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127 Hours’ Three-way Collaboration

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Anthony Dod Mantle (left) and Enrique Chediak

It is unusual to have two full-fledged cinematographers working together on a motion picture, but that was the case on director Danny Boyle‘s 127 Hours. Because the film, which is based on a true story, focuses on one man’s struggle to survive, the protagonist is on camera for most of the film. This intense reliance on one character, in an emotional and claustrophobic situation, posed a unique challenge for the filmmakers.

Boyle had successfully collaborated with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle on Slumdog Millionaire and 28 Days Later. In the summer of 2009, he approached Dod Mantle with an idea and a theory “that any actor would suffer from being subjected to too much time imprisoned in such confined spaces,” reveals Dod Mantle. “This could well have been a 14-week period with one working cinematographer. We shot it in seven weeks.”

Originally the director had thought to break up the shooting responsibilities between the cinematographers, having one work in the canyon with the actor and the other capture all the elements outside of the canyon, but that soon changed to a mix that was equally grueling for both Dod Mantle and fellow cinematographer Enrique Chediak.

The labor was divided as much as possible down the middle. Dod Mantle started working with actor James Franco in the canyon, but after a few days Chediak joined them in the tight space. “The collaboration could have been potentially very difficult,” shares Dod Mantle, “But we handled it in an elegant manner largely due to us both nailing any potholes and landmines early on in preproduction. This also involved very honest direct conversation with Danny as well, usually over expensive meals on his credit card. Bless him!”

The confined space was not the only challenge that the Utah canyon posed for the cinematographers. Dust, dirt, wind, constant sand in the equipment, weather continuity, inaccessibility issues, and danger were difficulties inherent to the location. “We couldn’t bring the equipment down through the biggest part of the canyon, so we had to carry it in. We barely fit ourselves. If you wore your jacket, you didn’t fit!” explains Chediak. “The logistics of getting everything and everyone there from where the helicopters would leave us was challenging.”

The shoot had to be well planned, because of limited light. Extensive coverage had to be shot in a short time. “We had to wait on that ledge for the sun, and be ready. Then we’d start shooting,” continues Chediak. “There was once, I had to be hanging in a harness for the whole day. Basically, they would throw me sandwiches and whatever I needed.”

If the location wasn’t hard enough, the stages – where the actual canyon was built – added to the challenge. Boyle didn’t want the walls to move, because he wanted the actor and crew to feel really confined. “The sets were deliberately more physically challenging, restrictive, grueling and technically complicated,” says Dod Mantle. “That was the intention. Danny believed this would be felt on camera.”

An interesting aspect of the on-set shoot was an attempt to film as much as possible in continuity. “That was very important for Danny,” said Chediak.  “At the stage set, we shot in continuity from the moment he gets stuck.” The filmmakers also intended to shoot everything in the Utah canyon as one continuing sequence, but ultimately they moved around due to unforeseeable issues.

Ultimately the biggest challenge of the film came back to the unusual collaboration. “Things are not necessarily made easier by the sharing factor as a cinematographer. Perhaps physically yes, but emotionally it was tough,” comments Dod Mantle.  “Bottom line… Enrique and I are both passionate about our work in a humane way despite obvious cultural and artistic contrasts between us. I believe in both our cases, our interpretation of camera, and the way that it should breathe, is ultimately defined by the actor or actors in the space provided. We both tried to let James guide us intuitively whilst having the inevitable Mr. Boyle breathing affectionately down our necks through a microphone outside the canyon set.”

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