Director Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, starring Chris Hemsworth, depicts the harrowing tale of the whaling ship Essex, which was attacked and damaged by a sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean in 1820, inspiring the classic Moby Dick.



Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle ASC BSC sees thematic similarities to Howard’s Apollo 13, saying “It’s about men venturing further and further away from their natural habitat, to a domain that rightfully belongs to something other than man, where they can fall foul to their adventurous nature. That’s why the whole aesthetic of the sea and the whale’s habitat was so relevant to the film.” 

Dod Mantle and Howard, who had previously collaborated on Rush, began with that mindset and planned the shoot thoroughly. Each decision had ripple effects throughout, starting with budget. Among the many complicating factors were the marine aspect and the fact that the actors were on a strict diet at times in order to convincingly depict malnourished sailors lost at sea. 

Some scenes were planned for built sets like the Nantucket harbor, and others were mounted on stages and interior tanks at Leavesden Studios that were in some cases surrounded by green screen. A model of a 19th Century sailing ship was built and mounted on a gimbal at Leavesden as well, where dump tanks and other practical water effects could depict sea conditions from calm to catastrophic. The Canary Islands in the east Atlantic provided some practical locations. And a couple of weeks planned for boat-to-boat work at sea turned into a month and a half, because it became clear that this approach worked better for production value and for the schedule. 

An important aspect of Dod Mantle’s responsibility was to seamlessly blend all these elements, including footage from a marine unit, a flying unit and underwater teams. Each situation gave him a different level of control in terms of lighting, and left him susceptible in varying degrees to the wind and weather.

Dod Mantle weighed all these considerations in his choice of format, but foremost in his mind was the ability to capture certain types of shots.

“I actually had the choice of shooting film or digital, which is quite a luxury,” he says. “And I did think seriously about shooting on film. But on this project, I knew that I would need to embed cameras into scenes taking place on real boats at sea. Often on the decks there’s not a lot of room. That kind of shooting is harder with bigger cameras, and it can also be more complicated and erratic at times. So many parameters and elements are at work with this kind of embedded camera. Much is left to chance for magical moments under uncontrollable practical situations, where shooting on film would have started to inhibit this freedom. Mixing formats of digital and film is also something I have done regularly over the last fifteen years with success, but we finally, in alliance with production, opted for digital.”

On In the Heart of the Sea, when possible and appropriate, he shot with ARRI ALEXA XT cameras with Codex recording, media and workflow, capturing images in the ARRIRAW format. The lenses were usually Panavision close-focus primes, or Primo zooms, with the zooms often on the crane-mounted cameras. When a smaller, lighter camera was needed – because of ergonomics or physical space limitations, or because of the kind of shot envisioned – he sometimes used a Canon C300, smaller video cameras or even a Canon 1DC.

Depending on the situation, the cameras were mounted on Technocranes, handheld on the deck, or mounted on dollies moving on dance floor. When Mantle had more complete control over the lighting, he could concentrate on experimenting with formats to achieve the effects he wanted. Perhaps most challenging were the scenes shot at sea.



“The real environment is incredibly difficult to control,” he says. “Like many films that take place in the ocean, we had platforms with generators and lights, and a whole crew floating around on a boat. Quite often, it comes down to the actor and me. I’m sitting on my ass with a camera on a boat, floating away, moving lights around, trying to anchor the boats, watching the sun. Then you realize you’ve drifted four miles. To make all these shots cut together, I needed to shoot RAW when I could. And right now, in the grade, I’m feeling pretty good about it.”

Mantle encouraged Howard to present the world of the whale from an underwater perspective, as opposed to using the standard aerial-shots approach. He recruited underwater cinematographer Peter Zuccarini, calling him “the best in the world.”

The crew also included DIT Dan Carling, who devised a system whereby Mantle could maintain control despite the thorny logistics.

“Anthony wanted the ability to see all the live camera feeds, so he could give direction where appropriate, and whilst operating a camera himself,” says Carling. “Out on the ocean, we needed the ability to receive all the video feeds from the cameras, quite often up to seven – even an underwater camera – at the same time. In addition to the video village and the director, we transmitted these images back to Anthony’s handheld monitor. This was crucial in order for Anthony to quickly set camera positions whilst out at sea.”

The large number of cameras necessitated higher capacity switchers, the AJA Kumo 3232 and Kumo CP. Because of the variety of camera and formats, there was no on-set color correction.


“When possible we monitored the cameras’ video feeds through a LUT from the DI house [CO3 in London], running LiveGrade on a MacBook Pro to apply the LUT,” says Carling. “Exposed mags travelled back to the dailies team who ingested, processed, archived and returned the mags back to us.

“The advent of the ALEXA XT has made capturing ARRIRAW even more straightforward,” he says. “Having the latitude of the ALEXA to deal with the hot skies and bright water reflections was an important factor on this film, and the cameras and the Codex system worked perfectly, as it always does.”

“These are complicated films,” says Mantle. “My philosophy is that if I’m not shooting film, if I can I will try to shoot RAW. That way, I can contain all the horrendous contrast ratios that are presented to cinematographers in all seasons of the year. When I get home, I can provide a graded daily that will get the editor in the right place. Then I’m pretty heavy in the grade, getting it, finally, the way I want it.”

Mantle followed up In the Heart of the Sea with the Oliver Stone-directed Snowden. In the Heart of the Sea will be released in the United States in December 2015.

Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

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