Our Two Favorite Cinematographers Speak - Part 1

Anthony Dod Mantle is an English-born cinematographer who has lived in Denmark for more than 20 years. He recently won an Academy Award for his work on<i> Slumdog Millionaire</i>, a movie he shot in Mumbai, India.

Sep 1 2009, 12:00am

Images courtesy of Anthony Dod Mantle
Anthony Dod Mantle, BSC, DFF, is an English-born cinematographer who has lived in Denmark for more than 20 years. He recently won an Academy Award for his work on Slumdog Millionaire, a movie he shot in Mumbai, India. The fact that he was recognized with cinema’s foremost mainstream award is unexpected for a few reasons. First, Slumdog Millionaire was the only film in almost a decade to win a cinematography Oscar that was not set decades in the past, replete with splendid period detail, nostalgic costumes, monumental set design, and meticulously reconstructed hairstyles. Second, it’s also not really a film at all—almost two-thirds of the movie were shot on high-definition video. In fact, Dod Mantle is a pioneer of the fluid handheld video aesthetic of the Danish school of Dogme films, in which his collaborations with directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg were shot utilizing only available light. He also employed video to great effect in Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy and summoned truly striking visuals for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. It’s easy to take for granted now, but just ten years ago making a serious, artistically minded “film” on video was, for the cinema establishment, akin to entering a three-legged pit bull in the Westminster dog show.

We should mention that Mr. Dod Mantle does know his way around a film camera or two (that’s why he gets those letters after his name, like a knight or something) and that his most recent collaboration with Lars von Trier, Antichrist, made headlines and upset stomachs at its Cannes Film Festival premiere. We caught up with Anthony at home in Copenhagen while he was between projects, redoing his floors, and waiting for an order of Thai food to arrive.

Vice: First off, congratulations. You’ve had quite a year, what with Slumdog Millionaire and all the awards and accolades for that film.
Anthony Dod Mantle:
It has been quite a year. I’ve been tramping around the world triggering metal detectors in airports from picking up strange awards for all sorts of odd accolades. I really have been intending for some time to get back to work, and now I’m just about to embark on my second film with Kevin Macdonald, whom I did The Last King of Scotland with.

That sounds good. And you’ve been testing the metal detectors of the world, which is doing a service to all of us.
[laughs] Yeah, it’s keeping us all safe.

It’s been a couple of years since you actually shot Slumdog Millionaire. What did you do after that wrapped?
I did Antichrist. We shot that quite quickly and now it’s really going through the mill.

It has been getting some strong reactions. You’ve worked with a number of filmmakers who have created very provocative work, including Lars von Trier, of course. Is it fun to get those kinds of reactions when you challenge audiences?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that there are different ways of challenging people, and I think Antichrist caught us all, even perhaps Lars himself, but certainly those of us who made it, with our pants down. When I read the script I thought it was a bit odd and knew it would be quite demanding. And for the audience, yeah, it doesn’t hold you by the hand. With that said, von Trier is one of those kinds of people who’s actually gotten more and more complicated over the years that I’ve known him. But whether it’s him or it’s Harmony Korine in America, or Thomas Vinterberg or Gus Van Sant, I think it’s good to occasionally challenge cinema audiences with something other than happy endings and car chases. You owe something back—you owe the audience something demanding because they get enough of that other stuff.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
You started working in film relatively late in your life. What took you toward filmmaking, and how did you get your start in cinematography?
I grew up in a pretty easygoing middle-class English family with my brother a year older and my sister a year younger. My dad was scientific and my mum was a painter, and so I grew up with canvases all over the house. There was a lot of chaos and then certain rational injections from my dad every now and then. I got through school OK, but I couldn’t work out what I wanted to do. I saw too many of my friends already regretting what they’d started, so I waited a while and debated what to do. It wasn’t until I was about 24, when I was in India traveling for a year, that I fell into photographing because I saw so many extraordinary things there. I just shot and shot and shot there, in color and black-and-white, taking pictures all over the place. I got really excited not just about India but about the world and the idea of taking images and watching them slowly seep up through the chemicals in the darkroom. Within half a year of returning from that trip I applied for five courses in photography and started training as a still photographer. I started doing exhibitions and traveled more, and I got my degree. But I soon felt that film would be even more interesting, so I applied for four years as a cinematographer in the National Film School of Denmark in Copenhagen. It’s a very good school, and from a few dubious relations with women, I’d already developed a certain pidgin Danish that I thought I should try and use for something more than, you know, trying to talk to people who are blond—which is quite a good reason in itself, of course. So I was about 35 when I finally graduated and I started out as an assistant and took it slow.

Wow, you were an old film student.
But my schooling wasn’t a fully academic bit. It was also just looking at people, looking at faces, looking at lives, being part of people’s lives, and seeing how the world ticks in very different ways all around the world. That’s been my education, I think, and I use that every day whether I’m shooting a commercial, a documentary, or Slumdog or Antichrist.

