127 Hours

Director Danny Boyle doesn’t shy away from using digital camera technology as an inventive, storytelling tool. Slumdog Millionaire and 28 Days Later certainly attest to that. His latest, 127 Hours, uses a variety of film and digital formats to tell the true-life story of Aron Ralston (played by James Franco), a mountain climber who was forced to amputate his lower right arm in order to free himself after he became trapped under a boulder. The screenplay is based on Ralston’s book Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

To stay authentic to the story, Boyle shot on location in a canyon in Utah and set up shop at Salt Lake City post house Color Mill, which provided digital “lab” services. As in Slumdog, the Silicon Imaging SI-2K camera played a dominant role, but other formats included 35mm film (3-perf and 4-perf), S-VHS, a Canon Elura (mini-DV) camcorder and a Canon EOS 1D Mark IV digital SLR. The Canon 1D was used for some HD video, but also for stills photographed in a burst mode. This allows the camera to shoot a series of full-resolution, sequential stills at a frame rate less than 24fps. These clips were assembled by Union VFX in London as motion media files at a variety of frame rates. A Redlake high-speed camera rounded out the camera department’s toolkit. Enrique Chediak and Anthony Mantle were Boyle’s cinematographers on this film.

I recently spoke with editor Jon Harris (Snatch, The Descent, Kick-Ass) and first assistant editor Tamsin Jeffrey about the challenges of cutting 127 Hours. According to Harris, the mixture of formats didn’t turn out to be as big a challenge as one might expect. “Danny wanted these different formats to blend as seamlessly as possible,” Harris said. “Aron kept a video diary, which is where the Elura mini-DV footage fit in and that intentionally had a different look. Each of the other formats was used for its specific production strengths, but the intent was for these elements to match in style as much as possible. The Canon DSLR cameras were used in a couple of ways – in a burst mode to gave us a hyper-real, kinetic look that was used in the flashbacks – as well as for traditional time lapse shots.”

The SI-2K cameras record to the CineForm 4:4:4 camera raw codec, which necessitated the digital equivalent of processing for dailies and editorial media. Jeffrey continued, “Color Mill served as the digital lab in Utah and handled all the data wrangling. They took all of the various formats, backed up and verified the media, and provided the editors with [Avid] DNxHD36 media for cutting. We were working with Avid Media Composer systems and Unity shared storage, both in Utah and later in London. When the production wrapped in Utah, all the media went back to Technicolor in London who handled the digital intermediate for the film. We delivered an edit decision list to Technicolor using Avid’s 16-digit file name format designed for the RED camera. This worked great for the SI-2K material. In the end, working with this camera was almost easier than working with 35mm film.” Fotokem in Los Angeles handled the 35mm film negative processing.

Boyle shot the film during an eight-week schedule in February and March, running two crews around the clock for most of that time. The editors were challenged with 108 hours of raw footage (100 from the SI-2K cameras alone). Harris explained, “Although that sounds like a lot of footage, it’s one of the advantages of these digital formats. In order to capture realistic actions, Danny would let the cameras roll. If in real life, it had taken Aron 45 minutes to get a rope over a rock, Danny would film it in real time. Of course, that time frame was collapsed in editing, but it gave us plenty of raw footage to work with and realistic events.”

“We wanted to give the audience a sense of what Aron was going through without torturing them by showing the actual passage of time in its real length. Danny had a target length of 90 minutes and our first assembly came in at about two hours. With the usual trimming, the film sat at one hour forty minutes for a long while. Eventually we dropped an epilogue that brought the film to its target length. After several screenings, everyone felt that the epilogue was unnecessary anyway, so the shorter version made for a stronger film.”

The story is a fascinating one, but how do you make it interesting for the audience? Harris continued, “When I first read the script, I could see that it didn’t follow the conventional narrative form with all the usual plot points or milestones that I look out for.  It was a very brave piece of work and for that reason it was hard to get a confident sense of whether it would really work on the screen.  But that’s what made it an irresistible challenge and a real adventure. We wanted the audience to get a sense for what type of person Aron was and that was designed to reveal itself as the film went along. These milestones became instinctual through the storytelling and in the way the film was constructed.”

The story uses a lot of flashbacks as a way to “get into Aron’s head”.  One technique used was to show scenes in a triptych view of three columns. Harris explained, “It turns out that the 1.85:1 aspect ratio turned sideways nicely fills one-third of the screen. Danny shot these scenes with the camera turned 90 degrees on its side. That’s where [Avid] Media Composer really helped, because I could line up these scenes on three video tracks and build the composites. Many of the panels in these triptych views are shots that are designed to interact with each other. That was an interesting creative challenge, because changes that you make to one clip have a domino effect on the others. At times, one panel becomes more dominant than the others, so you want to guide the viewer through these – making sure that they are paying the most attention to the intended part of the screen.”

In many of these composited scenes and flashbacks, Harris intercut Ralston in present day time (trapped in the canyon) with friends and family that appear in his memory. It’s as if he’s in the scene with them, but we never actually see him as a character within these flashbacks.

127 Hours ultimately is a film about the human spirit and what drives us to survive. Using innovative camera techniques and Harris’ cutting style was a way to achieve this, without the main character ever leaving the canyon. The film was released in November to strong reviews and just in time for this year’s awards run.

Written for Videography magazine (NewBay Media LLC).

©2010 Oliver Peters