Oscar winning director Danny Boyle had to come up with something special for his next film project after the multi Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire. He chose the story of Aron Ralston, an American hiker who spent 127 hours after an accident pinned by a boulder before deciding to amputate his own arm to allow his eventual escape. Doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs or indeed a fulfilling couple of hours in your local multiplex.
But the film plays a lot in the mind of Ralston, with flash backs, as well as the suffocating potential tomb of the deep ravine that he inhabits for the near entirety of the movie. To make it in to a Danny Boyle movie he needed the talents of his usual DoP Anthony Dod Mantle and a raft of cinema technology that could operate in such close quarters and produce the usual Boyle/Mantle cinema look.
Mantle, who won the Academy Award for his cinematography on Slumdog Millionaire, shot the film on location in Utah earlier this year.
LA-based HD Camera Rentals, led by technician Michael Mansouri and his brother Bobby Mansouri, built innovative rigs and provided equipment and cameras, including the SI-2K and Canon EOS-1D Mark IV.
For 127 Hours, Michael remained on location throughout the shoot to provide assistance to Mantle and his crew.
Michael Mansouri explains what HD Rentals could offer the movie: “I am a DIT and a cinematographer and have been involved with Digital Cinema for the last five years. We concentrate on simplifying the terms and practice in language most people can understand. When we got called to work with the SI 2K and Danny Boyle in Utah, we could draw from our huge experience of using the camera. In fact we’ve made a lot of improvements to the system as much of the system is based on computer components. We felt that this wasn’t a viable way for a film maker to work, they don’t want to deal with weak links, usually those that are designed for consumer applications. So we modified all those and changed them all to professional Lemo connections.
“When we brought all our different SI 2K rigs to the set Danny and Anthony were blown away. We had solutions for Director’s playback immediately on-set, autofocus systems so if there are some shots which are really hard to focus on, the lens control takes over and controls the focus.
“For the movie we made a special cage for Dod Mantle. We actually laser engraved his name on it. The cage was multi purpose, it allowed us to mount the camera anywhere and also has a power distribution box so that we can power many things off of it. That’s the one thing with the digital, the weak point is all the cable everywhere, it’s different to film. Everything we did for the film was to keep it as clean and simple as possible. Anthony wanted a simplified set-up and that to me is the whole essence of digital anyway. I think digital should offer people things that film can’t, it should be smaller, faster and should offer immediate gratification.
“Anthony wanted everything as small as possible, that gave us a number of challenges. The location we were shooting in was extremely small, we were replicating where Aron Ralston got his hand caught. It was extremely narrow and tight so we had to make a rig to fit the space. Only the absolutely essential equipment had to be there. So we stripped a camera down to it’s bare sensor and ran 250 feet cables from it back to a recording device where the DIT and AC could pull focus and give feedback to the cinematographer. We got a lot of our inspiration based on the best handheld camera that we know which is the Aaton. It moulds right against your shoulder and is like a ‘cat on your back’ it fits so well. You can balance the camera with one hand. So we took the Aaton handles, which are super expensive, and we slid them on the cage. So now he can hold the camera with one hand. Then we devised the cage system so there is only one cable that goes in to the camera. So his monitor gets powered from the cage, the cage gets it’s power 150ft away and the Director can see wirelessly what is being shot.
“Anthony always operates so the AC has no idea where he is framing because he is being blocked by the cinematographer and a stone wall so there is no way to even look to see what is going on. So how do we give that information of focus distance, what he’s framing for to the AC? We got a wireless zoom control system made by a company called C-Motion and that allowed us to wirelessly transmit the image which is coming out of the camera right on to a handheld system and have all the lens and focus detail information. So when Anthony pans his camera that information gets sent to the AC and he says ‘You’re at four feet now and the subject is at six feet so you need to move your focus to six feet’. So the AC isn’t flying blind.
Some of the movie was shot on a stage while a lot of footage was shot in the Moab desert in Utah. At all times there were two cinematographers shooting at the same time with two units, so they were able to shoot seven days a week. Both units were shooting SI 2Ks and the film had a total of six camera units at any one time. “Each unit would have two cameras sometimes three cameras at the same time. The SI2K has interchangeable lens mounts, the beauty about that for a film maker is to use any lens he wants to shoot on. So on this movie we had cameras that were set up with Canon lenses on, PL mounts, C mounts and we could change them out without ever affecting anything, it’s as easy as changing a lens. This arrangement allowed us to work fast.
