiding lights with teasers and smoke. Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki], the DP, and I would have a chuckle now and then about how funky something would look, but when you see it cut together, it works great.”

One advantage of Leavesden was that it was exclusively devoted to Sleepy Hollow. “We were able to leave sets up, because we weren’t being pursued by another production coming up right after us,” says the designer. And the landing strips, flights sheds, and hangars at the facility were highly adaptable to the production’s use. “There was a coach chase that we were going to do as an exterior,” Heinrichs recalls, “but we had no good place to do it, and it just wasn’t going to look right because of lighting and diffusion requirements. So we built a new set inside a very long flight hangar; we had to knock down some walls, and it ended up being about 350’ long. We had the backing and trees on one side, and tree islands on wheels on the other.”

Another soundstage at Leavesden was dedicated to the “Forest to Field” set, for a scene in which the Headless Horseman races out of the woods and into a field. This stage was then transformed into, variously, a graveyard, a corn field, a field of harvested wheat, a churchyard, and a snowy battlefield. In addition, a small backlot area was devoted to a New York City street and waterfront tank.

But one crucial set was simply too large to be contained at Leavesden. This was the Western Woods, with its gnarled “Tree of Dead,” from which the Headless Horseman (who bears an uncanny resemblance at times to Christopher Walken) emerges. For this, the production moved to a 43’ tall, 120’ x 250’ stage with 360 degrees backing at Shepperton Studios. As in other soundstage exteriors, the challenge here was to sell the look, and to believably blend it (strategically using smoke and diffusion and exploiting England’s naturally gray climate) with the real exteriors of the town. Lighting is key, and Heinrichs says that Lubezki did a masterful job onstage creating soft, outdoor-style lighting.

The designer says he loves the challenge of making exteriors onstage work. “Coming from the background Tim and I do,” he says, “it’s not that you’re trying to completely fool the eye with the trompe-l’oeil effect. You want the stylization to come out of the way that you handle issues of perspective. As long as you’re concentrated on something that’s compelling and beautiful in its own way, I think the audience can accept a little bit of a funky quality. You get a layering of perspective, and of miniaturized things; if you have a painted backing, you layer elements in front that give the eye somewhere to go.”

Most of the soundstage exteriors were done in what Heinrichs refers to as “informal forced perspective, because it’s not designed to be viewed from one point, it’s designed to work for a camera in multiple points of view.” In the case of the Western Woods, a thick tangle of forest under ominous skies, “you concentrate on getting the trees to overarch the road. You want proportion differences, from enormous, weirdly shaped trees, to trees that feel almost like they’ve been combed over the pathway. It’s a very sculptural process, creating action paths and visual paths.” And, as with the other sets, “All of the big questions are answered first on paper, and then in 3D—with character models, not just white architectural models.”

The greens budget on Sleepy Hollow, which came under Peter Young’s purview, was more than $1 million—a significant percentage of the roughly $7 million art department budget. And the real trees, supplied by Palm Brokers, were only part of it. “Anything big had to be made,” says Heinrichs. “We took molds off of real oak trees, and made 30’ tall fiberglass trees with welded steel structures that would hold up real branches.” The centerpiece of this menacing forest is the Tree of Dead, with wide decaying branches and a gateway to the netherworld. “So many things had to happen with that—horses jumping out, graves being dug around it,” says the designer. “The idea was to create something completely tortured looking, something with a very expressive, vigorous, almost anthropomorphic quality, but we had to keep bouncing back and forth between the look and the needs of action and special effects.” The tree eventually consisted of carved foam on a steel frame, with branches and even real bark added to the painted plaster texture.

Another iconic image in the film is a windmill, which figures in the climax. This structure, a kind of mirror of the Tree of Dead in its height and aura of rot, appears full-sized and in several scale miniatures. “We had it as a 1/12-scale miniature on some of our forced perspective sets, like an apple orchard looking off into the sky and hills beyond, with the miniature windmill in the background, and then bigger versions, up to 1/16, as you get closer to it,” says Heinrichs. “We did a quarter-scale and full-scale versions in front of this huge backing, which was done as an exterior outside at Leavesden, but which appears to be onstage because of the way it was lit.”

Overall, Sleepy Hollow seems to be a production designer’s dream, and the fact that it’s all in the service of Burton’s vision is part of what appeals to Heinrichs. “Tim could have been an excellent production designer, but everything would have ended up looking like his. It’s better he’s a director.” Heinrichs, on the other hand, likes the mess of collaboration, of presenting ideas and having them embraced or shot down. He must, because once he decided to switch from animation to production design, he had to in effect start from the bottom of the field. “The process is like making sausage, you don’t want to know what goes into it,” he says. “It’s busy and chaotic and conflicted and creative, it’s what I love. If I just wanted to be an artist, I wouldn’t have anywhere near as much fun as I do working with other people, and seeing what happens when you get that creative spark going.”

-- donated by Joni

-- photos added by Zone editors