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Into the channel flow

with Anthony Dod Mantle

 

With Slumdog Millionaire you won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Cinematography. What are the tricks of the trade — and of life — that you feel to reveal to those who are about to embark on a career in photography?

Apart from maintaining some kind of faith in the reason for getting out of bed in the mornings — especially on the worst days of ones life —, I have learnt that there has to be, in each and every one of us, lurking somewhere hidden, a personal equation of some kind linking the personality and the character traits we possess to a potential window of opportunity that can begin the never ending channel of some kind of expression. This is me thinking about an artistic journey through life rather than any logical rational career strategy.
This could be anything from streaking naked down the touch line of a premier league football match, to scribbling strange words on the roof of a silo in some suburb, to directing the worst film in the world.
If the faith can survive, then this linking can take place, expression follows, and life in my mind gets better. For all of us.

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The major battle is to find a place where this channel can flow in conjunction with a monetary system and ultimate reward, that is If the individual concerned fancies their chances at making a living out of this.
There is little or no logic to my route to whatever it is I do today, a long journey of broken bridges, creative cul de sacs, coincidence, loves, escapism, fueled by a gentle flame of belief that I might just find the window or the door one day. But, God, it took some time, plus a lot of countries. And luck. And persistent interest in the people and the planet around me. Patient loving parents has to be a key factor during the more critical periods of growing up in our jungle.

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Do you think the increase in resources and technology available is a good thing for creativity?

The more technology the better… Technology serves to distract the “bored and the oblivious” from nature, whilst triggering and provoking the remaining “creative minds” interested in throwing something back at mankind. This is my version of my human nature: it is certainly my planet if I belong anywhere. As for the resources: this could be many things, but the brain and the heart — not in this order — are the key resources. Money and funds just effect the surface, they never really define the language or the message.

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You were born in Oxford, but you’ve chosen to live in Copenhagen. How the Danish atmospheres affect your work?

Copenhagen is a buzzing warm city in the warm months. In the Fall people crawl back in their designer caves and forget a lot about each other, and the city darkens. At least it looses its glow. Drinking abounds: materialism rules. Artists and pensioners flee like migrating birds.
I had no choice or memory about being born in Oxford. As a family we moved like middle class gypsies throughout my childhood. And at the age of 21, precious little intellect or afterthought was dedicated to my Scandinavian journey when I embarked from Harwich harbour. This said, what began as a flirtatious dirty weekend, seemed to have graduated to another level. I basically just came here to Denmark and fell in love, left here. For the same coincidental inquisitive reasons I arrived with, and the same applies to why I returned, the logic to all of this. If there is any, is the map of development mentioned in the first answer: following a track which may lead to the light.

Antichrist In the wood

By this I mean the following: Be it a year’s hunting down my Grandparents tea plantation in Assam, or the withstanding of three year BA degree in Photography in London, or yet four more years back in Academia, in the bitter harbour waters of Copenhagen, at The Danish National Film School, I was basically following the gradual opening of that window of opportunity to a channel I had to follow, regardless of the absurd linguistic or geographic consequences. Very little logic to all this, more blind faith. All this was about a quest to aligning the creative self with the possibility of discovering a reason, a function. Maybe even a job in communication.
It seems and sounds as though I have always moved. Maybe the fact that I continually reside in an apparent foreign environment to my place of origin, perpetuates a natural ability humans have to wake up when they are in unfamiliar surroundings. The shock of the new, combined with the fact that you are a visitor, with the language of a clown and the aura of an alien. This makes communication and perception always potentially interesting!

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How much does the madness have to do with illumination?

In general people drink more in the dark. Fight more in the dark, screw more in the dark. Knife each other more in the dark. My personal madness — if we want to talk about this — has a lot to do with illumination. As I grow older, my rods and cone cells in my eyes fade, the luminance to my world fades, and the consequence to this is more struggle to see. This in itself can intensify and alert my concentration and focus, which is good, and inevitable anyway, pointless to fight against.
As said, Copenhagen darkens significantly during the dark months, the society psyche changes, the cold hits hard, people mumble and wander the streets against the biting wind and rains, eyes 45 degrees downward as if hunting their own contact lenses. Plus the apparent politicians of light have approved Copenhagen as a dark city: minimal street lighting, positively pre war/curfew atmosphere in many areas, a truly dismal place to wander at night, and such a contrast to the likes of Paris, London, New York, etc. Yes, this makes me madder at least, and I am convinced this applies to many many others around me. Whether they are conscious of it or not, is another thing.