You’ve worked around the world but have also spent many years living and working in Denmark. My sister has been doing some work in Denmark and says it’s an impossible language to learn and an even harder one to pronounce.
Yeah, it’s tough, it’s a tough cookie. I wish her luck! [laughs] I’ve been here over the course of 20 years now, but boy, it was a tough one. It was the hardest language, and I’ve always liked languages. I have a command of the Scandinavian part of the world and I’ve spoken Spanish in a number of countries in South America and in Spain so I had a bit of that and I had Latin for a long time because my parents wanted me to, so that helped me learn languages. I’ve encouraged my kids to do the same.

What are some of your initial concerns when starting a film?
For me it’s always about a mixture of how I’m going to move and how I’m going to place stuff and of course the amount of production money available. Having come from a lot of European films that run on very low budgets, I learned how to do the best I could with very little money. Danny and I agree that when you have a little bit of a budget, you have to be careful not to get spoiled or complacent. Danny is very particular about it since he made The Beach, and he talks very openly as a director about the fear about becoming spoiled by having too much.

It’s remarkable that you were inspired to pursue photography by a trip to India so many years ago and then you did a major production in India. How was it to go back to make Slumdog Millionaire?
It was great going back to India. It was a full-circle thing for me because I had been there for years and I have a very strong affection toward India and Indians. It’s an extraordinary place and a demanding place, but it’s a thoroughly entertaining and jaw-smacking and inspiring culture. The first time I went there I spent a year traveling on a very low budget and getting to know people very closely with a lot of travelers who, like myself, didn’t have much money. We spent a lot of time talking and reading and listening to people. But this time, shooting the film, it was full-on. Making a film is like being in a war zone. It’s like a ministry apparatus and you’re in the middle of it and it’s big long days, six days a week, 16 hours a day.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
And I would imagine it’s especially tough shooting in some of the real-world locations used in that film.
It’s a circus when you’re making a film and trying to do what you’ve got to get done, and at the same time you’re dealing with people who are living in slums and you’re standing in their homes. You have to respect them. You have to know how to balance the essential reason for being there with an ethical kind of fundamental integrity toward people. You have to behave properly. So that was all going on in India and it helped me that I had spent some time there before, it really did. Some people in my crew were pretty knocked out by the way things work in India. It gets tough.

Watching the film itself is a bit overwhelming on the senses. That comes across. What is the difference between shooting in a place like you described compared with some of the other films you’ve worked on that feel much more contained in a smaller venue?
The mechanics are the same. You know, when I was a kid I thought I was going to be a real estate agent. That means walking into a room and imagining not only how you can sell it to someone else and make a profit [laughs] and make somebody happy and give them a life and give them a home, but you’re also imagining how you can encourage people to think of how they would dress the space and use it. I’m not saying that’s how all real estate agents work—they probably just want to make a dollar and move on and buy a sports car. But I spent most of my childhood going into and out of homes—my parents were moving all the time—and I was always having to think about where my bedroom was going to be and where Mum and Dad were going to be. I moved six times as a child. And in fact, what I do now in cinematography is not totally unlike that. Together with the director you go into a space. Slumdog was about going into spaces that were already there but then adapting them and trying to make it work for you while still being flexible. When you’re doing a film like Slumdog you can’t quite control as much as you usually do as a filmmaker.

There was much more chaos there than on a soundstage shoot.
A lot of films that I’ve done before were in a studio. Lars’s films are very much designed frame by frame and some of them are even storyboarded right down to the finest point. The films I’ve done with Thomas Vinterberg—apart from the Dogme films—have been quite storyboarded. With Kevin Macdonald on The Last King of Scotland, it was quite organized even though it was shot on location in Uganda. Anyway, yes, when you’re shooting in a studio you have much more control and so you have to create the magic and the flare and excitement and the energy. In India it’s almost the opposite. When you get there you have to actually keep calm and not be overwhelmed by the Indians in the first place. Before you can even press a button you’ve got to clean it up and modify it and calm down. I would go walking in the early morning with Danny [Boyle] with a cup of tea, just checking out the first shot or the first four or five scenes. It was like we were casing the joint. And it doesn’t really matter for me whether it is a set that’s been built by brilliant designers or it’s a street in a slum. It still always takes casing the joint and figuring out how to make it work for you and for the audience.

You approach each location on its own terms. You mentioned the Dogme films a moment ago. With regard to working with a location, it was a very bold thing to restrict yourself to shooting without lights.
It wasn’t so difficult after spending quite a lot of time in documentaries, where you have very little and you do the best with what you have. I also think that “working without lights” is not quite the right way of putting it. It’s actually that you are working without mobile lights to rig up. You’re looking at the light you have, and that’s actually sometimes better training than having everything you could want. We should look and see what is there and what God has given you and work with intensity, focusing on how to use it as best as possible. That’s what I do in documentaries and that’s what I did in Dogme. There are good and bad examples of how that’s worked out, including in some of my own films [laughs]. In some places it works better than in others.

