The American Society of Cinematographers

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Robin Hood
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John Mathieson, BSC brings a brawny aesthetic to Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood.

The fable of Robin Hood, the archetypal philanthropist outlaw with a hands-on approach to redistributing wealth, is one of the oldest in English folklore. Literary depictions of him and his band of merry men as popular heroes first emerged in narrative ballads of the 14th century, and continue to this day. Motion pictures took up the mantle from their earliest beginnings; cinematic adaptations of the story number in the dozens and now have a history that spans more than a century. The latest adaptation is the current release Robin Hood, directed by Ridley Scott and shot by regular collaborator John Mathieson, BSC.

“I think it’s great for England’s biggest director to make this quintessential English tale, set in an English landscape,” says Mathieson. “It seems natural and logical that Ridley should make Robin Hood — and do it his way. This story is about a country in crisis and big social upheavals. This Robin Hood has far more of a political vision; he actually starts a revolution and brings the country together. The events bring about the Magna Carta, which was the beginning of all of our democracies, in a way. The film isn’t a romp in the woods.”

Scott and Mathieson have worked together several times since their first film together, Gladiator (AC May ’00). Most recently, they paired up for Kingdom of Heaven (AC June ’05), a medieval saga set just a short time before the historical period covered in Robin Hood. This meant that various elements of their visual approach to a story based around the Crusades had already been established, although the two films take place against quite different backdrops. Whereas Kingdom of Heaven incorporates dramatic desert landscapes in the Holy Land, Robin Hood plays out entirely in northern France and England. Scott brought up the work of the Brueghel dynasty of painters as a visual reference for European winter landscapes, and Mathieson traveled to Brussels to view some of their work. “Ridley wanted to shoot the pastoral English countryside — he wanted that kind of Brueghel landscape,” recalls the cinematographer. “We had two fantastically harsh winters, but unfortunately, we kind of missed them both [because of production delays]. That look of black trees against a hilly, snow-covered landscape was something we were after.”

In terms of a color palette, Mathieson says he and Scott wanted to avoid the rich greens and reds that characterize one of the most famous Robin Hood adaptations, Michael Curtiz’s early Technicolor production The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). “There are a lot of burned browns and dark colors in our costumes and the sets,” says Mathieson. “It’s a pretty mucky-looking film, but we did shoot in the summer, and our ideal would have been to shoot right through the winter. I just love the winter light in the U.K. — the slow, long sun. It was a very wet summer, so we did get a lot of overcast skies, but an overcast sky in summer is not very interesting because there’s no movement in it. It’s often just a flat white, and you want more gray.”

Robin Hood was shot in Super 35mm rather than anamorphic for a number of practical reasons, according to Mathieson. “Everyone thinks Ridley is a purist in his photography, and he is, but he loves a zoom lens,” says the cinematographer. “If you’re doing a tracking shot, you can strengthen the composition throughout without it feeling like a zoom. It’s just more convenient to zoom in a bit and go again than to spend time changing the lens while everyone’s waiting. And if you’ve got to climb a hill, you’d rather take one zoom than a whole box of lenses.

“Another consideration was that anamorphic zooms start at around a T5.6 and only look good at T11, and in the woods, you want to be at T2.8 or less,” he continues. “Also, ’Scope lenses aren’t that long, and you want long lenses when you’re shooting horses and landscapes. We were up to a 1,000mm and longer. We had an [Optica] Elite [T2.8] 120-520mm with a doubler on it. We also used a [Panavision] Primo 3:1 135-420mm, often with a doubler. It’s a good device if you’ve got a big stunt and a lot of horses; it gives you a nice, thick shot of the melee of battle, creating a documentary look that makes you feel like you’re right in it. We also had the new 19-90mm Panavision Compact Zoom, which was very good, and some [Angenieux] Optimos — the 15-40mm and 28-76mm both have a very useful range. Every time we could use a zoom lens, we did. You need a good range of lenses and a lot of telephoto when you’re shooting with so many cameras, because you’ve got to stay out of each other’s way.”

The production often had up to a dozen Arri cameras — Arricam Studios and Lites and Arri 235s — running at once. The principal camera operators were Peter Taylor, Martin Hume and Paul Edwards. “Chris Plevin did a lot of operating as well, and Paul and I both did some Steadicam work,” adds Mathieson. “We only limited ourselves to two cameras when we were onstage at Shepperton. The rest of the time, we seemed to have hundreds of them. I think every camera technician I know turned up at some point during the shoot!” The second unit, led by director/cinematographer Alexander Witt, was also extremely large. “Sometimes it was bigger than we were,” notes Mathieson. “I’ve done three or four films with Alex, and he knows what he’s doing. We’d talk about our work, but they were very quick conversations.”

The film’s titular character, played by Russell Crowe, begins the story as Robin Longstride, an archer in King Richard’s army. Returning from the Third Crusade, the army stops to lay siege to a castle in France and reclaim monies previously paid as ransom to the French monarch. This sequence was filmed at Bourne Woods in Surrey, England, where Mathieson and Scott also shot the opening scenes of Gladiator. A huge set of the French castle was built for exterior scenes. Key grip Gary Hymns recalls, “The castle was 60 feet high, and we lifted a 30-foot Technocrane onto the top with a Lee Lifting crane. We also had a Strada crane parked by the castle and swung it in as the horses charged, then lifted it 60 feet in the air.”

All-terrain vehicles proved especially useful at the location, as the castle was built atop a hill, with a village set positioned below it. In particular, the Raptor, a self-leveling vehicle supplied by Chapman, was in almost constant use. “We could put a 30-foot Technocrane on the Raptor, drive it in and push a button, and it would level itself,” says Hymns. “With a 30-foot arm, you’ve instantly got a 60-foot track that you can put anywhere you want in no time at all, so it’s incredibly versatile.” Other vehicles included quad bikes and a six-wheeled Gator supporting a hard-mounted Steadicam (for traveling shots of galloping horses).   

The trickiest problem for Mathieson at this and other woodland locations was the heavy summer foliage. “The woods were an absolute pain,” he says. “When a beech tree throws its leaves out in high summer, no light comes down to the ground. Nothing grows under them because there’s no light. Your light meter reads nothing at all. I was underexposed, even when I was pushing [Kodak Vision3 500T] 5219 one stop, sometimes more, and shooting wide open. I can deal with underexposure, but the quality of the light was very flat because the trees covered everything. When you put a long lens on, the background went mushy green. It was very difficult to get good contrast and separation. We used smoke and did what we could.”

In combination with the smoke, large lights were used to provide dappled backlight, though getting them into position was quite a challenge. “We got a woodsman in with a huge saw, and he swung about from tree to tree, cutting down limbs for us,” says Alan Martin, the film’s gaffer. That cleared paths for light to reach the forest floor, but left the problem of how to get the fixtures into position. “It’s difficult, because if you’re doing a fast-moving sequence and you start putting up towers, they just get in the way, and then you spend even more time taking them down.” The solution was to lift the lights into place with a crane. “We used 18Ks and 100K SoftSuns,” continues Mathieson. “The good thing about the SoftSuns was that if we stacked one on top of another, we could look straight at them, because they formed a single round source up in the trees — that was our low sun. They were great. They didn’t actually light the scene that much, but they gave us a bit of light and depth in the distance, something bright in the background.”

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