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Silicon Imaging’s SI-2K Cameras Offer Unique POV for Danny Boyle’s 127 HOURS

By Jason Wolfe, Special to Markee 2.0

While preparing to shoot 127 Hours, acclaimed director Danny Boyle and cinematographers Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chedik discovered what a growing number of digital filmmakers already know: If you want to get the impossible shot, get Michael Mansouri, the DIT who founded HD Camera Rentals (www.hdcamerarentals.com) in Los Angeles.

James Franco and stunt double in replica crevice
Looking down the replica crevice at James Franco and his stunt double;
Michael Mansouri in the background.Photo by: Bobby Mansouri

Mansouri helped take digital technology to new heights in the film, much to the satisfaction of Boyle and Mantle, who were following up their Academy Award-winning work on Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, many of the most creative shots in 127 Hours were the result of Mansouri finding a solution that enabled the DPs to get what they wanted how they wanted it.

The movie, starring James Franco, tells the story of Aron Ralston, an adventurous hiker who spent 127 hours in the Utah desert pinned by a boulder in a deep crevice before deciding to amputate his own arm to escape.

Mansouri recently spoke about his involvement in 127 Hours.

Michael Mansouri with the SI-2K in the replica
crevice set. Photo by: Bobby Mansouri

Wolfe: How did you get involved in 127 Hours?
Mansouri: “We were contacted by 127 Hours after someone there learned of our work on an AT&T spot during the Winter Olympics. In that spot, we figured out how to strap a tiny SI-2K POV camera and a Cinedeck recorder onto an Olympic ski jumper who did a 120-meter jump while wearing the apparatus. It was an amazing shot. Since we had so much experience with the SI-2K, the team from 127 Hours called us in to see what we could do for them. We explained some of the ways we had improved the SI-2K, way beyond what they had used in filming Slumdog. They liked what they heard and we were hired.”

Wolfe: How did you prepare for the shoot?
Mansouri: “With the help of my brother, Bobby Mansouri, we spent almost a month in R & D responding to a long list of demands from Danny and Anthony. We custom built handheld rigs. We also built a special cage for Anthony [that] was multipurpose, allowing us to mount the camera anywhere, and [having] a power distribution box so that we could power many things off of it. This was done in response to one of the weak points with digital – all the cables everywhere. We resolved that by removing all the connectors on the camera, like the manufacturer’s VGA and USB connections. We changed all those to professional Lemo connections and made the power source tap right into the sensor. We focused on keeping everything as clean and simple as possible.”

The SI-2K camera being readied to capture
the POV from behind James Franco.
Photo by: Bobby Mansouri

Wolfe: Tell us about some of the solutions.
Mansouri: “We already had made a number of improvements to the SI-2K system to make it more compatible with filmmaking and less [about] consumer applications. When we brought all our different SI-2K rigs to the set Danny and Anthony were blown away. With the SI-2K/Cinedeck solution, they could record uncompressed files that were ready for immediate viewing on set through QuickTime without a transcoding step. They loved how integrated the entire system was and how fast it moved.

“We also presented them with autofocus systems to handle some of the shots that were really hard to focus on. The lens control took over and controlled the focus.

“Anthony wanted everything as small as possible. They had replicated exactly the deep crevice where Aron Ralston got his hand caught, so we needed to shoot in an extremely narrow and tight space. Bobby and I made a rig to fit the space. Only the absolutely essential equipment could be there. We stripped a camera down to its bare sensor and ran 250-foot cables from it back to a recording device where the techs could pull focus and give feedback to the cinematographer.

“We also provided Anthony, based on his request, with a remote button on his handheld system that, when he would trigger [it], gave his eye piece certain information like his focus or his luminance levels. We had programmed all those in there for him. He also wanted specific shutters, so we were able to program those as well. A lot of that was achieved by changing the software inside the camera.

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle with Danny Boyle,
second from left, preparing to shoot into the replica crevice.
Photo by: Bobby Mansouri

“In a pretty elaborate shot quite early on, they wanted to mount the camera to travel off the side of the rocks in the crevice, go up to James Franco and follow him as he falls down. How do you do that and control the small camera? We were able to make this remote-control head that we suspended with cables with tilt and pan and controlled its travel using a joystick.”

