At first, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle jokes about the challenge of shooting much of Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” in an ultra confined space. It was actually two spaces — the actual, isolated canyon in Moab, Utah, where the hiker who inspired the film survived a harrowing ordeal trapped in a crevasse, and a cramped set built on a stage to emulate the location. Mantle, co-d.p. of the film with Enrique Chediak, says the set was strategically built without movable or opening walls, and was even more restrictive than the actual site. Shooting in those spaces, he says, was like shooting “in a public lavatory.”
“We did the best we could in the confined space, but it was all exaggerated by the fact that we could barely move our buttocks four inches to the left or right, depending, of course, on the size of our buttocks,” he adds with a chuckle.
The experience Mantle and Chediak shared is echoed by other cinematographers who shot a spate of films this year built around claustrophobic themes, or laden with sequences shot in tight, often uncomfortable spaces. The challenge is almost dichotomous: how to get audiences to share in the experience without eliciting too much visceral discomfort, all the while grappling with the shoot’s logistics.
“It was horrible claustrophobia working in those conditions,” says Chediak. “But I do think the discomfort helped us, and helped the actor give us that immediacy that brings the audience into the situation.”
This physical proximity between lens and actor creates an additional burden in maintaining what d.p. Andrij Parekh, who shot Derek Cianfrance’s tragic romance, “Blue Valentine,” calls “the artifice of filmmaking.”
“A huge part of shooting movies is making actors comfortable and not having them aware of that (artifice),” says Parekh. “They are always performing, of course, but the less you get in the way of that, the better. And yet, our movie had lots of close-ups in confined spaces.”
Such forced intimacy can sometimes be creatively liberating, the d.p.s suggest. Eduard Grau knows that better than anybody. He recently shot the ultimate exercise in claustrophobia — Rodrigo Cortes’ “Buried,” which takes place entirely inside a coffin where the protagonist is trapped.
“We all had a feeling of claustrophobia by the end of the shoot, especially because we shot it sequentially, and the end was even more squeezed inside the coffin,” says Grau, who adds that such restrictions can sometimes lead to creative alchemy. “Hitchcock once decided to shoot a whole movie on a small boat or with a single shot,” he says. “We loved the limitations we had because that way we had to create something new every day.”
The right equipment helps. In the case of “127 Hours,” the d.p.s employed small digital cameras, primarily differently configured versions of lightweight Silicon Imaging SI-2K HD cameras.
“Blue Valentine” used a fairly compact 16mm film format for the portion of the movie that takes place in the past, and a RED One digital camera for portions in the present — choices made partly for dramatic contrast but also for mobility and ease of use in tight spots.
For “Buried” the filmmakers turned to more mobile 35mm cameras — a Moviecam Compact and an Arriflex 535 system for a rougher, organic look.
And David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” — a film in which the sport of boxing, not to mention the messiness of its characters’ lives, is often examined in brutal intimacy — turned to an even more compact 35mm film system, Aaton Penelope cameras, at the suggestion of d.p. Hoyte van Hoytema.
In all these cases, whether film or digital, the point was to go compact into tight spaces, “with maximum mobility and flexibility,” as van Hoytema suggests. The d.p. says the Penelope cameras allowed him to create the visual aesthetic Russell was demanding, while at the same time, maneuvering efficiently without much wiggle room.
“I love shooting in real places, and sometimes even small places,” van Hoytema explains. “It forces you to work with what is given, and makes you more creative and perceptive to all those small gifts you get along the way. It’s like making good music — it’s often about responding to what the other musicians give, like in a jam session. So you treat the environment that way, and go with the elements you have, and act in accordance.”
Other important factors revolve around lensing and light. Mantle and Chediak say they routinely used wide-angle lenses when they were particularly close to actor James Franco in order to “give the audience some space to breath when we were close to the walls of the cavern,” Chediak explains.
For “Buried,” Grau “played with light and darkness, with the limits of what you can see,” he says. “We also kept changing the (light) sources, the colors, and the amount of light so the audience would not get bored seeing one look for too long. We mainly used light available (in the story) — a lighter, a glowstick, and so on. But, on many occasions, we had to cheat and create small, but more powerful sources. For example, his cell phone (light) was actually a bunch of LED lights controlled remotely.”
The DPs suggest that working in such restrictive environments was helpful to their growth as cinematographers. But that doesn’t mean they want to work this way all the time.
“(‘Buried’) was my first movie inside a coffin,” says Grau, “and hopefully, my last.”
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