Anthony Dod Mantle, BSC, DFF, discusses working on Kevin Macdonald's Roman epic

Based on the historical adventure novel THE EAGLE OF THE NINTH by Rosemary Sutcliff, THE EAGLE tells the story of Marcus Aquila, a young Roman centurion who sets out into the wilds of northern Britain in AD 140 to investigate the disappearance of his father and the entire Ninth Legion 20 years before. Directed by Kevin Macdonald (STATE OF PLAY, 2009; THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, 2006), the film was shot on location in Hungary and Scotland by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. The main camera package of ARRICAM Lite and ARRIFLEX 235 cameras was supplied by ARRI Media, with additional support provided in Hungary by VisionTeam, an ARRI Rental Group partner.

ARRI Media: Is the film structured with flashbacks that jump between the Marcus Aquila plot and the story of the Ninth?

Anthony Dod Mantle: There are flashbacks in it and a lot of interesting parallel cuts as well; basically the story is structured with emotionally motivated cuts, across time. Kevin and I hadn’t done this kind of historical stuff before, but despite the limitations of our budget and schedule there’s an epic quality to it and there are some battles. It’s not like GLADIATOR (2000), with a neutral camera, massive, beautiful sets and high entertainment. Well, hopefully it’s entertaining, but it’s really a chamber piece about Marcus hunting out what happened to his father.

AM: Were you using different techniques to visually differentiate the flashbacks?

ADM: I pushed and pulled film stocks quite a lot for the flashbacks. Most of the film was shot on Kodak stocks – the Vision2 50D, Vision3 250D and Vision3 500T – all of which I underexposed by one-and-a-half stops in camera and a further stop in the lab. I did the same with some Fuji Reala stock as well. The general plan was to reduce the sharpness photochemically by inducing grain that I could soften in the DI to simulate the look of an older negative. I worked very heavily with noise reduction, sharpening and de-sharpening in the grade with (colourist) Adam Glasman at Ascent 142. For some of the flashbacks I combined a Lensbaby with White Promist filters and a Canon 1D Mark IV (DSLR) to create a different look from the contemporary part of the story. In other flashbacks I double exposed the negative and also shot through the back of the neg – it wasn’t an accident; it was deliberate! That requires about five stops overexposure. I shot tests and Kevin agreed to use it for a few moments in the film.

I filmed through the back of the neg to get a strange, hallucinogenic look for scenes inside one of the huts with the chief.

AM: What kind of moments did you select for that?

ADM: It was towards the end of the film, when Marcus gets as far north as you can go and is taken prisoner by these weird people who live by the sea. I filmed through the back of the neg to get a strange, hallucinogenic look for scenes inside one of the huts with the chief. I did loads of cross processing tests as well, partly for flashbacks and also partly just to degrade the film and pull back the hues and saturations of these wonderful new stocks, to get a historic look. It’s the same sort of thing that Vilmos Zsigmond (ASC) was doing 30 years ago, though it’s still relevant today.

AM: You had some horrendous weather while filming in Scotland. Were you expecting such difficult conditions?

ADM: I was to a certain extent because Scotland is famous for it and I spent my childhood there, but it really did just plummet down. I had a pretty hardy crew but it nearly killed my focus puller Telfer Barnes, who is used to really tough shoots. It’s so hard on the gear as well – the moisture; the condensation; the damp and the perpetual rain, which blows in sideways with the wind. You turn around and you can’t even shoot a scene because it’s raining horizontally and stinging your face.

AM: How important is reliable equipment in situations like that?

ADM: Ah, that’s where Russell at ARRI Media comes in! He was fantastic and the guys – my crew – were fantastic, but it was tough. I remember going back to one particular location for a second day and there had been a storm; halfway up the hill I saw one of our Portaloos upside down, which someone had to go and pick up – well used of course! At the top of the hill was 30 yards of track that had tipped over and a Fisher dolly just hanging on the end. I’d never seen track blown over by the wind before.

AM: You had ARRICAM Lites and also an ARRIFLEX 235. Is that because there’s a lot of handheld or Steadicam work in the film?

ADM: There’s a lot of handheld – a lot of physical stuff. Also a certain amount of Steadicam, but mainly handheld – hence of course the Lites; I tried to get the gear as lightweight as I possibly could. I was operating myself and I had a lovely Steadicam in the form of Alastair Rae, who’s hilarious – a mad Scottish poet and great fun. He’s a very poetic Steadicam operator and he stood the course very well.

AM: Were you often doing two-camera setups with Alastair and working around each other?

ADM: That’s always a bit of a laugh; I’ve done it on many films now, including SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008) and THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (2006). It’s always hard if you’ve got Steadicam all day and you’re in there operating yourself, shooting over his shoulder or between his legs. I had expected to do more with Ali but sometimes the wind and the weather didn’t allow it, though he was there every day and is a very good operator in his own right. He was intuitive and very good at working his way around me. I hadn’t worked with him before but people like Seamus McGarvey (BSC, ASC) recommended him and he was quick to understand what kind of film I was trying to make with Kevin.

A look behind the scenes at the making of THE EAGLE

AM: Why did you opt for Cooke S4 lenses?

ADM: I love Cooke S4s and they just seemed right for the film; it’s a feeling more than anything else. I also had some Cooke Speed Panchros, which helped me degrade the strong contrast and brightness during the summer in Hungary. When we headed north to Scotland in the autumn, I worked more with the S4s because the light was much more subdued. In Hungary I worked with Black Promist filters, but less so in Scotland, and I always held detail in the skies whenever possible. I did have Optimo zooms, but it wasn’t a massive equipment list; we tried to keep it down because we were physically lugging all this stuff around. It was a combination of photochemical techniques and a carefully chosen equipment package working together to achieve the look I intended for the movie. I don’t like to leave all of that to the DI; I try to lay down a look while shooting because I think it helps the editor to get more of a feel for what we’re doing.

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