Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, DFF injects this apocalyptic horror feature with a strain of digital video.
Unit photography by Peter Mountain
Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Late one night, three animal-rights activists slip into a primate research facility and discover chimpanzees undergoing a visual assault of violent imagery. As the activists are about to release the chimps from captivity, a lone scientist stumbles onto the scene and frantically warns them to stop. He explains that these particular primates have been injected with a manufactured, highly contagious virus that causes the stricken to be consumed by a state of unrelenting rage. Of course, in typical government fashion, a cure has yet to be developed. Dismissing the good scientist's pleadings, an activist opens one of the cages...
Twenty-eight days later, a bicycle courier named Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens from a month-long coma in a hospital to find his intravenous bags empty, his heart monitor silent and a lengthy scar on the side of his head. Something ominous has occurred during his incapacitation, which resulted from a collision with a car. Wandering from his room, he finds the hospital deserted, and when he ventures outside, he finds that all of London is equally empty.
Seeking some form of solace, Jim eventually enters a cathedral, where he discovers that the pews are packed with decaying corpses. Growing anxious, he shouts out a futile "hello," expecting no response. But his call interrupts the resident priest and two other gentlemen — who, after being "infected," are now feeding on the dead. Hemorrhaging blood and full of rage, the three tear after the fresh meat (i.e., Jim), who scrambles out of the church in a what-has-the-world-come-to panic. Just before he is ripped limb from limb, however, Jim is rescued by a pair of "normals," Selena and Mark (Naomie Harris and Noah Huntley), who whisk him to relative safety. There, they give him the bad news about the world.
With the World Health Organization announcing virus alerts at an almost daily rate, 28 Days Later seems especially timely. The film has been a smash in the United Kingdom, where it was released late last year. It also offered Brits the chance to see something they'd never seen before — a London devoid of people — thanks to skillful compositions by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, DFF and an incredible job of traffic control.
While Dod Mantle was shooting It's All About Love in Sweden for Thomas Vinterberg, director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, The Beach) flew over to chat with him about his ideas for the horror film. The duo had already worked together on a pair of BBC productions, Strumpet and Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise. "Danny was splaying these pretty horrific pictures of violence on a table in front of me and saying, 'This film is, of course, quite violent,'" Dod Mantle says with dry understatement. "There was a lot of location work and a lot of building on location, and that's expensive in London. We knew that if we shot on 35mm stock in a conventional format, we would probably have to lose quite a few scenes."
In order to maintain the integrity of Alex Garland's script, the filmmakers opted for MiniDV, a format at the lower end of digital video's resolution scale. The advantage of MiniDV, however, was that its inherently small cameras could be set up quickly, which proved key to pulling off the stunning shots of deserted London. "If I had shot those on a big negative, it would have looked absolutely stunning," Dod Mantle reflects. "It was extraordinary to see those city streets deserted. I knew how beautiful those could have been, but we made an artistic decision and I stood by it. In those particular instances, of course, we would not have been allowed to shoot and take up so much space [in 35mm] for two weeks at such a delicate time before early-morning rush hour. Just out of frame, I heard people screaming serious dissent that I won't quote!"
Even at 4 a.m., traffic control could hold back angry commuters for just so long as scenes were shot at Piccadilly Circus, Westminster Bridge and the Docklands. These sequences necessitated the use of as many as eight Canon XL1 MiniDV cameras to cover all angles, allowing shots to be made as quickly as possible. "I placed them all and framed them all," Dod Mantle recalls. "It was very difficult because we had to deal with Walkie-Talkies, screaming commuters just out of frame, police asking when we'd finish and six or eight people operating cameras. Even my gaffer, Thomas Neivelt, and producer Andrew MacDonald were operating some of the cameras. I was trying to Walkie T-stops knowing that they were at six different angles in accordance to the constantly rising sun. It was hell.
"As I watched the morning light come over St. Paul's Cathedral with all of these beautiful violets, yellows and magentas, I thought, 'How much of this information am I going to be able to maintain on the final print for a massive throw in a big cinema house in London or the States?'"
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 film out. 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.
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."
After resuming their run from the infected, Jim and Selena make their way to a high-rise apartment building where they encounter Hank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter (Megan Burns), who have been tuning in to a repeated radio message from the military. The production caught a break with this location for day-for-night work. Because the building was slated for demolition, Dod Mantle had production designer Mark Tildesley repaint the walls of the stairwell a darker color, about five or six stops down, and the cameraman filtered the windows to control the ambient light. "If the sun started to creep in, it was so gentle and soft that I could turn that into night," the cameraman notes. "I tried to put a bit of greenish-cyan into that scene as well."
