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A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine
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Choosing the MiniDV format wasn't just about logistics. Its harsh imaging characteristics corresponded well with the film's subject matter. "I saw an artistic, logical justification for shooting this film on this format because it was a very violent script - very disturbing, gritty and anarchic," Dod Mantle observes. "My main fears at the script-meetings stage concerned where the format might and might not handle it. Those fears are still with me as we go into release, and I see examples of [my concerns] on the final print. I sit in the cinema and think, 'Well, I very much would have liked to have shot that particular scene on film as opposed to any digital format.' Projected in the cinema correctly, the scenes in London, which are quite disturbing and monumental, are so strong. I always fear for the variables of quality at the release print stage. The more delicate the negative, the greater the threat of an inaccurate density in final print. Films of digital or electronic origin are always more fragile in this respect. [If the release prints] are screened at the right level and the darkness is there, even though the look is grainy and washed out like a watercolor, a lot of people really love it and find it acceptable."

During preproduction, Dod Mantle performed extensive image tests in conjunction with Moving Picture Company in Soho, London, to achieve the best shooting combination for a filmout. MPC believed the best results occurred with footage shot in the 4x3 aspect ratio but matted for 16x9 by the PAL XL1 (625 lines of resolution, 900,000 effective pixels over three 1/3" CCDs) in Frame Movie Mode, its pseudo-progressive-scan method, which is performed electronically within the camera. "My post house was quite adamant that it would help in their work to maintain as much quality as possible from the original material," the cinematographer says. "There were still all sorts of pitfalls. Image compression can take place at one stage or another, and then you get all of these halos and strange artifacts in the shadows. There are certain colors, textures and lines in pictures that can really give you nightmares when you're transferring back to film. You have to be very wary when you're shooting. You can get surprised in post, and then you might have to go into the Inferno or Flame to do repair. That's less of a problem in film because of the optics inherent to the celluloid package."

Dod Mantle helped matters by securing the higher-resolving Canon EC (6-40mm) and Canon EJ (50-150mm) prime lenses to the camera bodies with Optex adapters. Even though video-lens focal lengths are measured differently than those of 35mm lenses, traditional focus-wheel systems were mounted onto the rods for the assistants, who pulled by eye. Because the XL1's viewfinder is black-and-white, Dod Mantle composed shots by looking at 9" color monitors. "It's amazing, because this little consumer camera gets built up with matte boxes and transmitters for sound," he says. "But they were still streamlined and light compared to film cameras."

Dod Mantle shot as wide open as possible with ND filters to minimize DV's seemingly infinite depth of field, and he underexposed by one to two stops to get more information on tape. (The XL1 has an exposure value of about 320 ASA without altering the shutter speed.) For daylight-exterior shots that featured prominent skies, which present difficulties in DV, grad filters were thrown into the mix. "I used them quite a lot because the sky burns so quickly," he recalls. "If there's nothing there, then there is nothing you can work on digitally - there will be a hole in the cinema screen when you go back to print." Inevitably, the sky had to be sacrificed in certain shots, but Dod Mantle shot sky plates to use as replacements in post by stopping down three to four stops and using filters to enhance the cloud formations.

In DV, backgrounds in wide shots have a tendency to become a pixellated mess, so Dod Mantle carefully composed his shots for the cleanest lines, taking into account the locations' architecture. "Hard contrast lines in the background can completely take attention away from what you want people to look at. If we do get away with it, one of the reasons is that the film is brutal, not just [in terms of] the violence, but also because walking out of a hospital and finding your familiar surroundings void of people is a brutal experience."

So is finding your parents dead in bed, as Jim does when he returns to his family home with Selena and Mark. In a poignant sequence, he discovers that his parents have committed suicide to avoid their inevitable infection. Jim, Selena and Mark decide to bunk in the house for the night, but they're attacked by a roving, red-eyed, blood-spewing pair of infected, who are quickly dispatched. Mark is wounded on the arm, however, and because the virus is communicable through blood and takes hold within seconds, the ruthlessly practical Selena quickly hacks him to pieces.

"The film has a lot of night scenes [like this], and I remember Danny asking, 'How are you going to do this?'" Dod Mantle recounts. "I said, 'I'll just put the lights on.' And he said, 'Well, I forgot to tell you that [because society has fallen apart,] the electricity is all gone.' That slowly sunk in, and after about three days I realized I was in hell."

Because London - and all of Britain, for that matter - had to have a post-apocalyptic feel, many night sequences were photographed using day-for-night processes to eliminate any city-light illumination. The cinematographer explains, "You just have to put a torch up, and you get this incredible contrast inherent to the digital formats; they can sense light very quickly, and therefore you sense artifice. I had to hit the actors with big HMIs shooting through 4-by-4 and 6-by-6 silks to lift up the contrast and to illuminate the actors' faces so you would sense that there was some moonlight. Also, because Naomie is dark-skinned, I flat-lit her so I could pull the shot down three to five stops in post." Coupled with the initial one or two stops of underexposure, the final image after post was four to seven stops down. "Danny and I tried to push the film as dark as we could," Dod Mantle attests.

Three of the close-ups for the scene in Jim's home were shot through the clear warbled window of a washing-machine lid. "I started to develop a filter collection of all sorts of burnt and deformed plastic," says Dod Mantle. "I used them quite a lot throughout the course of the film to slightly degrade the potentially brutal dimension and character of digital imaging."

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.