Lensing the Legend
Mike Eley on breathing new life into the Bob Marley myth for new documentary Marley…
For cinematographer Mike Eley, working on Kevin Macdonald's Bob Marley documentary Marley was like being involved in a detective story. "It was like sleuthing our way across Jamaica, Ghana, Germany and Switzerland, discovering hidden details of a man's life," smiles Eley. "Kevin is very inclusive and he involves all the crew in that journey. He's never 'fixed' in his approach, which, needless to say, is a very good trait to have as a documentarian."
Eley, the director of photography behind Nanny McPhee & The Big Bang and Parade's End, first worked with director Macdonald on acclaimed snowbound man-against-mountain documentary Touching The Void in 2003. That film foregrounded a great deal of "dramatic recreation", but Marley represented a challenge of a different kind for Eley.
"It involved both observational filming and sit-down (or occasionally walking around) interviews," he says. "Archive research threw up surprisingly little footage of Bob off-stage or not being interviewed, so giving the film a sense of movement and exploration was important." Luckily, what archive material did exist proved to be rich. "It came from multiple sources and formats, going back decades," says Eley. "There was a lot of 'texture' on show - which I love."
Like many documentaries, Marley exploits the flexibility, longer takes and cost-saving ratios of digital technology, using the Canon 5D in the more low-key, "guerilla" situations where anonymity was important - especially as many interviews are often speculative and may never yield usable material. But, Eley and Macdonald knew a mythic subject matter like Bob Marley needed a little something extra.
"We used both 35mm and Super 16mm film for what I'd call set-pieces, either observational or choreographed sections, over which we could exert some control," says Eley. "The two moments that spring to mind are the street scenes in Ghana (shot on Super 16mm), observing life happening before us, and the walk through Trenchtown, following a Rasta as he wound his way through the labyrinth of alleys. That was shot on the Aaton 35mm Penelope, at 40 frames per second. It would be nice to say we chose each format carefully for each scene or section, but there is much pragmatism and practicality on any film, especially on a documentary.
"I best recall the filming at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana," he continues. "We shot there on a s16mm Aaton XTR Prod, using the Fuji 64D film, given the location (tropical sun; huge expanses of white-washed walls) and the fact that we knew we were heading for the big screen. We filmed the approach to the Gates of No Return, through which millions of African slaves were shipped in the 18th and 19th Centuries. It was an eerie place indeed, made even eerier by us being the only people there! We didn't get why more people don't know about it."
Eley has used Fujifilm stocks whenever he's shot on film for the past seven years, citing it as something he's come to know (and love) well. In fact, his explanation gives film an almost "alive" quality. "There's been a lot of talk recently about the emotional relationship one can have with film, and how its alchemic properties reinforce that emotional tie," he says. "It's trustworthy, yet it's fickle. It's reliable, yet it can sometimes behave in a way you never anticipated. One has a 'conversation' with film, if you like, in a way that one doesn't, in my experience, with digital formats. In Jamaica we shot 64D as well as 250D stocks. We also shot 35mm in Germany, where we used Reala 500T. Never knowing what the weather might throw at us, it was good to have a fast film as back up - the gloomy winding road up through the Bavarian forest springs to mind!"
So, the only question remaining is the big one - was Eley a fan of Bob Marley before he embarked on this epic investigation of the renowned reggae god's life?
"Like most people on the planet, I own a copy of the Legend album," he nods. "And my first ever gig was Toots and the Maytals at the London Lyceum in 1976, a year after Bob's famous gig there. But I was 16, so I was on the second wave. But if I took anything away from my experience of working on Marley, it was a reminder of just how infectious, how downright happy his music can be."
- For more Mike Eley, visit http://www.casarotto.co.uk/client/mike-eley-b.s.c.-11458
- For more on Marley, visit http://www.bobmarley.com/marley_the_movie.php