The four survivors decide to escape the city in Hank's taxi and track down the source of the radio message. To do so, they must travel through a debris-cluttered tunnel, where they blow a tire. Soon enough, a horde of rats rushes toward them, with a mob of infected on their tails. As the infected close in, their shadows loom larger and larger on the tunnel walls. "It's an old trick," concedes Dod Mantle, who had 18K HMIs bookending the tunnel. "I had half the group running back towards the light, but out of shot so that the shadows would grow." Hidden among the debris and wrecked cars were the cinematographer's usual array of Kino Flos and small pin-spots, as well as a few medium-sized HMIs to provide ambiance. "On this film, I worked with as many lamps as I usually do on any other format," he says, "but the lights were generally smaller because I was basically working at a faster [exposure] speed."
After escaping the tunnel, our heroes motor their way into the countryside toward a military encampment — or, as Maj. Henry West (Christopher Eccleston) calls it, a little piece of "civilization." The compound is actually a sprawling estate that he and his small band of soldiers have converted into a fortress that even offers the luxury of hot water and electricity. West has been sending the radio message with hopes of strengthening his ranks to battle the infected, but his real reason for attracting any remaining humans, and in particular women, serves baser instincts.
The compound had a perimeter of searchlights that served as motivation for the interior illumination. "The only problem with seeing those lights in the shots is that they tend to streak because of the chip in these small cameras," notes Dod Mantle, adding that some of the streaking was removed in post. "The end of the film becomes more Gothic. In the case of the house, there are a lot of very expressionistic shots of the stairways that recollect the theories of sexuality and stairwells from the era of Expressionist cinema, and the lighting is baroque."
At the point in the story where all hell broke loose, the filmmakers deliberately avoided the standard option of frenetic camera movement. "This was not a film that needed any more fear and disaffection due to the camera movement, because there's already enough of that in the story," the cinematographer maintains. "I think it would have been fatal if I'd moved the camera around too much. I didn't want to go over the top, so that's where the dolly came in — the camera remained slightly nonchalant, but aware of the presence [of action and the characters] in the scene. A fast shutter, however, was always used to enhance the close shots of the infected's movements.
"However intense the shoot was at times," he says about the film's complexities, "I have never before appreciated so tight and dedicated an alliance among director, director of photography, producer, production designer and writer, as well as with editor Chris Gill. That is what I believe brought life and energy to the film."
All footage was upconverted to D-1 tapes (125 in all) by Clear Ltd., who also handled the visual effects. D-1 provides YUV 4:4:2 uncompressed PAL images. (The PAL Canon XL1 is 4:2:0.) After editing and conforming, the seven D-1 masters were handed off to MPC, where Dod Mantle spent almost a month in tape-to-tape grading with colorist Jean-Clement Sorret, who used a Pogle Platinum and a Cintel DSX with the PiXi secondary color corrector. The graded masters were captured onto a digital disk recorder for treatment on a Linux Shake workstation. Running through MPC's proprietary FilmTel software, the 16x9 images were enhanced and interpolated to 2K files, blown up slightly to 1.85:1, then recorded onto grain-free Kodak Vision Color Intermediate 5242 stock via the Arrilaser. The answer print was created by Technicolor London on Fuji HiCon 3519D. Deluxe handled the release prints on Vision 2383. Dod Mantle was impressed by the capabilities of and the support provided by MPC and sets aside high praise for the company, along with postproduction supervisor Clare St. John and coordinator Steve Harrow.
While watching 28 Days Later, movie buffs will undoubtedly notice that a few scenes recall moments of flesh-eating terror from other classic zombie and viral-apocalypse horror flicks. Are these homages, or just the nature of the genre? "You can't avoid the parallels, but we didn't pull out any genre movie of that kind and sit down like good boys and look at it," Dod Mantle asserts. "Looking at one piece of work of the same genre can send you off on a kind of secondhand journey, so I think it's best to create your own world. The film's been doing well, which is quite extraordinary, and I think it will have a life in America."
The CDC is on alert.
Anthony Dod Mantle was later invited to join the ASC, and went on to shoot such features as The Last King of Scotland, Rush, Antichrist, Dredd, First They Killed My Father and Snowden. He won the Academy Award and ASC Award for his work in Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, also shooting Millions, 127 Hours and T2 Trainspotting for the director.
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This production featurette offers more info on the 28 Days Later shoot: