"All Is Lost" certainly has its views of lonely ocean expanses and underwater images of majesty and menace. But perhaps the most important directives for the cinematographers were "up close" and "personal" — in essence, keep it human.
J.C. Chandor's $10-million film starring Robert Redford, 77, as a man trying to survive the destruction of his sailboat while navigating the Indian Ocean required two directors of photography: For the above-water work, indie stalwart Frankie DeMarco ("Hedwig and the Angry Inch"), and for the submerged, underwater specialist Peter Zuccarini ("Life of Pi").
"J.C. wanted the camera to always be close to Our Man," says DeMarco of the unnamed Redford character, the only role in the film. "If you're an arm's length away from him the whole movie, it really informs how you light and shoot every scene. The viewer could see his body language, hear his breathing and get a sense of what Bob's character was thinking and experiencing from moment to moment.
"I have my own handheld technique I call 'the curious eye.' I'd have the camera on Bob, and he'd look at something in the boat, and I'd pan onto what Bob is looking at and then pan back to Bob. So we see what he's seeing; it puts you there in the moment."
Thus, the viewer only learns when Our Man does that a storm is approaching or a mast has broken.
Among Zuccarini's jobs was to express the character's predicament in unusual ways.
"You might expect to see a shot from the clouds, looking down on this tiny little boat on the giant ocean," Zuccarini says, "but J.C. had a great idea to invert that: 'All those shots that usually convey isolation, I'd like to do them from underwater.' We did this one shot where you see the raft creep across the sun, it's one of the few times you feel something calming and beautiful — while the sun was setting. ... It was the passing of time with that lonely man on the raft.
"The character's under tremendous strain. And when you go underwater, it's quiet and you see the raft is bobbing against the sunlight shaft. It's like heaven is coming from below. If he's going to die, I started to read the deep shots as that was what was waiting for him, sort of a relief."
The film was mostly shot in water tanks, using what DeMarco fondly refers to as old-fashioned Hollywood tools, such as wave machines and water cannons, but key scenes were captured on the open sea near Bermuda, with real fish — and real sharks.
"There's one shot where you see small fish and creatures collecting under the raft," Zuccarini says. "The raft had been at sea just long enough that it had started to become part of the drift ecology. It's becoming part of the chain, being absorbed by this great life force of the ocean. But after those herring-like fish show up, that's going to draw jacks and tuna and things, then, of course, the bigger predators. So if you're part of the food chain, you're really at risk of really becoming part of the food chain."
DeMarco, meanwhile, looked for ways to balance the narrative tension with rich visuals to enhance the viewer's sense of place.
"There are some little interstitial things we did, some kind of Terrence Malick-neorealistic moments," he says. "The sails flapping, the wool telltale [on a sail] undulating in the wind, the sun flaring into the lens as the boat comes about. The camera slowly pans down the foresail to a little piece of Bob, kind of makes a mistake and tilts too low and finally racks to Bob in a big, profile close-up in the right of frame. It's a very imperfect, human move. It's one of those elusive things; the camera captured the emotion of the scene."