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At some stages of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist you took his place at the camera. One of the scenes about which you feel most satisfied:

Antichrist… this flows on fine on the subject of madness. Most of the scenes satisfy me because we got it done. And I felt the actors were given the space they needed. I also feel the director was given the space he needed, but he was in serious darkness, so taking the camera out of his hands was only going to make it worse for him. I actually don’t think me or he actually having the camera in the hand should be an issue worth talking about. It will never be the same heart beat behind the lens and it is futile to imagine anything different. I truly believe holding a camera in the face of a protagonist is a gift to rejoice and respect, even occasionally a spiritual exchange: you think, you prepare, you discuss, you imagine, you agree… and then something else happens. This can bring anything from beauty to catastrophe, and nobody will agree anyway. Basically the mad will get madder, whilst the strong will survive to tell the tale. And nobody will agree about this either. So films in retrospect are tough to talk about, whereas films in the making… that’s where it all happens. There lies the key and the commitment to what we do.

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What motivates the choice to merge the naturalism of the image with the special effects?

In the case of Antichrist, Lars VT and I had a very valuable and rewarding dialogue throughout preproduction about all the different layers to the film, under which naturalism and the constructed scenes were to be amalgamated. We used motion control techniques to attempt to blend seamlessly the hand held operated camera into linear complicated artificial camera moves, for example. The motivation here was the seamless slipping in and out of one or other of these story levels, as is the case with the human conscience. In preproduction, every single linear or non linear camera movement was debated, in a non mad environment, so that Lars and I could analyse what and why were going to do what we planned, together with the post team. My retrospective interpretation of a successful scene in any of the films I have participated in, is still, strongly affected by the entire filming process and realisation journey. Antichrist was no walk in the park, and madness was often present on set, so this will always a difficult question to answer. Making this film was like creating a wild beast — never seen or heard of before — whilst wanting at the same time to tame the same, and then to categorise by critics around the world. Antichrist is close to my heart, as much loved as it was hurtful. Never to be forgotten.

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If you could use the Lensbabies to direct the look of everyone on the world, what would you show?

Lensbabies are an example of rugged damaged vision. For me they represent the imperfect, the primitive… the degraded world. They counter the lusting search for an industrial sublime image, a language I associate with the main line and tradition of contemporary cinematic language. But as soon as any technical or aesthetic tendency in popular imaging becomes over used and ultra familiar — be it the renegade substandard image from under the fashionable floorboards, or the traditional high defined sterile image the majority strive to render —, they will both die to my eye. But for now, I guess I would point the Lensbaby at the immaculate.

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In 127 hours, Aron Ralston is forced to amputate his arm to free himself from a deadly trap. How much of metaphorical is in his ordeal — and in the act of filming it with a digital camera — compared to our time?

This is a funny question, because it sounds like you have a theory and have the answer yourself. I am inspired, but unsure of an answer. What is that line about “I would cut off my left arm” or “right arm” to do something. In the case of Aron, he had no choice if he wanted to choose life. But there is extraordinary value in such an extreme confrontation with our mortality as human beings, and the film touches on pure survival narrative drive as well as surfacing certain moral issues about our responsibility to others, as well to our own physical corpus. Digital cameras are here to stay. Smaller image capture systems grow in popularity amongst the established and once wary professionals as well as with the less wealthy voices around the world. We still have hard liners in all schools of thoughts, we still have radical thinkers and story tellers as well as a large portion of incredibly unadventurous film makers and sceptics across all territories of communication. It’s the very mix of all this and the technology we are supplied with, that keeps us all alive as communicators. One thing is for sure, I personally would not have been able to make 127 hours the way I did, together with Danny and Enrique Edziak, without the use of certain very minimalistic under the floorboard camera attitude, groundbreaking camera technology it was, arm breaking narrative it was, tradition breaking story telling it was… The rest is history.

The memory of your childhood you’re most fond of:

Sitting in the windowsills while the rain fell against the windowpane, whilst listening to the wind. My eyes shut. Rather like being on set with my head in the camera when things are going well.

Next projects:

Hopefully the best story to take me away from where I have been sitting too long… Now that was a metaphor.

Thanks

Antichrist Trailer
www.dodmantle.com