John Mathieson: Film Destruction Techniques

From American Cinematographer, Brush With the Gutter by Holly Willis (Sept. 1998)

Mathieson tried to toy with his equipment and lights in order to alter or distort the images he was getting much in the manner that Bacon warped and stretched his own imagery. His description of techniques is a tour through the don’ts of filmmaking, and yet the results are extraordinary.

Mathieson shot some scenes using a 5x4 Sinar plate camera, which he would place in front of the Arri without its plate. Where the plate would normally go, he positioned a piece of tracing paper. "The image would be soft, sort of blurred," he attests, and this effect not only framed the subject like a still camera would, but made images that approximated the blurriness of many of Bacon’s paintings. Another technique involved removing the shutter from the Arri 435.

"We disconnected the shutter, keeping it open. Then we’d use a domestic drill with a handmade shutter in front of the camera. It would run asynchronously, and we’d rev it at different speeds to make the image flutter. If you moved it away from the camera, you’d get these great flash-frames that would stretch and tear from top to bottom, creating images that jumped at you. We did our own fogging in the camera as well, using the Arri VariCon, which enables one to fog the film using different colors. We also tried putting red gel on the side of the camera, then opening up while we were shooting to make a more ’brutal’ fogging effect."

- John Mathieson, BSC

Mathieson also did a lot of double exposures in the camera. One of the film’s final scenes shows Bacon in a bathroom, where Dyer appears as a ghostlike presence. Similar images abound throughout the film, and while budget may have been one of the reasons for doing this and many of the other effects in the camera, Mathieson and Maybury felt that the old-fashioned technique lent the film a certain ambiance.

"When you double-expose [a shot], there’s something about the way it sits on the negative, with the light passing through and hitting the emulsion it just sits better than if you mix it or do CGI to it. It’s also a lot more fun, and you can relight things for different exposures or use different colors. Anyway, John would get so excited about the rushes you’d see the shot right away."

- John Mathieson, BSC

Yet another approach utilized to distort images was to shoot through large chunks of glass. "I’ve been dragging bits of glass around for years," concedes the cameraman. "Alan [Macdonald] would find these lovely pieces of glass to shoot through." Some of the glass pieces were old, heavy ashtrays, but all were simply held in front of the camera for the shot. Mathieson also used an assortment of old lenses.

"We had this odd collection. We had an old Angenieux, for example, which we did terrible things to with Vaseline. We also took the elements out of some of the lenses, and we also used a Frazier lens once. With the Frazier you have to use the Panavision camera, but the lens system has its own peculiar kind of optics. It does extreme close-ups."

- John Mathieson, BSC

Mathieson also used a boroscope lens for close-ups.

"The optical quality of a boroscope is terrible, really. But what you can do with them is amazing. They are very good for doing close-ups of things like white mice building nests they’re used by natural history people for studying nature. But we used them for snooping around and looking at bad skin or stained fingers."

- John Mathieson, BSC

The boroscope is unusual in that it can both do close-ups and wide-angle shots; the image is distorted at either setting, and Mathieson used this warping effect to lend a repulsive quality to the faces of the people who hung around Bacon, making them appear as they would have had they been rendered by the artist on canvas.

The cinematographer also employed an array of gels to augment his subjects’ more hideous qualities.

"We got that Bacon dead-flesh look using old gels. They were strange correction gels for lamps that people don’t use anymore. They have very weird colors, and most have been discontinued. We also used a lot of cosmetic gels, but in a very uncosmetic way. There’s an LCT Yellow, for example, which is a weird, horrible color that makes everyone look ill or dead. Usually when you put a gel in front of a light, it looks very intense and strong, and we didn’t want that. We wanted something more subtle, something dirty, and we found that these old gels really gave us the desired waxy, dead-meat look."

- John Mathieson, BSC

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