Radiation exposure was at the forefront of cinematographer Simon Niblett’s mind as he spent time filming Otto Bell’s “The Toxic Pigs of Fukushima.” Bell, who was trying for a baby at the time, was also concerned – they carried radiation monitors.
Bell’s documentary Oscar contender, “The Toxic Pigs of Fukushima,” follows a group of local hunters who have been enlisted to dispose of radiated wild boars that now roam the abandoned streets and buildings of Fukushima, Japan after a 2011 earthquake caused a nuclear meltdown.
Below, Bell and Niblett spoke with Variety about filming and how drone technology helped them find and film the wild boars.
Tell me about your pre-production planning and any discussions you two had going into this shoot. What mood, styles and themes did you discuss capturing?
Bell: I kept Simon in the dark a bit in the run-up to the shoot. That’s not best practice, and I certainly had a lot of pent up ideas, but just didn’t want to share any pre-conceived notions about potential themes until I’d seen the place with my own eyes.
I only told him we were going to film wild boars and conduct some interviews, so we spent the majority of pre-production discussing what equipment we would need and the quandary of filming invisible radiation.
Niblett: This was a film about the aftermath of a tsunami followed by a nuclear disaster. It was never going to be glossy. When Otto first mentioned it, he simply referred to it as a film about radioactive pigs, which it wasn’t. I didn’t have a handle on exactly what direction the film was headed until we got there. We all arrived at a brand new “budget” style hotel close to the reactor with our best guess as to what equipment we would need. It was a hotel built specifically to house an endless stream of workers who were a part of the huge army we came to refer to as the cleanup team.
There was a “look book” of screenshots and keyframes Otto had collected, references from Ozu and Kurosawa, as well as a low center of gravity “tatami level” angle. How did those fold those into the cinematography?
Bell: I was interested to see if the story could be told silently and framed in a style that paid homage to the greats of Japanese cinema.
It was important to give voice to the surviving residents and allow them to share their stories so we can all get a sense of the sacrifices they have made over the last decade. I shaved every one of their statements down to a key thought – almost like a haiku – to try and maximize the profundity by minimizing the exposition. Picking up techniques like Ozu’s signature “pillow shots” also allowed me to further the emerging themes of the documentary; because these transitions tend to linger on inanimate objects or empty rooms for an uncomfortable amount of time, that helps erode the primacy of people in this near-deserted landscape.
Ozu’s signature low-level tatami shots gave me the chance to impart a sense of a boar’s eye view – thereby splitting the perspectives between a human eye line and an animal’s center of gravity.
Niblett: The look book was all about telling a story in a straightforward and uncomplicated way. The images spoke for themselves and we wanted the narration to come directly from the pictures. The pigs led us between the stories and the more we could film from their perspective, the more we would feel as though we were seeing this through the eyes of the survivors of the disaster. Also, a lot of Japanese life is conducted at a low level so to move around visually at a low angle felt right.
Tell me about what equipment you brought to this shoot – cameras, lenses, remote-controlled buggies, cranes, drones – and how they helped you achieve your goals and themes for the film.
Niblett: The camera we used was a RED, but almost any camera would have been OK. The lenses were more important, and Otto had decided that an uncomfortable defocused background might be the key to focusing the viewer on the subject. Square apertures in the lenses worked very well for this but only existed in some old eastern Europe and Russian optics so we had a set of primes rehoused with PL mounts. They were sharp with almost no focus breathing but they didn’t brag about it. I would describe them as humble lenses!
The buggy was originally for remotely driving into the woods to get near to wild boar. It also turned out to be very useful for low angle tracking shots and we used it a lot. I had built it with enough speed to outrun a chasing boar and it was only attacked once. It carried a gimbal so produced very smooth shots even over rough ground.
Drones are becoming ever more sophisticated and there are many more ways to use them than aerial shots. You can produce excellent low-level tracking shots, crane shots, high angle tripod shots and even aerial time lapses. I have mounted them on the buggy for their excellent gyro-stabilized cameras and long-range monitor links and I have handheld them. We used them a lot in this film for finding the boars in the large expanses of long grasslands.
How did the narrative evolve during filming?
Niblett: I think that the original idea was for the boars to lead us between the stories. One of the stories was a lone boar hunter who had grown up in the area and decided never to leave.
It soon became clear that both he and the boars were our guides. You had empathy in a world where there is no such thing as a good hunter. Japan had abandoned this place but he was not going to.
What were some of the challenges of artfully capturing wild animals?
Bell: I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice the immersive ambiance of the film by compromising production standards on the less controllable wildlife. Whether it’s a shot of a wild boar in long grass or a father searching for the bones of his daughter, it all had to be cut from the same quality of cloth. That’s why Simon was the right cinematographer for the job.
Niblett: Filming wild animals is challenging. The more they are hunted, the more fearful they become of humans and the more difficult they are to film. Boars are very intelligent. The hunters will tell you that they are extremely tricky to trap, and can often sort the difference between a genuine snack and bait.
Normally filming them and their behavior in any great detail would have taken many weeks, but we just needed to show them in both the natural environments and artificial ones. The wreckage left by the tsunami and the abundance of the abandoned property was perfect modern boar habitat. We used camera traps in buildings that had evidence of recent boar occupation and lay in wait out on the deserted roads for a passing boar family. We tracked them from above with the drone and tried to guess where they might pop out into view. We were largely unsuccessful but only needed a few shots to help explain how humans had merely borrowed this piece of land from nature, and how nature had now reclaimed it and reinstated itself with astonishing speed and efficiency.
Watch a clip from “The Toxic Pigs of Fukushima” below.