John Mathieson, BSC battles the elements to bring Ridley Scott’s Dark Ages epic, Robin Hood, out into the sunlight

Robin Hood has deep roots in English folklore. There are songs and poems dating back to the 14th century woven into the fabric of the legend’s culture. Victorian Era author Howard Pyle wrote a book for children called The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood in 1893, which laid the modern groundwork for the outlaw hero as a dedicated corrector of social ills, robbing from the rich to aid the poor. In the 125 years since Pyle’s writing, more than 50 live action and animated Robin Hood movies and television series have been produced, including the most famous cinematic version in 1938, The Adventures of Robin Hood (co-directed by Michael Curtiz), starring Errol Flynn as a Robin Hood whose feisty underdog leadership rouses an entire nation.

Filmmaker Ridley Scott, working from a script penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland, sets his version of the Robin Hood legend at the tail end of the 12th century, when the European continent is still engulfed in the Dark Ages. The movie opens with King Richard I (the fabled Richard the Lionhearted) leading an English army that is battling the country’s Norman enemies, with a skilled archer fighting by his side. After the king is killed at the infamous Siege of Châlus Chabrol and replaced on the throne by his evil brother John, the archer returns to his home in the village of Nottingham. Here he quickly discovers that the local sheriff and nobility are preying on the villagers and making their lives miserable. So, the archer, so-named Robin of the Hood (Russell Crowe) assembles a band of Merry Men who aid him in stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. There is also a love story between Robin Hood and Maid Marian (played by Cate Blanchett), a noblewoman who isn’t sure what to make of the coarse soldier. They interact with various characters, familiar to the legions of Robin Hood fans, including Little John and Friar Tuck. Grounded in reality and rife with historically accurate characters – Sir William Marshall, Coeur de Lion, and Eleanor of Aquitaine – among them, Robin Hood, could easily be subtitled “The Man Behind the Legend.”

Summer’s Darkest Days

Cinematographer John Mathieson, BSC brought a broad base of experience to the production of Robin Hood. Born and raised in Dorset, England, Mathieson began his career as an assistant cameraman on a crew led by Gabriel Beristain, ASC, BSC, and within only a few short years, he had stepped up to be a director of photography. Mathieson has since gone on to lens nearly 30 narrative film credits, including Plunkett & Macleane, a 1999 film directed by Ridley Scott’s son Jake. Maybe it was destiny calling. Two years later, Mathieson earned an Oscar nomination for Gladiator with Ridley Scott at the helm. The DP earned a second Academy Award nomination in 2005 for The Phantom of the Opera with Joel Schumacher directing. His other collaborations with Scott were Kingdom of Heaven, Matchstick Men and Hannibal.

John Mathieson, BSC

“I’ve been watching Ridley’s films since I was 16 or 17,” Mathieson reports, “and this was our fifth project together, so I have a sense of what he likes and dislikes.” The DP goes on to describe the decision to produce Robin Hood in Super 35 format coupled with DI timing during postproduction as an obvious one. “We framed in a 2.4:1 aspect ratio because landscapes and sets are like characters in the story,” he shares. “Since Ridley and I anticipated compositing hundreds of visual effects shots into scenes, it was safer compositing CGI arrows into scenes than having the actors shooting real arrows at each other!”

Production was scheduled for winter, however script rewrites and other delays postponed it until the following summer. “It might sound strange, but shooting in the woods was more challenging during the summer, because there was an enormous number of leaves on the beechwood trees, which blocked both sun and moon light,” the cinematographer explains. He shot a test using Kodak Vision3 5219 film at the recommended 500T exposure index and also with a one-stop push.

“I watched the prints projected side by side and couldn’t see any difference in grain or contrast,” he continues. “That enabled us to shoot scenes in the woods and at night with no filters on lenses with the film pushed one stop. If we had shot in the winter with no leaves on the trees, it would have been a different situation. Of course, the woods were beautiful in summer, which made for interesting visual contrast during battle scenes.”

Mathieson wasn’t involved in location scouting because of the schedule changes, and much of the film was produced at exterior locations around the studio that he never saw until the day of production. “Luckily, Ridley drew terrific storyboards,” he laughs. “He has a great eye and grasp of the language for visual storytelling.”

Since so many scenes were filmed in hilly areas in the woods with three to five cameras covering the actors from different angles and perspectives, the DP reports that the second unit team, led by cinematographer Alexander Witt, was frequently on hand to help cover action sequences. In those situations as many as 11 cameras were rolling! (The camera package from Panavision included ARRICAM Studio, ARRICAM Lite, and ARRIFLEX 235 bodies with a range of Primo prime and compact zoom lenses.)

Some daylight exterior scenes were captured on Kodak Vision2 5205 and 5201 emulsions, but Mathieson used more 5219 film than he had anticipated, mostly because of the many days when the thick woods were very dark in daylight.

“We tried to plan, but there were surprises all the time, including schedule changes and bad weather,” he laments. “Most of the time rain doesn’t photograph, especially in the soft light coming through trees that are covered with leaves.”

To The Castle M’lday

While Robin Hood made productive use of old growth forests – like the 800-year-old trees in Windsor Great Park – the equally vital interior scenes were filmed on sets at Shepperton Studio in Surrey, England. Mathieson met beforehand with production designer Arthur Max, whom he had worked with on Gladiator, to discuss the placement of windows and ways to motivate light coming from the sun, moon, candles and other firelight for Max’s elaborate Dark Ages sets, including King John’s bedroom, rooms of Sir Walter of Nottingham, father-in-law of Maid Marian, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was under house arrest. Other interior sets created by Max were in a castle with stone walls and just a few windows, and a grand hallway with gothic windows.

Yet another key creative partner was gaffer Tom Martin, whom Mathieson had also worked with before. “Tom knows how I think and feel about lighting,” he emphasizes – a key fact that helped to simplify communication once production got underway, given that Martin was often preparing lighting on studio sets while Mathieson was shooting exterior scenes, with Mother Nature acting as his gaffer.

The cinematographer likens the experience of shooting Robin Hood to riding a horse with a mind of its own, and hanging on for dear life while steering it in the right direction. “Ridley spent time next to the A and B cameras when possible,” Mathieson describes. “But when we were outside filming in hilly terrain, he was usually in the video village. I’d run down and meet with him and then run back to our cameras. Ridley works very quickly (see Exposure), so you have got to be decisive when he makes suggestions. He is a wonderfully talented filmmaker who thinks on his feet. His instincts are flawless. If you throw something at him, he’ll catch it, and you have to respond immediately to his intuitive decisions. That’s the way Ridley likes to work. He doesn’t pontificate about anything. He just says, ‘This is what we are going to do.’”

Technicolor in London did the front-end lab work. They initially provided film dailies with timing done by Huw Phillips. “Until we shot a big ambush sequence using seven or eight cameras to get coverage from different angles,” Mathieson explains. “I knew how the film was going to look. I wanted to see how our coverage of stunts with men on horseback played. It would have taken quite a lot of our evening to project all of that film.” So, he switched to HD dailies timed by David Lawrence and Robin Langer.

Mathieson was working on the production of Burke and Hare in England when Stephen Nakamura at Company 3 in Los Angeles began timing the DI. He flew to Los Angeles for a weekend meeting at the beginning of DI timing and gave Nakamura a general overview of his vision for the look. “If all goes well, we will complete Burke and Hare in time for me to go back to Los Angeles and put finishing touches on the look of Robin Hood,” he said as this issue went to press.

By Bob Fisher / photos courtesy of Universal Pictures

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