Directed by Oliver Stone, and lensed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle DFF BSC ASC (Slumdog Millionaire), the political thriller Snowden chronicles the affairs of Edward Snowden, the American computer professional and former CIA employee, who leaked thousands of classified documents from a Hong Kong hotel bedroom in 2013. Now living as political refugee in Russia, and variously typecast as a whistle-blower, hero, revolutionary and traitor, Snowden’s disclosures have sparked fierce debate about government secrecy, the collusion between secret service agencies, and mass surveillance tactics versus personal privacy.
Speaking about his attraction to the movie, Dod Mantle says, “It was a big challenge, that I knew it would push me aesthetically. But I think the subject matters in the movie, and the times we’re living through, are the bigger challenges for us, our children, families and friends. I had a clandestine meeting with Oliver in Munich, where we met for the first time, and he made me read the script. Although it was not complete, what I read was astonishing, electric. On the one hand it was a portrait of a conscientious young man whose actions culminated in personal fear and alienation, yet on the other it concerned one of the biggest political scandals since WWII, that continues to have seismic aftershocks.”
To avoid the possibility of disruption by secret services, Stone opted to shoot as much of the movie as possible outside of the US. Principal photography took place in February 2015 on closed sets built at Bavaria Studios, near Munich, and at nearby locations doubling for Maryland, Washington, Virginia and Hawaii.
After the eight-week Berlin stint, production took place at rapid-fire pace in Washington DC, followed by Hawaii, using a house on the same street where Snowden had lived, and then at The Mira Hotel, Hong Kong, where the fleeing Snowden had dramatically revealed all.
Dod Mantle says humans-under-surveillance, architecture and images of intrusion, were touchstones is his visual synthesis for the movie. “Clean, clear high-resolution images portray truth and honesty, whereas smaller surveillance cameras that watch over our daily lives, imply myth, something covert, sinister and untrustworthy.”
Dod Mantle, who likes to operate on movies, framed Snowden in 2.39:1 aspect ratio, using ALEXA 65 and ALEXA XT, both shooting in open gate mode, for around 60% of the production. Lenses for the ALEXA 65 included a set of Prime 65 glass for the studio shoots, with Vintage 765 Primes for the round-the-world leg. A full set of Leica Summicrons, plus Optimo zooms and macro primes, were variously used on the ALEXA XT. The main equipment package was supplied by ARRI Munich, under the supervision of Manfred Jahn, with the full support of the company’s R&D team for the recently released ALEXA 65, as well as the ALEXA XT.
“The ALEXA 65 is a robust, composed and powerful imaging device, and the 6K, big-screen experience is something to behold,” Dod Mantle declares. “From the extensive testing I did around ARRI’s headquarters in Türkenstraße, Munich, I got a very good idea about how I could punch into the image, and keep going in for creative purposes, which you can see in the final picture.”
Canon Europe also supported Snowden with a Canon C500 camera with a 50-1000mm PL zoom, which Dod Mantle used for in-camera effects during the round-the-world trip and also on a body rig during the cramped Mira Hotel scenes, whilst Codex Action Cam was used to provide a range of surveillance footage.
The workflow on Snowden was supervised by DIT Dan Carling, who utilized a variety of Codex recording systems for the ALEXA 65, ALEXA XT, Canon C500 and Codex Action Cam. A detailed look at his work is available here.
“THE ALEXA 65 IS A ROBUST, COMPOSED AND POWERFUL IMAGING DEVICE”
Dod Mantle is particularly attentive to effect of the colour palette in each movie he works on, and Snowden was typical of his artistic sensitivities. “As Snowden is revealed to be a bright, intelligent young man, with an incredible career path, things start out colourful and safe. But this begins to change as things go awry. Hawaii should be a paradise, but the colours include dangerous yellows and unsettling greens. Washington is a steely blue. The further he gets away from security, and the more he begins to question his odds of survival, we see magenta creeping into the image. It’s an alienating and threatening colour, abhorrent and cold, that becomes even more embracing during the Hong Kong hotel scenes as his separation and loneliness really kick in.”
It came as quite a shock to Dod Mantle when he suddenly found himself in the same room as Snowden during an additional five-day shoot in Moscow. As he descibes, “I had spent the best part of a year exploring Edward Snowden’s story, and his psyche, and it was at once deeply strange as well as a privilege to meet him face-to face. This bright young man, forever haunted by his predicament, eternally estranged from his roots, yet so noble and selfless in his actions. I hope we have told his story in an intelligent and open-hearted way.”
Images courtesy their respective owners.