Shoot Story: 'In The Heart Of The Sea'

Shooting the movie of the real life events that inspired Moby Dick was never going to be easy, DoP Anthony Dod-Mantle re-visits the watery depths the production had to go to for In The Heart Of The Sea.

Could you explain how you shot the sea-based actions scenes? Tank-based and/or locations and how you planned to allow for the VFX?

The challenge of the interior and exterior tank scenes combining with location shooting captured during five weeks at real sea was steered into place during pre-production. This happenedunder lengthy and laborious “Methodology” meetings led by Ron (Howard) and Bill Connor (Assistant Director). All head of departments were there on many occasions to nail down how we could pull all these bits together. Jody Johnston from Double Negative was there every day at my side.

“These meetings spread over a period of three months in prep at Leavesden as well as on the road in Hotel foyers or wherever whilst travelling in The Canary islands were totally essential and crucial to the success or failure of the movie.

“As a cinematographer to sustain continuity between interior tank scenes, exterior tank scenes, ‘on location’ shooting in all weathers at sea, across five units can be a headache, but it is what we have to do as part of our expertise. 

“However magnificent a whale Jody and his team could produce, any flaws in visual continuity would have settheir work in bad light. In a sense any film is the same regardless of VFX, the more seamless the better. My only issue with the film is the way it plays in 2D as opposed to 3D.

“We had the main exterior tank attached to the Nantucket town build at Leavesden. We had the interior tank for heavy VFX scenes where light control was paramount  We also needed to build in to the scenes as much SFX as possible to help savings whenever possible.

“We had massive dump tanks to immerse actors and crew in water, wave machines and suchlike hammered away throughout long wet days whilst the model of the ‘Essex’ sail boat bobbed backs and forward on a gimbal to simulate anything from calm to storm.

“We started the shooting in the London studios so we had to anticipate the kind of weather we would face at real sea.  The sea-based scenes were subsequently weaved together despite some shots talking place on interior tanks, some shots on exterior tanks, whilst others cut from ‘real sea’.

“I always had reasonable control of my lighting directions at the studios but knowing that interacting would take place elsewhere and with other crews everything had to be documented and be made available to whatever camera was seeing. At sea we planned our three or four different directions where we could sail out on open sea on the Island of La Gomera. The trick here was to secure different directions for sailing under marine command and my control so as to secure continuity in the position of the sun. Our camera boats and technical floating base together with lighting platforms and two technocranes on converted barges would leave the harbour before sunrise and head off in a chosen direction that suited the continuity I required.

“When we turned the boat around to sail back we would flip the actors or flip the cameras and always endeavour to shoot into sun when possible. This was the best way for me to control mood, contrast and colour in an ever-changing climate at sea.

How was working with the same director/leading man so soon after RUSH? Is this familiarity good and comforting, is there a down side?

“In my opinion it can and should only get better when a director and DoP return to work together again. Its all about trust and keeping an open mind and heart for the story you have to tell. I try to learn from past collaborations in every way possible whilst never ever attempting to slip into following a technical trail that may have succeeded for a previous film. For me this is the worst thing one can do as a cinematographer. I learn, remember what I must remember and then reboot and start afresh with a new visual alphabet from film to film – from story to story.

“Ron is a trusting soul and a diligent director, always courteous with actors and open to camera ideas. We have only made two films together but I am very encouraged by both experiences.

Rush was technically a very, very complicated film regarding many aspects including VFX but I felt it was well camouflaged under a sheen of visceral almost laisser faire shooting style and dipped in an adrenalin filled 70’s look and a strong emotional sound design.

“In The Heart Of The Sea was incredibly complicated technically especially due to the factors attached to shooting on an unpredictable sea environment and we had opted for an historic colour palette with a modern physical camera language .

“There is no downside to working with the same director twice, if trust prevails. In the right working relationship every film becomes a new adventure with an emphasis on the word ’New’.

What were your thoughts going in to the film? How did you want to shoot it as you knew there would be a large amount of VFX?

“It’s interesting you refer so much to VFX. The more VFX the more complicated of course but that said I take all films with or without the post boys in the same stride and just deal with the task as best I can. Inspired by story always foremost and never by a style concept or intention.

“I wanted the film to have a historic reference. I wanted a 1.1.85 aspect ratio to prevent me having to tilt up and down so much on gimbals or at sea (less tiresome for the audience ). I wanted the hues of many sea paintings from Turner as the most obvious to Delacroix to name two. There were many other sea painters I hunted down, far more so than struggling through endless sea movies. Most of the sea movies Ron or I sourced, in my opinion had good and bad moments absolutely down to the continuity issues I referred to earlier. That said I find the landscape of ‘Sea’ generally less interesting in film cinematographic renditions compared tothe countless varied and mystical beautiful attempts accomplished by many painters over the last two centuries. The sea is often a damn boring blue dense mass with a gaping great space of often colourless sky above. Largely due the difficulties of technically shooting at sea this is in no way pointing the finger at any other colleagues incapacity to capture the magic of the ocean but more reflects my personal taste and fascination as well as my fear for the open water .

