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Immersed in Movies: Cinematographer Dod Mantle Talks Ron Howard's 'Rush' and 'In the Heart of the Sea' (VIDEO)

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood September 20, 2013 at 2:41PM

Anthony Dod Mantle is in the race for his second Oscar for "Rush," and explains how he processed and integrated archival footage with live-action cinematography for a '70s painterly look.

For this, Dod Mantle combined modern technology (the Arri Alexa Plus and Alexa Studio cameras along with the Canon EOS C300) with old lenses from the '60s and '70s (particularly the Baltar that Gordon Willis used on "The Godfather").

More than anything, though, the cinematographer created a language and lensing for personifying the cars, putting us right inside with these fearless drivers racing nine inches above the ground and at great speeds. He mounted very small helmet cams two to three centimeters from their eyes. "I wanted the audience to know what it means to put a helmet on and shut the world off; and when they're racing, what it's like inside the helmet looking out; and after an injury, when they pull that helmet back, you really feel the pain."

Dod Mantle also customized the miniature IndieCam GS2K, which isn't normally used for features, and mounted them all around the cars. He wanted the sensual feeling of color and light and moving across the framework and the struggle of the hand on the gear lever.

The Nurburgring race in Germany is riveting with a horrific crash in which Lauda nearly burned to death. The recreation went beyond accuracy in determining his car's malfunction. Dod Mantle even stepped into the wreckage with a burn suit to shoot through the flames. Yet for the cinematographer, it's all about narrative painting: a visceral, exquisite, random moment.

Now Dod Mantle is seriously at sea with the adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick's ordeal about the Whaleship Essex, which was attacked by an 80-foot sperm whale in 1820, leaving 20 sailors adrift at sea in three open boats for 93 days, compelled to become cannibals to survive.

"This strange idea that these people who were obsessed with the sea were like our astronauts now," Dod Mantle suggests. "In addition to collecting oil, they were explorers going beyond the final frontier. And what the whale symbolizes for me -- and certainly for Melville -- is that it was a signal that it was not necessarily our natural habitat. It's ironic: you have people lying in a boat and starving and there's nothing they can use or utilize out there, and an inch under the surface of their raft is a mosaic -- a labyrinth of natural habitat, beauty, resources, water, and aquatic life that human beings are not used to." 

The cinematographer says it's a pretty ambitious movie for Warner Bros., a $100 million drama that's an antidote to the current glut of superhero movies (despite the presence of a CG whale by Double Negative). Like "Rush," though, you can be sure that it's all about narrative painting and will be a kindred spirit to Howard's "Apollo 13."

This article is related to: Rush, Ron Howard, Immersed In Movies, Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Interviews , Interviews

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.