Visiting the Sets of Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice


Anyone who lives or works in New York City is well aware how many movies and television shows are filming there on a regular basis; you can’t walk from one side of Manhattan to the other without running into at least one production. While it’s always nice traveling out of the city to visit sets in faraway places with exotic names like Bucharest, Baton Rouge and Vancouver, there’s also something nice about getting on a subway and watching a film shooting in one’s own neighborhood, which is exactly what happened earlier this year when I went out to get my morning coffee and noticed an entire street closed off in the process of being turned into a fantasy version of Chinatown.

It turns out that it was all being done for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the latest movie from Disney Studios and Jerry Bruckheimer Films, reuniting actor Nicolas Cage and director Jon Turteltaub, who teamed successfully twice for Disney’s hit “National Treasure” movies. The production would reside in that block on Eldridge Street between Canal and Division, which had been adorned with dozens of ornate Japanese lanterns and dressed with dozens of extra signs, shooting mostly nights for two weeks for one of the film’s most elaborate action sequences.

A few weeks later, would get a chance to learn a little more about the movie as we visited the production offices at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn and some of the sets which you can see briefly in the new trailer, as well as watching them shoot a pivotal fight sequence between Cage and Alfred Molina in the heart of the financial district.

On our first stop at Brooklyn’s Steiner Studios, unit publicist and Bruckheimer’s Vice-President of Marketing & Publicity Michael Singer brought us to the production offices where the walls were covered with a vast amount of concept art, pictures of the sets and references used by production designer Naomi Shohan to create the imaginative version of New York City where sorcerers battle.

Anyone familiar with Disney history will already be aware that the film’s title comes from the unforgettable short in Walt Disney’s 1940 musical opus Fantasia in which Mickey Mouse portraying the title character uses magic to bring a mop and bucket to life to help clean up the magician’s lab, only for it to go horribly wrong. What some may not realize is that it was actually based on a poem written by Goethe in 1797 that was then adapted into a musical poem by French composer Paul Dukas, which became the basis for the short film within Fantasia.

Bruckheimer, Cage and Turteltaub have used that scene as a jumping off point for Disney’s new live action movie which has Cage playing Balthazar Blake, an ancient sorcerer who has been traveling the world looking for the magician who can finally put to end a conflict between two magical factions: the Merlineans and the Morganians, whose names come from two of the most famous wizards, Merlin and Morgan le Fay. If you know anything about the legend of King Arthur or Avalon, you can figure out which ones are good and which ones are bad. Balthazar, a Merlinean, thinks he’s found his answer when he encounters Dave Stutler, an awkward NYU physics student played by Jay Baruchel, an actor on the verge of breaking out big-time since appearing in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up and Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder. Balthazar makes Dave his apprentice and after training him, they go on a quest to find and recover a number of Grimholds, ancient containers which contain the spirits of some evil sorcerers. (In the trailer that went up last week, you can see what looks like Russian dolls and in one scene, the film’s main baddie Maxim Horvath, played by Alfred Molina, emerges from one in the form of lots of bugs.)

As we admired the hard work done by the art department to realize this mix of real and magical worlds, Singer gave us a rundown of some of the other characters who we’ll meet during Balthazar and Dave’s adventure:

Toby Kebbell, the star of Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla, plays Drake Stone, another Morganian, one of those rock ‘n’ roll illusionists, clearly inspired by the likes of Criss Angel and other Vegas magicians. Oddly, both Molina and Kebbell came onto the movie having both played roles in Bruckheimer’s other big 2010 summer epic, Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time. Australian actress Teresa Palmer plays Dave’s love interest in the movie, an American girl named Becky, who he’s been in love with since he was ten years old. Monica Bellucci plays Veronica another Merlinean sorceress, while Nicole Ehringer is Abigail, a young girl who also happens to be a witch from Salem.

Throughout the course of this adventure, the duo face a number of magical creatures, many of them famous statues and monuments brought to life. Having seen some of the shooting in Chinatown, we already knew they would face a paper Chinese parade dragon brought to vibrant life by Horvath’s magic, but in the production offices, we saw glimpses of some of the other creatures they will face. When they visit the Chrysler Building, the metal eagle parapets that line the upper ledges come to life, and down on Wall Street, they’re attacked by the famous bull on Bowling Green. In a scene they had yet to shoot in Brooklyn at the Marcy Street subway station, Balthazar and Dave fight a band of wolf statues brought to life. Creating these amazing scenes would involve close interaction between the props and art departments with the visual FX department, led by John Nelson, who won an Oscar for his FX in last year’s Iron Man.

It was clear that the production had been shooting in a lot of locations all over Manhattan and its boroughs represented by pictures of the actual locations next to paintings and drawings of how they would look once dressed up. They had turned one store on one of the many side streets in Tribeca, the area below Canal west of Broadway, into the exterior of Balthazar’s old curiosity shop, the Arcana Cabana. The interior had been built at the Armory, and Singer boasted that the set dressers had filled it with half a million different objects. We also drooled over pictures of Balthazar’s car, a gorgeously sleek 1935 Rolls Royce Phantom; later, we’d have a chance to see the real thing up close, but our requests to drive it around lower Manhattan were met with blank unbelieving stares.

