Waiting for the end to come on 'Apocalypto'

Special to The Times

SQUANDERING precious resources is one of many underlying themes in Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" and it became a recurring theme during production.

Consider this oft-repeated account from the crew on location in Veracruz, Mexico, this spring: Makeup and wardrobe departments arrived at 1 a.m. to outfit more than 1,000 extras with elaborate wigs, prosthetic ears, scars and body paint for the eye-popping Mayan City sequence. Eight hours later, when the entire cast and crew were ready for the first scheduled shot, Gibson was MIA. When the director rolled onto set around noon he opted out of the planned schedule and instead shot running scenes with two lead actors until the sun went down.

"Extras are so cheap and Gibson's so rich from 'Passion of the Christ' it didn't matter," noted one department head. "He worked in a less structured way and there were no studio suits to push him along. His focus on the leads added minutes to each and every setup so it all took a lot longer than it looked on paper."

Shot on location in Mexico, initial budgetary concerns were offset by cheap locations, inexpensive Mexican crews, no-name actors, hundreds of hours of digital videotape and Dean Semler -- an Oscar-winning cinematographer ("Dances with Wolves," "Bruce Almighty," "The Alamo") who runs one of the most proficient camera departments in the business.

It was, however, anything but business as usual. There were the inherent difficulties of shooting during sweltering humid days in the Mexican rainforest, to say nothing of filming untrained actors in torturesome jungle chase scenes. These and other factors more than doubled "Apocalypto's" shooting schedule from the four months originally planned to nine or 10, while production shot the digital equivalent of 2 million feet of film. (A conventional studio production shoots a million feet of film on a 60-day schedule.)

By all accounts, Gibson's production got off to a relatively normal start. Prep began in October 2005 for principal photography that kicked off in earnest last November, and the film was set to wrap in early February. But the end for "Apocalypto" didn't come for another five months, in early July.

And in September a second-unit crew was still filming additional scenes in Europe.

Gibson's self-financed passion project was originally budgeted through his Icon Productions at $64 million. Despite the twofold increase in shooting days, that initial figure has been whittled down to $50 million for public record. However, production execs who worked on and or regularly visited the set estimate "Apocalypto's" actual budget is closer to $75 million to $80 million.

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Going digital a no-brainer

BUT if untrained actors and a self-financed director were unpredictable, one of the most sensitive aspects of production proved rock solid.

Semler and Gibson had discussed the idea of digitally shooting "Apocalypto" two years ago, when Gibson acted out for Semler the frenetically paced new script he co-wrote with a former Icon assistant, Farhad Safinia, jokingly threatening Semler with his life if he revealed the story to anyone.

Both men knew, given the subject matter, that shooting "Apocalypto" digitally was a no-brainer. Semler had a good track record with new digital tools, having introduced digital color-timing to Gibson on Icon's "We Were Soldiers," one of the first high-profile films to be scanned into the digital realm for color-timing and corrections at EFILM when the digital intermediate boutique first opened. (Previously films were color-timed photochemically at the lab.)

So Semler took Gibson to Panavision's screening room to eyeball early comparative test footage shot on both film and the new Genesis digital camera projected out to film. Neither the director nor the director of photography could tell what was shot on film versus tape, the cinematographer recalls.

Between the time he showed Gibson the test and began prepping "Apocalypto," Semler shot the Adam Sandler comedy "Click" on the Genesis for Columbia Pictures. He notes that "Click" was shot in a more "clinical" studio environment than the rainforest, but the experience familiarized the DP and his crew with the best working practices for the camera and its requisite digital systems.

While planning out the shoot, Semler's crew took careful measures to avoid any sensitive electronic equipment meltdowns due to extreme temperature changes on location.

"We didn't mollycoddle the digital cameras," the Australian cameraman says. "We treated them like film cameras but we took precautionary measures." Jungle locations were covered with thousands of feet of cable, many laid to keep camera equipment temperatures regulated. Fans instead of air-conditioners ran on equipment trucks overnight to avoid radical temperature shifts; and in extreme heat under the sun the cameras were affixed with thermometers and covered with reflective space blankets.

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Protective measures

DURING a four-day shoot at a waterfall, cameras were housed in specially built Hydroflex splash bags designed by Pete Romano. Small attachable nitrogen tanks, designed by Semler's first assistant cameraman Tony Rivetti, blew air into the splash bags via plastic tubes to cool the cameras and deflect moisture droplets from the lens.

Although the Genesis cameras allow for a range of in-camera speed effects, with a variable frame rate up to 50 frames per second, Gibson and Semler sought a wider range of slow-motion photography, occasionally up to 150 frames per second.

In such instances, the cinematographer either relied on film cameras (film was used in about 2% of the movie, Semler says) or a bag of tricks that the cameraman and Gibson had learned while working with director George Miller in 1981 on "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior."

"Mel is a master of pulling off optical tricks in-camera that he learned from George," Semler says. "He taught the actors on 'Apocalypto' how to do it too. He would walk or run in slow-motion to achieve the desired speed and they followed." In fact one scene was acted out backward and in slow motion: Gibson had Rudy Youngblood, who plays Jaguar Paw, run backward and pull a spike ball out of a tree for a scene in which he is attacked by Zero Wolf (Rudy Trujillo).

Semler watched the day's footage on a high-definition video monitor in the confines of a mildly air-conditioned "digi-tent." ("It was never colder than 80 degrees," Semler says.) He was able to review the dailies from the three Genesis cameras on 50-minute HDCAM tapes -- they used over 420 tapes in all.

The footage was fed through a Colorstream box designed by EFILM that enabled the cinematographer to see what the final image would look like when color-corrected to his specifications.

Among the many contributors to the film -- including production designer Tom Sanders, who did the sets and is knowledgeable about camera lenses; Mayes Rubeo, who designed the costumes; and the extensive hair and makeup teams -- Semler says he was especially grateful for the local greensmen who tended to the jungle locations.

Each day, the men cleared 50-to-60-yard swaths of jungle, then covered uneven footpaths with soft soil so the actors could run barefoot and cameras could safely follow. After each take, the men would rearrange the vines and leaves and "replenish the runway."

The crew grew to have little concern that production might permanently damage the small remaining patch of Mexican rainforest they shot in. "We went back to re-shoot a quick scene a few weeks later," Semler says, "and we could hardly find it because it had already grown back."

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