The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents January 2007 Return to Table of Contents
Pan's Labyrinth
Allen Daviau, ASC
Page 2
Page 3
Little Children
DVD Playback
Production Slate
Post Focus
Short Takes
ASC Close-Up

Apocalypto, shot by Dean Semler, ASC, ACS, uses spectacular locations and digital cameras to tell an epic tale set during the decline of the Mayan civilization.

Unit photography by Andrew Cooper, SMPSP

During preproduction in Mexico for Apocalypto, Dean Semler, ASC, ACS shot various tests with the Panavision Genesis and viewed the results on a hi-def projector in the production’s “dailies trailer.” When the lights came on, he had an epiphany. “I couldn’t believe what I had just seen,” Semler recalls. “I had looked at a firelight test, a flare test, a strobing test, and a long lens in the jungle at night, and I was just astounded. I said to myself, ‘God almighty, where’s this going?’ First, I never thought in a million years I would be shooting digital, and second, 2500 ASA is something that has never been in my vocabulary.” He chuckles and hastens to add, “I didn’t break down and weep or pound my fists in the dirt, but it was a big moment for me, realizing we could now do things we never thought we’d be able to do. This is a revolution in cinematography.” 

Apocalypto was actually the second of three consecutive features Semler has shot with the Genesis, a digital camera that uses film lenses and accessories. The first was Click, and the most recent is I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, which he was shooting at press time. “I can’t say I won’t go back to film,” he remarks, “but I’m still exploring the Genesis at the moment.” Apocalypto was his first feature collaboration with director Mel Gibson, although the two had worked together previously, when Gibson was not in the director’s chair, on We Were Soldiers (see AC Feb. ’02), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and The Road Warrior. 

Apocalypto is set in the 16th century during the decay of the Mayan empire in Central America. The movie opens with the camera slowly moving into the jungle; the shot lasts almost a minute and ends as a tapir bursts out of the undergrowth and past the camera. This shot was made on film with an Arri 435 at 48 fps. “I was going to use the upgraded Genesis, which can shoot up to 50 fps,” says Semler, “but there was a good chance the animal would hit the camera, and that body was one of only three in the world at the time — sorry, Arri!” 

The story then moves to an isolated jungle village, where Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) lives with his pregnant wife and child. The idyllic simplicity of their world is shattered when brutal Mayan warriors, the Holcanes, raid the village and take captives for slavery and sacrifice. Jaguar Paw manages to save his family by lowering them into a deep well, a cenote, before he is taken prisoner. He and other prisoners are taken on an incredible journey that involves a raging river, treacherous cliffs, and a limestone quarry worked by slaves bleached white by limestone powder. They finally enter a Mayan city, where Jaguar Paw and others are prepared for sacrifice. Semler explains, “As Jaguar Paw is about to have his heart cut out, a solar eclipse puts an eerie end to the executions, and he’s allowed to run free — sort of. Actually, he and the other survivors are made to run the gauntlet, a killing field of 150 yards where every available weapon is used to prevent them from reaching freedom. Jaguar Paw escapes, and the last act of the movie is a wild foot chase through the jungle. 

“Production designer Tom Sanders, costume designer Mayes Rubeo, and hair/makeup designer Aldo Signoretti collaborated to create the extraordinary look of Apocalypto, and our job was bringing it to the screen,” he continues. “Mel and I are both fans of anamorphic, and our original plan was to use a widescreen frame, but during tests it became obvious that 1.85:1 was better suited to the tall trees and canopy of the jungle, where most of the movie takes place. We originally talked about shooting ‘down and dirty,’ sort of the Road Warrior approach, but I still decided to take a 50-foot Super Technocrane along, and Nick Phillips provided the brand-new Libra V Head. I thought I’d use this equipment for special shots, but as it turned out, we shot with it for most of the movie. I must give full marks to A-camera operator Ian Fox, 1st AC Tony Rivetti, dolly grips Jeff ‘Moose’ Howery and John Murphy, crane operator Carlos Gonzalez, and Libra technicians Rocky Babcock and Adam Austin for their coordination in not only executing many magnificent shots, but also using the Super Techno as a day-to-day workhorse.” 

Based on his experience on Click, Semler knew he would be spending most of the Apocalypto shoot in the “Digi Tent,” basically an 8'x8' portable darkroom set adjacent to video village. The Genesis cameras’ outputs were wired to the Panavision and EFilm equipment in the tent, where Semler could switch between cameras and view the image on a 24" Sony HD monitor in 4:2:2 color space, alongside a waveform monitor and wireless iris controls. The HD signals were then down-converted to NTSC feeds to video monitors set up for Gibson in the video village. The director joined Semler in the tent to view the HD image when he had a concern or question. 

Although Semler started the shoot working with his light meter, he quickly grew to rely on the HD monitor to evaluate exposure and the overall image, occasionally using the waveform monitor to double-check particular highlights. “The tent was my workstation — I was basically looking at the release print!” he says. “I’d prefer to be outside, by the camera or the director, but it was a small price to pay for being able to see exactly what I was getting. The dailies, or ‘immediate-lies,’ as Mel called them, were very reassuring for us, because at the end of the day, we knew we had it.” 

On Click, Semler worked with EFilm to define a workflow, and he used the same one on Apocalypto. William Feightner, EFilm’s technical vice president, explains that the strategy involves emulating the look of Kodak’s Vision2 500T 5218 negative and then previsualizing the look of Kodak release-print stocks. “We decided with Dean to match a traditional film look, to make it look as though he’d shot and printed film,” says Feightner. “Experienced cinematographers like Dean intuitively know how to use film to get certain looks.” The EFilm team developed 3-D look-up tables (LUTs) to make the Genesis output resemble a 5218 negative. “Viewing LUTs” were also developed so that Semler could see on set what the image would look like after it was output to film and printed on Kodak Vision Premiere (2393); these LUTs were incorporated in a “Colorstreamer” box developed by EFilm. (Feightner notes that Panavision will soon offer a similar previz capability in its Genesis Display Processor boxes.) 

Two Colorstreamer units provided separate viewing LUTs for the 24" monitor in the “Digi Tent” and the HD projector in the dailies trailer; these were monitored by Liz Cotter and Nicholas Grieco from EFilm. As a result, Semler saw images on the HD monitor and the HD projector as they would appear in the final release print. The production’s 2nd-unit cinematographer, Richard Merryman, didn’t have the gear for previsualization, “so he shot using a meter,” explains Semler, “and then checked his work in the dailies trailer, where Bobby Hatfield, our one-man digital lab, could screen footage for him to make any necessary exposure adjustments. Bobby’s duties grew considerably from the traditional role of projectionist; he was able to do simple dailies color timing as per the cinematographer’s instructions, which were included in the editorial tape clones he also created.” 


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