Demonstrating its ability to serve a diverse range of sectors, leading French manufacturer and provider of lighting balloons, Airstar, played a leading role in the 2016 epic movie ‘The Great Wall’ – lighting key scenes in the film with its cinema products.

The big-budget monster movie was a first English language project for the world-renowned Chinese director, producer, writer and actor Zhang Yimou. As an Academy Award nominated and Grand Prix du Jury winning visionary with a reputation in the industry for demanding the highest quality of cinematic work, Zhang was seeking a particular look for the US-China co-produced film – and Airstar’s lighting balloons were the perfect solution.

An action-packed, adventure and fantasy spectacle, The Great Wall sees Golden Globe and Academy Award winning actor Matt Damon cast as a European mercenary searching for precious black powder and becoming embroiled in the defence of the Great Wall of China against a horde of monstrous creatures. Featuring acrobatic camerawork and impressive 3D fight scenes, the film is a true visual masterpiece – and so naturally the production turned to Airstar as the inventor of the lighting balloon as a light source on film sets.

Airstar received an Academy Technical Award® in 2003 from the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences for the introduction of balloons with internal light sources to provide set lighting for the motion picture industry. Its lighting balloon technology has been used in the production of some of the greatest films of all time – including Titanic, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince – and can be found in operation on many of today’s film and TV sets.

With a production on this scale which involved shooting large expanses outdoors, multi-camera set ups and dealing with often windy weather conditions, the lighting requirements were detailed and complex. Having used Airstar balloons previously in his work, Main Unit Gaffer Sean O’Neill decided together with the cinematographer, producers, unit production managers that only Airstar’s products could meet the wide-ranging requirements of the project – and reached out to the Airstar China team.

Two Solarc 370 1200×4 HMI models with magnetic ballast and two tubes 4×4000 HMI were deployed on set, selected because they could create and fix the light in chroma key, making it softer and more uniform in keeping with Zhang’s vision. Airstar’s unique lighting signature helped to achieve the right look, while the balloons also gave the film crew freedom to shoot wide expanses without the clutter of ground-based lighting systems impeding the shot.

O’Neill explains: “The balloons were used for all our night time exterior shoots and for scenes on the wall set, moving around depending on the camera angles. We have a lot of factors to weigh up on a large-scale production such as this; the look and freedom of shooting but also practical considerations around time saving and cost. The balloons were at the heart of our set up – enabling us to overcome the challenges and deliver large amounts of good quality soft light in, around and over the set without the need for heavy machinery and lifts cluttering the set environment.”

A turnkey solution, the Solarc balloons brought a range of benefits beyond their primary light source function to the table. Continues O’Neill: “We were able to light the set with ease, speed and minimal impact on the rest of the crew working between shots by simply walking the light sources around the set in a way that isn’t possible with conventional lighting solutions. Hassle-free, we left them inflated at the end of each day of filming, parking them in container-walled garages rather than having to spend precious time on setting up and de-rigging.”

With a commitment to quality which goes beyond the product itself and is applied to the entire process, the Airstar team worked hand-in-hand with the crew to ensure the balloons were optimised for the job. O’Neill said: “They were invaluable asset to us on set; their technical expertise together with their support in moving the balloons, performing daily checks and conducting gas top ups made the whole process seamless – which is critical on a film set where time is money.”

Paolo Grasso, Sales Manager for the Airstar European Network who was instrumental in training the Airstar technicians and local team in China for the project, said: “It was a real team effort and a pleasure to play a supporting role in such an impressive production. I was able to connect remotely with the Airstar team on the ground to coordinate the set up and movements; together we were able to quickly troubleshoot any technical challenges and find solutions to overcome them, despite the inherent complexity of the project. We were thrilled to be involved with such a big international production, thanks to Sean and the team for putting their trust in Airstar products to deliver the speed, flexibility and efficiency needed for the production schedule, without sacrificing quality.”

O’Neill concludes: “Airstar’s innovative products are really transforming how we approach lighting on movie sets; they have made an invaluable contribution to the film and television industry – saving time and money on productions with their versatility and ease of use, whilst delivering an exceptional light source. Lighting balloons have become an integral part of our lighting inventory; raising the bar by enabling us to push the boundaries on set with the types of scenes we are filming.”