Cirque du Soleil gets carried 'Worlds Away' on-screen

05:00 AM, Dec 21, 2012

Erica Linz stars in the Cirque du Soleil movie 'World's Away.' Her character, Mia, is the thread that connects the different shows. Dan MacMedan, USA TODAY/


Written By by Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY

LAS VEGAS — Performing an aerial routine several stories above the ground without a safety net is a hard day’s work by anyone’s standards.

But Cirque du Soleil aerial artist Erica Linz had an even more difficult challenge working with her partner Igor Zaripov. The two had to film a dramatic strap routine for a 3-D movie under the visually ambitious eyes of director Andrew Adamson, hands-on producer James Cameron and one protruding camera.

I did this half-spin in the air and pushed off of Igor’s chest quickly and kicked my leg out. This techno-crane had the 3-D camera on it, and it got too close, so I crashed into it,” says Linz. “It was totally fine. I got a Band-Aid, and we were shooting in 10 minutes. But it shows that the camera is literally that close.”

Linz has learned that closeness has its fine points after watching Adamson’s camera work in Cirque du Soliel: Worlds Away, the 3-D feature film from the powerhouse circus arts troupe that opens today.

As a performer, sometimes you feel like you’ve seen it all. I had been next to and inside of Cirque for 10 years,” says the 30-year-old. “But this brought the magic back for me.”

Cirque du Soleil hopes Worlds Away will bring its high-flying and quirky brand of performance art to an even greater audience. The Montreal-based company estimates that more than 100 million people have seen at least one of the 32 shows created since the group formed in 1984.

There are currently 20 different shows active around the globe, with the film covering scenes from seven of the Las Vegas shows: O, Kà, Mystère, Viva Elvis, Criss Angel Believe, Zumanityand The Beatles’ Love.

But Worlds Away offers an entirely new look at these theater experiences, as Linz’s dinged foot shows. “We decided to break that rule and get in there with the performers,” says Adamson. “We’re not trying to replace the Cirque experience, but offer a very different way of viewing it.”

Cirque production director and film producer Martin Bolduc says even Cirque veterans are seeing something new. “We’ll take you to places you just wouldn’t be able to get to, even sitting in the audience.”

When he was approached, Adamson (Chronicles of Narnia) was initially reluctant to attempt to bring the Cirque fantasy onto the big screen. But he soon thought up an Alice in Wonderland-like narrative to tie the live productions together — a wordless love story that features a handsome circus acrobat (Zaripov) who falls instantly in love with a female spectator (Linz) before falling into another world and accidentally dragging her along.

The two spend the rest of the film looking for each other in the various surreal worlds, from the underwater realm of O to the Beatles-themed universe of Love.

Adamson was pushed by the prospect of working with 3-D guru Cameron, who spent weeks in Las Vegas looking for unique ways to film the spectacle.

At first I thought, ‘How is this going to work? Two directors on the stage at the same time,’” says Adamson. “But he came in and embraced what I was trying to do. And at some stages, he was literally shooting for me.”

During the filming of the “Wheel of Death” sequence from — involving two acrobats jumping on and around spinning metal wheels connected by a massive rotating beam — Cameron took it to the next level. He became something of an acrobat himself, riding above the stage in a safety harness for hours at a time, 3-D camera in hand, until he got the right shot.

He was above the stage, he was under the water in another scene. He was everywhere,” says Linz. “Andrew was shooting on stages that were spinning and tilting. They found camera angles that don’t even exist for the performers. It was a completely different experience for the directors and the acrobats. We had to jump into each other’s world.”

Linz calls the “Wheel of Death” sequence “a death-defying number. The film allowed them to get close to their faces, but also slowed down the frames per second so you can see the centrifugal force that is pressing against their skin as they fly out of the wheels.”

Adamson says the most stringent precautions were followed in the filming, “though every now and again, we’d be yelled at by one of the Cirque safety people.”

And the envelope-pushing caused some damage to the set when shooting one of the acrobatic sequences. The technically impressive moving portion of the stage is 50 feet across, weighs 80,000 pounds tons and is built to move to several positions during a show, including fully vertical. But Adamson asked for one stage move too many.

It’s a bit like turning the Titanic, and we overshot it a bit and ended up bending one of the railings,” says Adamson. “The show is so precision-based, you cannot have an even slightly bent railing. So they had to fix it before the show that night, which meant we had to get off the stage, since the show was in a couple of hours.”

Linz’s character, Mia, serves as the linchpin between the different acts in Worlds Away, running from scene to scene while led by a typically quirky Cirque guide — a magically propelled, riderless tricycle from Love.

The former gymnast joined Cirque at 19 and found herself hooked on the magical world.

Cirque is like a wacky, international summer camp,” she says. “The extraordinary is commonplace. It’s sensory overload at first. There is a girl asking you about your phone bill, but she is literally folded in half, and her rear end is on her head. I felt like I had found my tribe.”

She also loved doing her routines at great heights, despite the obvious danger. “This is everything I loved about performing. I love to be upside down, to fly through the air and go faster, higher. It’s in my nature to be like that.”

In fact, during her stint in Kà, one of her biggest fears was having bad breath for her partner. She used to hide mints in various stage spots during the show. “I believe in good breath in working in close proximity with people, and sometimes your face is 6 inches away from each other,” she says. “You want to respect the danger in what you do, but you respect the fact that you are in someone’s personal space.”

Linz got the phone call that there was interest in having her audition for the movie role 10 minutes before she took the stage.

After I hung up from the call, I got my wig on. And then I climbed down a ladder 110 feet in the air onstage to hang from two cables and pretend like I’m swimming through the air,” says Linz. “It doesn’t matter what’s going on in your life, you need to wipe that clean. To do this job safely, it’s about focus. And then you can go back offstage and back to being excited.”

The 4-foot-11 actress (“on the growth chart, I’m the size of an average 11-year-old”) has a wide-eyed look that Adamson loved. But he noticed her natural innocence after watching Linz play with his then-6-year-old daughter, Sylvie, on a trampoline.

At one point, Sylvie looked up to her and said, ‘Are you a grown up or a kid?’ ” says Adamson. “She has a sense of wonder of life that comes through on-screen and in person. And that had a lot to do with her casting.”

There had been discussion of getting a Hollywood actress to play the part. “But I think it was important for them to be authentic so that everything going on in the movie was sincere and true,” says Linz.

It also allowed Linz to take to the aerial straps with Zaripov in the show’s finale.

You see a wide shot of someone suspended in the air, and you cut in close, and there’s nothing holding them, no cables,” says Adamson. “These people are doing something completely beautiful and completely crazy. It’s thrilling.”

We just edged closer and closer until we were right there with the performer,” he adds. “It’s an entirely different and breathtaking experience.”

And even if they did have the kicking miscue with the too-close camera, Linz is game to have that featured as a DVD extra.

I hope it is,” says Linz. “That is my true claim to fame. I may be the first circus aerialist to kick a 3-D camera during a routine.”