“The other cameras that we shot with were the Canons. We shot with the 5D MkII as well as my favourite camera the 1D MkIV. Anthony was very frustrated with the video mode out of the Canon cameras. There are limitations, it’s a very compressed H.264 file format, it’s not ideal for the type of shooting he’s used to. We looked at it and tried to figure out ways to break the code, get uncompressed RAW out of the camera and there was no way. What he ended up doing was shooting in still mode at 10 frame bursts and in post he would double it to 20 frames. He definitely bends the rules. The 20 frames is an interesting effect and will look really cool.
“The Canon cameras had their own set of challenges as they were really designed for still photography so we had to come up with some rigs to control the focus. We had questions on how you monitor and how you get the Director a video feed, there were a lot of challenges. We used the 1D MkIVs for a lot of high contrast, over exposed sunlight, snow caps, skin tones type shots, this camera could hold those shots in still mode. In the video mode it wouldn’t get anywhere near.
“The SI 2K is however a remarkable camera, not only based upon the form factor, the size, the flexibility, the lenses but the image quality out of this camera is the closest I’ve seen to film. The problem I have with other digital cameras is that they are too sharp, too noticeably digital. It also has some organic feel to it, a little bit of imperfection like analog does. The other benefit is that it shoots uncompressed, you’re getting 2K not 4K but you’re getting it uncompressed and you’re getting a lot more bit depth and a lot more information and colouration or as we like to call it ‘roll off’. We were able to use the new version of software from the one that Dod Mantle used on Slumdog and it’s a lot better apart from it being uncompressed. The Slumdog camera was 8:1 compression.”
“Dod Mantle had some special requests. For example he wanted on his hand held system a remote button that when he would trigger it gave his eye piece certain information like his focus or his luminance levels and we programmed all those in there for him. He also wanted specific shutters so we were able to program those as well. A lot of that was achieved by changing the software inside the camera.
“Lens wise he shot with the new Arri Ultra 16s which are amazing lenses, super sharp. We also shot with the full set of Schneider C-mount lenses and a full set of ‘L’ series lenses for the Canon cameras. We did shoot with the Angenieux Optimo 24-290, imagine that with an SI 2K!
“We needed all these lens options as there were a couple of shots that Dod Mantle really wanted to do. He wanted to take the camera and go right in to James Franco where he had his head inside of a sleeping bag and then go inside the sleeping bag! We had to make this special camera which was stripped down to the sensor with a handle on it (They called it the ‘fist’ cam). We were able to give him a HUD (heads up display) on the glasses that he wears so he could see the image on them. So he was able to take this really wide shot to show James Franco and bring the audience right in and feel the frustration that he’s going through. It was amazing the kind of things we were able to do with the camera based on lens selection and Dod Mantle’s philosophy of small and simple.
“There was another very elaborate shot quite early on. In the ravine they wanted to mount the camera which would travel off the side of the rocks go up to James Franco and follow him as he falls down. So how do we do that and control the small camera? So we were able to make this remote control head that we would suspend with cables and control it’s travel. The head was a 3-axis control, with tilt and pan with a joystick for control.
“Shooting in the desert had it’s own downsides. Extreme cold to extreme hot and we were so far away that if I had to make a phone call I would have to drive about two hours just to get some coverage. Everything had to helicoptered in. It was a pretty harsh environment so we had to come up with some ways to protect the camera and to make sure the recorders didn’t crash.
“We had many recorders. The first one we had was the typical one you’ll see at P+S Technik, then we had from General Dynamics true military grade laptops which were used in Desert Storm and can be battered and bruised without failing. The other system we had was the CineDeck which is the size of a small monitor. We were able to control our CineDeck through Wifi so we were able to offer playback to the outside world if needed. So through that we were able to offer on-set monitoring to iPads so the crew could watch what was going on. This is the immediate gratification I was talking about.”