By Jon Silberg
Throughout his career, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle has experimented with new technologies, so his recent outings with the RED ONE for the BBC One series Wallander and Danish director Lars von Trier's controversial feature Antichrist didn't intimidate him in the least. Mantle, the recipient of cinematography awards worldwide this year (including Academy and ASC awards) for his work on Slumdog Millionaire, feels equally comfortable shooting features on 35mm and 16mm film, Mini DV, HD and a prototype of the Silicon Imaging SI-2K digital camera, which he used in conjunction with 35mm film on Slumdog.
The cinematographer's first encounter with the RED Digital Cinema camera was on the BBC version of Wallander, a successful Swedish series about the eponymous brooding Scandinavian detective, played by Kenneth Branagh. As he would for any new format, Mantle did his research and spoke to other cinematographers and post professionals, and then did his own testing, so he could start rolling on day one with a clear sense of the imager's strengths and weaknesses, from set through the mastering stage.
As everyone who's used the RED is aware, the camera in its current iteration is very much balanced for daylight. Essentially, 5000°K is the agreed-upon sweet spot, where it can capture imagery with the least noise. The closer the lighting got to tungsten's 3200°K, the noisier the image became. "I didn't dare go full tungsten on any of the lights," Dod Mantle says of his lighting on Wallander. "I brought a full HMI package, and when I did use tungsten lights, I would put some blue [gel] on them. That would give me some separation of the warmer and cooler portions of the frame in post when I wanted it, but I was still very cautious where tungsten lighting was concerned."
Also, while Dod Mantle shared many of his colleagues' positive views about RED's ability to hold shadow detail, he doesn't find that to be the same thing as a truly faster sensor; he's not going to put all his detail in the shadow portion of the exposure. "The camera is slow," he notes. "Officially they say it's [EI] 320. Some say it's really 200. I'd say it's in between at 250. What I'm looking for is a camera with enhanced highlights and the tolerance of shadows that RED has. I had similar issues on Slumdog," he notes of his work with the SI-2K. "As soon as I got into difficult lighting situations, I would switch to shooting 500-speed film, pushing it a stop, rating it at 800 or 1000, and I'd be back in business."
The speed of the sensor, he elaborates, "is still a major issue, and it becomes an economic issue because if you do get stuck and have to bring more light in to get an exposure, you're using time that could be creative time."
If Dod Mantle could change one thing about the current RED configuration, it would be its ergonomics and bulk when decked out with the requisite peripherals. "I'm not knocking it," he notes, "but film cameras, after 100 years of evolution, sit on your body better than this camera does now. It's a natural part of evolution, and I'm sure things will get better. It's heavy and there's a lot of heat and noise coming out of it—this is really quite striking when you have it up against your eye 10 to 12 hours a day."
Aesthetically, the producers of Wallander wanted both the Swedish and British versions to possess a more modern, somewhat freer aesthetic than had the original Swedish Wallander series earlier in this decade, but within that decree, the filmmakers were still encouraged to let the individual 90-minute episodes' style differ somewhat from one another in order to reflect each one's story.
Dod Mantle, who shot the first and third episodes of the three-installment season, explains his approach to the first episode, which starts out in a lush field in which a young girl mysteriously immolates herself right in front of a horrified Wallander.
"The first episode is the most stylized, and I think that was important to help the series get off the ground," the DP notes, confessing, "I found that the other one I shot, the third of the three, was a bit less successful. I think we pinched our budget to make the first one more cinematic and paid the price on the last, where we had to shoot a few more talking heads than I like. I am not a fan of talking head television. I like a show like 24, where they work hard to keep an aesthetic. Of course, they have a much bigger budget than we did."
Scenes for Wallander were generally covered with two cameras—"We would never have gotten through it on that schedule otherwise," Dod Mantle observes—and camera placement was dependent on blocking. "Sometimes I'd have two cameras [on approximately the same axis] doing the wide and the close, and others I'd cross shoot, so long as the lighting worked. There's no problem with sidelight. It's just about lifting up the unlit side to balance it out a little bit. I generally don't shoot in completely opposite directions."
Where possible, Dod Mantle likes to use the B-camera to get something completely different and unexpected from what the A-camera is covering. "I've developed a kind of shooting philosophy for a lot of my work where I can have one to four cameras doing different things at a given time," he explains. "I used it a lot on Slumdog and Last King of Scotland, where everything is still under a controlled environment and lit properly, but this helps me get more material and the kinds of things we probably wouldn't shoot otherwise. We'll get cutaways of little details or a reflection somewhere—risky things that you never get time to stage. I might do a medium shot and then the close-up and mess around with the axis and do naughty things you're never supposed to do. A good, creative editor who understands why you're doing it loves those kinds of things."
Having worked with it now for his two Wallander episodes and on the mostly handheld Antichrist, Dod Mantle places the RED camera very high on the list of digital cameras he's used, though he's by no means ready to abandon film acquisition for feature films. He says of his observations during the coloring sessions of the DPX files (made from .r3d originals), "It's not equivalent to doing a DI with full-gate, well exposed 35mm film, but I thought this was a bump up from the Sony [HDCAM] and Panasonic [DVCPRO] formats I've shot on before. Certainly it's better than the Mini DV I used on the zombie flick 28 Days Later. I think that right now [RED] is better for the DP/director and people with smaller voices and less money to get comparatively high-resolution imagery that they can sell to networks than as a serious competitor to film.
"I trained classically," he sums up. "I studied sensitometry in the dark room with black-and-white and color film. I sometimes pine for the older formats. Sometimes I'm sitting on a project where I know I need the most immaculate full-gated 35mm or even 65mm negative to best serve the story. Other times, like on 28 Days Later or [von Trier-directed Dogme 95 production] Celebration, it makes the most sense to go with Mini DV. I don't want to leave any of it behind."