January 31, 2023

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‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ recreates Whitney Houston’s Super Bowl

4 min read

Recreating one of Whitney Houston’s most iconic performances for the biopic “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” was an exercise in “contemporary archaeology.”

On January 27, 1991, Houston took the stage at Tampa Stadium to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV. That performance is one of the film’s most pivotal moments, with director Kasi Lemons aiming to capture not only Houston’s concert on the field, but also the global response as 79 million people watched her on their televisions at home. Accuracy was key; However, the venue was demolished in 1999.

“We did a lot of research,” recalls production designer Gerald Sullivan. He and his team culled hours of footage and stills from a variety of sources, including personal photos of the NFL and the Houston family. “We have even retained the original architectural plans,” he added. The blueprints enable the VFX team to virtually recreate the stadium and even create aerial shots. Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts stood as a physical location, where the shoot took place overnight in the cold November.

“It was like two in the morning,” said Naomi Aki, who portrays Houston in the film, explaining what made the scene so challenging. “He sang so powerfully, and it was really hard to pretend to reach it — because, obviously, he’s singing — but, still, to make it believable. It was a very cold, long night, but we got through it in the end.”

Lemons praised Aki’s re-enactment of Houston’s movements, saying the actor came to the set “completely prepared” as usual, reflecting the crew’s “meticulous” preparation. “It’s not easy to wrap your head around the amount of work and preparation he had to do, and then to be able to set a sort of release of your preparation and you’re right in this moment; You’re just living and breathing Whitney Houston. It’s kind of an amazing achievement, and I was totally blown away.”

But Houston’s performance represents only half of the recaptured picture. They needed an audience next.

“When you want to capture that A lot of tension, during Covid — this pandemic where you might have 150, maybe 300 people — you have to move them around and plan clever angles,” Lemons said, citing another challenge.

The solution, Sullivan explained: “We’ll fill in parts of the stand and the effects team will tile it into the architecture.” The creative team knew that the angles of both stadia were the same, the slope was a match and the dimensions of the football field had been the same “for decades”.

Academy Award-winning VFX supervisor Paul Norris and VFX producer Tim Field worked together on “Bohemian Rhapsody,” another biopic featuring iconic performances and crowds. They used that experience as a jumping-off point for a new method of volumetric capture.

“We didn’t want to do the same thing over and over again but we wanted to expand on the visual effects we did,” enthuses Field, adding that they started working on their plans from day one. “That led to nine months of development even before the film was greenlit.” The process started with capturing an extra in ten different costumes, giving ten different performances, multiplying them and developing a way to move the camera 360 degrees around them. “It allows us to design really cool shots,” he explained. “This meant that we were free to be much more flexible in editing to create shots that could extend plate photography.”

Recreating each performance involved approximately 200 additional captures. In post-production, the Super Bowl and American Music Awards performances took the longest to complete, each taking about six months.

Although principal photography involved three cameras, there were still instances where pick-up shots were needed to enable editor Desha Broadway to complete certain scenes. He spent a lot of time on location working closely with the second unit.

“It wasn’t about solving problems,” he recalls. “We wanted to make it as big as possible and get that emotion. We had to add in sequences that weren’t planned two years ago, but the cut evolved.”

To get what they needed, Norris re-watched all of Houston’s performances featured in the script. He then spent two weeks in Boston capturing additional footage, filming three days of footage per concert, giving them two minutes of content with each additional performance.

“I used archive footage to create the proportions of the actions we needed for each performance,” he said. “When Daisha was going through the edit, she pointed out where we needed to have more or less clapper if it was too busy or not busy enough, etc.”

The team had to recreate the commercials on screen in the background of Houston’s performance. One was a campaign for local radio station Q105 that involved the slogan “Just Q It,” a play on Nike’s iconic “Just Do It.”

“I remember asking during one of the VFX reviews, ‘Shouldn’t it say, “Just do this?”‘ But it had to be exactly as it was,” Broadway explained. Norris added, “Even with the Marlboro and Coca-Cola logos, it was based on what was seen during the performance that day. It has to be as authentic as possible down to the very last detail.”

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