Julien Donkey-Boy (1999)
Was choosing to use a video format necessary in order to pursue the idea of using only available light?
Choosing video has generally been more about mobility. It was about that and also about exploring new technology and playing with it and accepting it for what it was—trying to not regard it as an annoying piece of duty-free airport-consumer-shelf technology, but as something that could have some kind of artistic or potential emotional competence. And video formats are not actually faster in terms of light sensitivity. Today you have lots of film stocks that are faster and better quality at lower light levels.

The whole idea of film and video is kind of confusing. Even though people are more and more aware of movies being shot on video, usually when you go into a theater you are still watching it projected on film. It’s kind of a strange transition that we’re still in the middle of negotiating.
A few years back there was a war and there were battles over this. People were scared of each other and scared of what it all meant. Producers were excited because they thought everything was going to be cheaper, which was rubbish. Some directors were excited for good reasons and some directors were excited for the completely wrong reasons and some reverted to other old habits. For me, now, it’s way down the line of just being a more complicated and sophisticated palette.

That’s a great way to look at it.
I guess the more toys there are—I guess you’d call them toys, or tools—the better. In professional image making you’ve got to be on the ball and alert and astute about why you do things. It’s the particular mission you have at any given time that should define your weapons.

There are a lot of options out there—a new camera every day, it seems.
Well, my fundamental thing is not about high definition and then the sublime higher and higher and higher definition. My fascination with cinema comes from painting and from cinema as an art form. I don’t believe that there’s any logic to the fact that 20 years ago people were actually pushing stocks two stops to get a more grainy and weird look, but now for some reason we feel obliged by the industry to really strain ourselves to produce high-definition, full-resolution, sharp, sharp, sharp images. I don’t want to offend my colleagues at Kodak and Fuji, and I do want to live in a world where we can produce fantastic instruments that can record images at very high quality levels. But I’m not going to be confused enough to believe that it has to all be high resolution all the time.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
The original idea of cinema was a bunch of people in a theater, in a controlled environment, but there are so many ways now that people are watching media, whether it’s on their laptops or their phones or—
If I’ve made a film, it’s intended to be for cinema, so at least a certain number of people can see it like that. But I’m open to all the possibilities or opportunities. I have to keep an open mind about it. I would go out and shoot a film tomorrow on a mobile telephone if I thought it was appropriate and the people I was with were all on the same line of thought as me. As I’ve said, I come from painting and a world of painters, and so I think the driving force in me is perhaps not infatuation with the contrast glass and the sublime contrast curve. I think it comes from somewhere else.

One of your best-known films is 28 Days Later. I’m sure it was a challenge to the production to essentially evacuate the streets of London.
[Laughs] Yeah, it was crazy!

What was going through your mind when you were creating this epic moment and then capturing it on cheap consumer-level video? Were you thinking, “Why am I using this with this camera?”
Yeah, I did want to take some 35-mm cameras out. I remember thinking, “Are we doing the right thing here?” You know? [laughs] But I didn’t feel uncomfortable because I felt we were doing something that was interesting, something that was extraordinary, really. There was another time, actually, in Donkey-Boy, where I was filming on infrared so you couldn’t really see the image or the lights. It was pitch-dark with the lights off in a skating arena and a blind girl was skating in the dark and the only things that could read the image were the infrared sensors on the camera. It was an extraordinarily conceptual idea. What I mean is that there are many weird things that happen when you’re making films, especially when you’re working with creative, wacky directors like Harmony, who I adore—really, truly adore. With creative people who are interested in playing around, good things happen. Shit happens, but good things happen as well.

I just went back and watched the trailer for Julien Donkey-Boy on YouTube. You did some interesting experiments on both film stock and video cameras for that movie. Normally while watching a video on YouTube, you can count on losing a lot of the original quality. It can ruin things. But I noticed that for Julien Donkey-Boy it just adds another interesting layer to the images you created for that movie.
The best screening I ever saw of Julien Donkey-Boy was the one that Harmony and I witnessed in Italy at the Venice Film Festival. It was the biggest screening size-wise I’ve ever seen, and it was way up there on the massive square screen and it was actually beautiful, like a bubbly underwater painting. We were really happy about it. And as for YouTube, you’re right, it’s great to see things like that too.

You might be one of the few Oscar-winning cinematographers who doesn’t mind seeing his work on YouTube.
No, I think YouTube is good [laughs]. It’s out of our control anyway, so you’ve got to be a bit relaxed about it.

Julien Donkey-Boy (1999)
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