How HD Camera Rentals Outfitted Danny Boyle

The team behind 127 Hours contacted HD Camera Rentals in Los Angeles not long after the company figured out how to strap a Silicon Imaging SI-2K POV camera – and a CineDeck recorder – onto an Olympic skier performing a 120-meter jump in an AT&T Winter Olympics 2010 spot. HD Camera Rentals kept aerodynamics and weight in mind as it selected gear for that shoot, which was executed by production company Smuggler. “Our company is called for those impossible shots you can’t pull off,” explains Michael Mansouri, a cinematographer and DIT who founded the company in 2005. “We’ve figured out the best ways to integrate this system into digital cinema without losing its true spirit. It does things film can’t. It’s small, it’s fast, and it’s for immediate gratification. We don’t try to turn our cameras into Panavisions.”

Pictured, top: An SI-2K  camera rig was used with the new Schneider 6mm C-Mount lenses to capture an ultra-close-up of James Franco’s right eye; Below: watch a clip to sample footage from the film.

When director Danny Boyle and cinematographers Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak approached Mansouri, they had a laundry list of challenges – they were shooting in the Moab Desert, under dusty, high-temperature conditions, and they would be working in close quarters in a narrow crevice. Mansouri showed them the SI-2K/CineDeck solution, which recorded uncompressed files that were ready for viewing as QuickTimes without a transcoding step. “They were blown away,” he says. “They loved how integrated the entire system was and how fast it moved. Dod Mantle constantly asked us to make it smaller, smaller. Whatever we did had to be smaller and more usable.”

HD Camera Rentals supplied the shoot with eight SI-2K cameras plus “a whole bunch” of Canon DSLRs and an IDT Redlake high-speed camera. Mansouri says. Many of the handheld rigs were fully customized to make sure they could hold up under demanding shooting conditions. “We made a cage system for the SI-2K and got rid of all the weak points – that’s all the connectors on the camera, like the manufacturer’s VGA and USB connections,” Mansouri says. “We changed all those to Lemo connections and made the power source [tap] right into the sensor. If you want to draw power from the camera, you don’t have to go back somewhere to pull the power. The power cage is autosensing, so you don’t have to worry about burning up anything. That was a request by Dod Mantle. We got very close to plug and play.”

A perpetual problem with tiny, lightweight cameras is the difficulty of holding them steady. HD Camera Rentals developed customized units based on gyro-stabilization heads from Kenyon Labs that fit on the bottom of the SI-2K. They allowed the camera operators to execute complex and dynamic moves in tightly constrained spaces. “They’re designed for still photography, not for the X and Y axis – which means tilt and roll – so we made adapter mounts,” he says. “Also, their design is constantly powered, but we designed it so we can hot-swap it. Because we’re also recording sound, we had to be able to disconnect them so they could still run without affecting dialogue. It was very challenging.”

A temporary digital lab was set up for 127 Hours by Salt Lake City’s Color Mill. Read our case study for more on the project’s digital workflow.

Another issue on set was that, because of the small space Dod Mantle was working in, his AC couldn’t work beside him, so wireless video and focus controls were needed. “Cmotion has a new touchscreen LCD and we could transmit the signal wirelessly right into the monitor on that handheld system,” Mansouri says. “If [Dod Mantle] has a really difficult shot, he can hit auto-focus, the [Cinematography Electronics] Cine Tape constantly takes measurements and communicates directly to the motor. If he tilts to the left, and the subject is six feet away, and then he tilts to the right, and the subject is nine feet away, it will automatically rack-focus from six feet to nine feet and back.”

When it came to data workflow, the keys were speed and redundancy. To get the footage out of the CineDecks and into the editorial workflow from the stage in Salt Lake, HD Camera Rentals used 1 Beyond Wrangler portable tapeless ingest systems, which automatically verified the data and then copied the footage onto two removable hard disks, which were sent to Color Mill nearby. When the shoot was taking place on location, the data managers would be parked in a trailer that was a two-hour drive from the nearest paved road and, still, a 15-minute helicopter flight from the set. “They were parked right where the helicopter would land,” Mansouri says. “We would send the drives to them so they could view the footage and let us know if there were any problems. Once the material was backed up, they would drive the disks over to Salt Lake City, where Color Mill would do dailies. That slowed us down because the drive to Salt Lake was six or seven hours. But if there was a problem, we’d know within an hour, not within days.”

And that’s the key to this kind of workflow. If something does go wrong, it’s not a disaster if you’re warned about it early enough to compensate on set. At one point, Mansouri says, one of the solid-state drives failed and had to be sent to a data recovery company. In the end, no footage was actually lost, but the production did re-shoots as soon as the problem was discovered, just in case. “That’s the whole spirit of digital,” Mansouri says. “If there are any problems, you discover them before you strike the set.”