“The film Ron and I agreed on was certainly the fishing documentary called Leviathan shot at sea on GoPro cameras predominantly.

“Other films were the historic film sequences from archives revealing horrendous waves and storms .

“There was no way around us using VFX for Moby but when we were stuck in duck pond calm waters at sea we needed the help of VFX of course. Jody worked around me with dutiful registration of lighting directions as well as my exposure methodology. I pulled the skies down anything up to eight or 10 stops in places with the aid of very old attenuator filters which I personally love. Jody would replicate the skies in this way also. I shot bracket exposures often as sky plates and again this was more with an expressive painter eye in mind than cinematographic convention or realism.

“Fundamentally I wanted to clarify to the audience as best possible the difference between the colder northern Atlantic hues around Nantucket compared to the blistering burning skies of the Galapagos and beyond.

What were your technical choices and what are they based on? Do you now shoot with a sensor you know inside out or is yours a lens choice primarily?

“I shot digitally on Alexa Studios often on two techno cranes. I shot with other digital formats for other aesthetic reasons and also for ergonomic reasons when for example shooting on the smaller whale boats. Everything was historically as correct as possible. The whale boats they drifted in were small and I wanted to be embedded in the boats and their world as much as possible. I know my sensors and learn the new ones very quickly. This relates to everything – resolution, latitude, definition. The size of the sensor is fundamental to everything we do and then it is about lens, light, ergonomics, and movement. Nothing new there.

“For me the biggest jump forward in many years has to be the Alexa 65 which I did not have the privilege to utilise here (I first used it on Oliver Stone’s Snowden project) - more of this later.

What are the problems of shooting with vast amounts of water? Do your shooting ratios diminish? Are you waiting for a certain sea ‘look’?

“Shooting ratios did not diminish for me on this film. As for so much water. We get cold, soaked and sick. The cameras get hammered hard by water and salt. The camera crews have to work very, very hard to protect the gear.”

Explain the multi-camera idea you used, how did you and Ron decide of how to shoot the blue screen parts?

“Methodology meetings defined what had to be Blue screen and what not. Jody was always present from Digital Negative. The multi-cameras can sometimes scare certain VFX producers based on antiquated resolution and definition debates but testing will always illustrate the floorboards of safety for the VFX work that has to be done, and of course grids are shot for all lenses utilised on any film these days to illustrate any particular artefacts or aberrations that can cause technical grief.

“I use camera and formats in different ways from project to project. There is no fundamental attitude or style I have on this front the only principal I have is keeping an open mind and heart surrounding the space and circumstances attached to each film script – I use cameras like paint brushes. Some splash more that others. Some are less handy than others. It all just makes for an interesting bridge from the world of vastly expanding and advancing technology across to whatever artistic whim or challenge one might have in mind. That’s exactly what makes my working life so exciting.

How did you want to proceed with the grade? Was there a look you were after?

“I love the grade. Again it is different from film to film and I do feel we cinematographers use the grade in a very individual manner, which is how it should be. The only unanimous comment I would have is that I never shoot any frame without the grade in mind NOT the grader. There are many misconceptions abounding our business about the relationship between grader and Cinematographer. I can only speak for myself. I know what I like and with the right mind and fingers behind the toggles I know we will get there.

“I always try to get the dailies into the zone that might at least help the editors to imagine what the final film might look like. Rush was a perfect experience in my mind regarding collaboration with director, production and editorial through to VFX. It was radical and precise and we had appropriate money available to spend on the dailies supply system with a mobile 2k cinema with me everywhere. This helped me win the trust of a new director and producers .

“On ITHOTS, the team and liaison was almost the same except whereas I had Adam Glassman with me on Rush ( Resolve) I had Jean Clement Soiret with me on ITHOTS) (Baselight). Both are close friends and long term collaborators which means everything to me.”

We wondered if you could say a bit about using the new Arri 65 camera in Snowden? Is the big sensor the way forward for cinema? How did you get the best out of it?

Snowden will hopefully appear this springtime in Europe and I am pleased with the film. The Alexa 65 is a robust work horse, a beautiful piece of ground breaking technology.

“I personally do love the big sensor for obvious reasons. We are closer to the beloved experience of shooting full fat 35mm. But with the added attraction of such a peaceful, powerful image generated. For me the artistic potential for this format is enormous .Whatever was the best I got out of it. I want you to wait until the premiere!”

Posted on January 27, 2016 and filed under cinematography, interview, case study.