Wolfe: What equipment did HD Camera Rentals provide?
Mansouri: “We supplied eight SI-2K cameras as well as an assortment of Canon DSLRs and the IDT Redlake high-speed camera. We provided the new ARRI Ultra 16s, which are super sharp, amazing lenses. We also shot with the full set of Schneider C-mount lenses and a full set of ‘L’ series lenses for the Canon cameras. And if you can believe this, we also shot with the Angenieux Optimo 24-290 on the SI-2K.

“My brother and I remained on the set in Utah throughout the eight-week shoot. It was pretty remote. The film was shot sequentially, much of it in the actual canyon and a lot of it on a sound stage, where the crevice was re-created. It was an unusual arrangement with two cinematographers and two crews on set at the same time. They took turns shooting. When one was shooting, the other rested, and vice versa, so we were able to shoot seven days a week. When a challenge arose, which was pretty much every day, we worked to resolve it. They’d say, “we can’t do that shot,” then two days later we’d have it resolved and they would get the shot.

Shooting Aron’s initial accident with the SI-2K
in Moab, Utah. Photo by: Bobby Mansouri

“Both units were shooting SI-2Ks and the film had a total of six camera units at any one time. Each unit would have two cameras, sometimes three cameras, at the same time. Since the SI-2K has interchangeable lens mounts, filmmakers are able to use any lens they want to shoot on. On 127 Hours, we had cameras that were set up with Canon lenses on, PL mounts and C mounts and we could change them out without ever affecting anything. It was as easy as changing a lens. This arrangement allowed us to work fast.”

Wolfe: How did you deal with holding the SI-2K steady?
Mansouri: “We developed customized units with gyro-stabilization heads from Kenyon Labs that fit on the bottom of the SI-2K. This allowed the camera operators to execute complex and dynamic moves in tightly-constrained spaces. These cameras are not designed for the X and Y axis, tilt and roll, movement, so we made adapter mounts. Also, their design is constantly powered, but our design made it so we could hot-swap it. Because we were also recording sound, we had to be able to disconnect them so they could still run without the noise of the gyros’ operation affecting dialogue. It was quite a challenge.”

Wolfe: What other steps did you take to deal with working in such tight spaces?
Mansouri: “Because the space that Anthony was working in was so small, his camera assistant [AC] couldn’t work beside him, so wireless video and focus controls were needed so the AC wasn’t flying blind. We used cmotion’s new cdisplay II touchscreen LCD to transmit the signal wirelessly right into the monitor on the handheld system and include all of the lens and focus detail info. If Anthony had a really difficult shot, he hit auto-focus, the Cine Tape constantly took measurements and communicated directly to the motor. If he tilted to the left, and the subject was six feet away, and then he tilted to the right, and the subject was nine feet away, it automatically racked focus from six feet to nine feet and back.”

James Franco (as Aron Ralston)
in the replica crevice outfitted
with an SI-2K rig.
Photo by: Bobby Mansouri

Wolfe: How did the SI-2K perform?
Mansouri: “The SI-2K is a remarkable camera, not only based upon the form factor, the size, the flexibility and the lenses, but the image quality out of this camera is the closest I’ve seen to film. The problem I have with other digital cameras is that they are too sharp, too noticeably digital. The SI-2K also has some organic feel to it, a little bit of imperfection like analog does. The other benefit is that it shoots uncompressed – you’re getting 2K, not 4K, but you’re getting it uncompressed and you’re getting a lot more bit depth and a lot more information and coloration or as we like to call it ‘roll off.’ We were able to use the new version of software from the one that Anthony used on Slumdog and it’s a lot better apart from it being uncompressed. The Slumdog camera was 8:1 compression.

Wolfe: How do you assess your work on 127 Hours?
Mansouri: “Well, like anything, you look back and think about things you might have figured out sooner or some alternative fixes. But, that said, I’m confident we made a real difference on this movie. I believe there would have been more limitations without us, and the movie would have taken longer to complete and been more expensive. The bottom line is, we enabled them to get the shots they wanted, so that’s gratifying.

“I have nothing but the deepest respect for Danny Boyle and Anthony Dod Mantle as filmmakers and as visionaries. They have embraced digital cinema and are taking filmmaking to some place new and fresh. I’d like to think we make a pretty good team.”

December 6, 2012