Oceans Thirteen: The Scene of the Crime

Posted by: Michael
"Ocean’s Thirteen” returns to the milieu gamblers know best: Las Vegas. "First of all, we wanted to return to the setting of ‘Ocean’s Eleven,’” Weintraub states. "Vegas has cachet; it’s the entertainment capital of the world and a pretty incredible place.”

While some exterior scenes were filmed on location in Las Vegas, the logistics of finding a new casino and then taking it over for the length of the production compelled the filmmakers to shoot the bulk of the film in the controlled environment of soundstages on the Warner Bros. lot.

Soderbergh attests, "To film everything on practical locations in Vegas would have taken twice as long and, in order to get the shots that I wanted, I needed to completely control the environment. When you added it all up, it made sense to build it.”

The director’s longtime collaborator, production designer Philip Messina, came onboard to orchestrate the transformation of a cavernous soundstage into a lavish Las Vegas hotel and casino. "I told Phil I wanted it to be beautiful but in a slightly mad way,” says the director. "The whole idea is that Willy Bank has designed an entire casino to his own crazy specifications.”

"I thought, ‘This may be the only time I’ll ever get to design and build something of this scale, so I’m going for it,’” Messina grins. The motif for The Bank hotel and casino was Messina’s original concept. "The aesthetic of the hotel was a quasi-Asian theme. It had to be bold because Vegas is all about spectacle, and we needed to create that. I find Vegas to be visually overwhelming, but there is also a freedom of style in the city that is exciting from a design perspective.”

The designer relates, "One of the first major rules we broke was having a multi-level gaming floor. Everyone said, ‘They don’t do that in Vegas,’ and I said, ‘That’s exactly why I want to do it.’ Most casinos are all about real estate, they go on for miles. We didn’t have that opportunity, so I decided that going up vertically would multiply our footprint.”

The multi-level casino set was constructed on Stage 16, one of the largest soundstages in Los Angeles. The sheer size of the soundstage made it perfect for the large set; however, much of its floor is taken up by a gigantic water tank, which presented a challenge to Messina and his team. "Because it was a hollow floor and because our set was so big and the weight on it was going to be huge, it had to be structurally engineered,” Messina explains. "There were a lot of things we had to do to the stage before we even began to build.”

One of the larger set pieces is the casino elevator, weighing in at 37,000 pounds with one car that worked on each level of the casino. Messina’s crew had to dig down into the stage’s foundation and put special footings in to hold it. It turned out to be one of the most complicated pieces on the set.

Lighting the casino was also a massive undertaking. All the lighting was built into the set, so that once the director, the cast and the extras were in the room, no additional lights were employed. Messina incorporated light fixtures into all of the gaming tables, which, he offers, "worked well, especially to cast light on people around the tables. We knew the fixtures hanging from the ceiling would create enough broad ambient light, so it was a matter of injecting specific areas of light so you didn’t just have that big flat light.”

Soderbergh and Messina also utilized several large and distinctive chandeliers in lighting the sets. Hanging over the craps tables is a 9,000-pound fixture made of handblown Austrian glass which arrived at the studio in ten packing crates. Each strand of glass was numbered and it took a five-person team an entire week to install it, hanging each strand individually. Supports had to be added to the stage roof to hold the weight. As decorative as the chandelier was, it served an even more practical function for the director as a key light.

Over the lobby area is a sculptured chandelier made by well-known conceptual artist Jacob Hashimoto, who came over from his studio in Italy to personally supervise the installation. The chandelier was made up of thousands of individual pieces that had to be placed one by one onto the set’s ceiling.

One of the more spectacular lighting fixtures was in the Diamond Room, where Willy Bank’s five diamond necklaces are stored. Called "The Cascade,” the chandelier was borrowed from the Swarovski Crystal Company. It was twenty feet tall and two feet in diameter and each crystal had to be individually hooked onto the hardware holding it to the ceiling.

The lights hanging over the main casino floor were designed by Messina and his wife, Kristen Toscano Messina, the set decorator. Made of a fiberglass resin, they were carved and molded by the art department. Inside the fixtures are movie lights with gels and diffusion. "Essentially,” Messina notes, "it was a way to mask film lights and, at the same time, have a sculptural element.”

The casino set was furnished with a wide variety of slot machines, provided by Aristocrat Technologies, Inc.—all working, though no actual money was used—and 32 gaming tables, including roulette, craps, blackjack, pai gow and, of course, the newest game in town, ‘Nuff Said. Each table was branded with The Bank emblem, as were the thousands of chips and even the dice. "The hardest part was to keep the extras and crew from gaming during down times,” Messina winks. "I think there were more than a few side games going on during filming.”

Weintraub states, "Phil created one of the most believable sets I’ve seen in my life. We brought people onto the casino set and they’d forget they were on a soundstage. He designed everything in such complete detail that we could have opened it for gambling…if only I could have figured out how to do it,” he laughs.

Soderbergh agrees. "I don’t think any of us will see a set like that for a long time…perhaps never. It’s just one of those rare opportunities to do something extraordinary, and Phil was the perfect person to do it.”

Location filming also took place in and around Southern California, most notably the high desert town of Rosamond, which became the location for the Mexican dice factory. In addition, the company traveled to Las Vegas for several key scenes. Terry Benedict’s office was in the Bellagio Hotel’s corporate offices, and the hotel’s Fontana Bar doubled for the convention center where Frank Catton introduces the game ‘Nuff Said. The filmmakers also took advantage of the fact that an addition to the Venetian hotel was under construction during filming, using the site for The Bank construction zone where Danny Ocean offers Bank a Billy Martin.

Another practical location was the Southwest Airlines gate area at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport, where a scene was filmed with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.

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