While a majority of the film takes place in New York City where the production had been shooting for roughly four months, some of the art more than hinted that the film has a larger scale including scenes in Calcutta, India and Russia where we might meet other sorcerers. One of them is the Chinese sorcerer Sun-lok, played by Gregory Woo, who is seemingly transforming into a butterfly in the teaser trailer, and he’s involved with the Chinatown scene obviously. Some of the artwork even showed the concept art for a flashback sequences showing Morgana emerging from her own Grimhold. Singer warned us that just because they had designed and developed these scenes in concept art, it doesn’t mean the scenes would be shot as displayed or even make it to the final film, but it was clear the film has a much larger scope than just being a New York-based battle between good and evil sorcerers.

After we finished admiring all the artwork laid out for us, we headed over to the Bedford Armory in Crown Heights to check out some of the sets for ourselves as the production had taken over the enormous space for months in order to create all of the interiors. The pictures and artwork didn’t do justice to the largest and most impressive set, which was the underground lab where Dave does most of his scientific research and physics experiments. Production designer Naomi Shohan had clearly done her homework, because weeks before our visit, Sony had taken us on a trip though the New York Subway system–which you can read about here–and the space was meant to be a similar closed-down subway turnaround like the one we had a chance to see. The design and aging were perfect, and it wasn’t just one big cavernous space. In fact, there were a couple flights of old rusted cast iron stairs that led up to various levels of catwalks, the metal stairwell eventually leading up near the ceiling where we could see the street entrance to the basement lab. Singer allowed us to wander around the set checking out the attention to detail paid to every aspect of creating Dave’s lab with old desktop computers set-up everywhere as well as enormous Tesla coil generators that play a large part in the story. (They weren’t actually active Tesla coils as the electrical charges were added using FX.)

When Balthazar shows up, the lab becomes the training ground for Dave’s sorcerer training, so it’s a set that’s used a lot in the movie. In the very center of the cobble stone floor, there was the “Merlin Circle, ” a series of mystical symbols carved into the stone, we were told that this was conjured up by Balthazar using a ring of flames as Cage stood directly in the center, something else that you can see briefly in the trailer.

In one alcove of the space, there were dozens of piled-up student desks and chairs, showing that the space was possibly being used by NYU for storage, and sure enough, the janitorial department had left dozens of mop buckets in one corner, making it obvious this location would be where they would recreate the famous flooded lab scene with the mops coming to life and dumping buckets of water until the place is flooded. They actually had been flooding the space repeatedly and then draining it through grates in the floors, and they had to do that a number of times while shooting the climactic scene. The entire set had to be both fireproofed and water-proofed for all the rigors the space is put through over the course of the movie. Other than the Grimholds, one of the key magical items in the story is the Encantis, an ancient book of spells collected across centuries, which Dave uses as he learns to practice magic. The art department had gone to great effects to make every page look realistic, and they even had to create a waterproof version of the book for when the lab gets flooded.

They had designed a complex computer-controlled lighting grid in order to create whatever light was necessary for any particular situation, but since they weren’t shooting in the space that day i.e. “the set was dark” we didn’t get to see it as it would normally be lit for the movie. It was created by director of photography Boyan Bazelli specifically for the production.

Elsewhere in the armory, the crew were in the process of building the interiors of Drake Stone’s penthouse apartment, a large and luxurious space located in the Bryant Park Hotel on 40th Street. We could see that the place had marble floors and floor-to-ceiling glass windows, and they were in the process of constructing the apartment’s ornate fireplace, which was clearly the centerpiece of the set. While the set hadn’t been dressed up yet, we could get some idea of what it would look like from the concept art we saw earlier at Steiner, as Stone surrounds himself with paintings and artifacts. As Singer walked us around, he promised that there was going to be “a lot of mayhem,” as a major sorcerer battle was going to take place on that set once they finished building it. (Originally, that space had been used for part of the Chrysler Building parapet.)

The last two sets hit close to home, quite literally, as they had reconstructed portions of that Chinatown block where they’d been filming for two weeks, including the exterior face of one of the buildings on Eldridge Street with that very distinctive old tenement look, including the old-fashioned fire escapes you can’t miss when walking around downtown Manhattan. They had constructed everything from the 2nd floor up to the roof for one of the action scenes that takes place on the fire escapes as Dave is chased by the living parade dragon. They ended up doing it in the soundstages because it would be safer to do those scenes in a controlled environment. Before they even get to that fire escape, the dragon chases Dave down some stairs through a local Chinese beauty parlor, which had also been recreated with a lot of attention to detail and they still had cables rigged up which had been used during the chase sequence, presumably to cause some serious damage during the chase. (You can see both of these sets in the trailer, the beauty parlor in the shot of Dave being chased by the dragon and the building fire escapes when Dave asks Balthazar if he’s insane, which one presumes is right after the chase scene.) Having lived in the Chinatown neighborhood for many years, it was eerie to see how closely these sets resembled the real locations, as if they had taken a giant bulldozer or back-hoe and scooped out a section of Chinatown and transplanted it within the Armory. (You can see pictures of what the street normally looks like compared to what it looks like in the movie below.)

After admiring the interior sets, we were brought over to the live set down near Wall Street where Cage and Molina were shooting a climactic wizard battle inside a fiery fountain on Bowling Green. We’re going to save all that for Part 2, sometime next year, but before we leave, we wanted to share our interview with Jerry Bruckheimer, which you can read here.

Check back early next year for the second part of our look at The Sorcerer’s Apprentice including interviews with the principal cast and what we saw them shooting on Bowling Green. The movie is scheduled to open on July 16, 2010.