More than a few car-racing movies have come unstuck by paying insufficient attention to the off-track human drama, but the story of the 1976 Formula 1 season, on which Ron Howard’s film Rush is based, overflows with personality and dramatic tension. The closely fought battle between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) for the Drivers’ Championship marked 1976 as a transition year in the sport. Lauda was a cool and determined Austrian, the first of a new breed of mentally focused and physically fit drivers. Hunt was an English playboy of the old school, a suave, chain-smoking womanizer who was quick to use his fists and never far from a drink.
The season was punctuated by Lauda’s near-fatal crash at the German Grand Prix, from which he returned to race again after just six weeks, despite severe and disfiguring facial burns that had not yet healed. Having resumed with four races still on the calendar, Lauda and Hunt’s duel was only decided at the final Grand Prix in Japan, where Hunt endured dangerously heavy rain to take the title. His victory was a last hurrah for the romantic notion of a racecar driver who could stay up all night partying and then win a race in the morning; in the wake of Hunt’s triumph, the flamboyance of Formula 1 was gradually shackled by corporate interests.
The challenge of capturing the glitzy, global nature of a 1970s F1 season swiftly became apparent to Rush cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, ASC, BSC, DFF. “Initially, I was hop-ing we’d go to Monza, Monaco, Nürburgring and Spa, but we very quickly realized we wouldn’t be able to go to the real tracks,” he says. Aside from a few wet days at Brands Hatch and two days on the Nürburgring circuit, racing scenes were shot at other tracks and desolate airfields in England, with grid starts and pit lanes created on a 200-yard strip of asphalt at Dunsfold Park in Surrey, where “we had to flip between countries, sometimes overnight, and tactically make it work for our budget,” says Dod Mantle.
The restriction of not being able to travel to the real locations meant that archival footage would have to play a pivotal role in the film, and that a successful collaboration between Dod Mantle and the visual-effects department would be crucial. “We had a very tight, respectful and creative alliance with [visual-effects supervisor] Jody Johnson from Double Negative,” says the cinematographer. “Jody came in early and hard, because what we were attempting was clearly going to be difficult to achieve.”
Long before principal photography began, the filmmakers spent several months sifting through material from the period. Dod Mantle was working with Howard and his team for the first time, and notes, “All I could do was be very honest and tell them what my instincts said about which bits of archive footage we could and couldn’t use, even though I wasn’t completely sure at that point where we were going with the film aesthetically.”
Archive clips were put on a server for the group to view and comment upon, and once Howard and Dod Mantle had selected some they liked, the clips were edited together with camera tests and sent to colorists at Company 3 in London and Johnson at Double Negative to see how far they could be pushed in post. The archival material was graded and de-grained, and the camera tests graded and subjected to grain, in order to meet somewhere in the middle. “I was thinking about how to get this footage looking good enough to marry with the footage I was going to shoot myself and not bump in and out of an uneven palette, because that would have depressed me beyond measure,” says Dod Mantle.
Once it was established that this approach worked, the archival footage could provide a skeletal structure for each major race. “We’d get to the point where, for example, a seven-second sequence of Monza footage became the creative foundation and palette for our entire Monza scene,” continues the cinematographer. “Out of that we’d take colors, costumes, buildings and other elements, and simulate them in the scenes we’d shoot.”
Aiming for a final aspect ratio of 2.40:1, Dod Mantle chose Arri Alexas as his main cameras, recording in the uncompressed ArriRaw format to maximize dynamic range and flexibility in post. “Shooting in England from February to May, you’re in situations where you can’t control the weather or even sometimes the lighting,” he says. “We had extras getting hypothermia on days when it was bright but we needed rain, and then when the sun was due to come out, it rained and I had to slam on the lights. I knew that would happen, and that’s why I needed the latitude.”
In front of the sensor, he opted for older lenses, including Baltars and Cooke S2s. “I got hold of the most ancient lenses I could subject my assistants to working with! Sometimes they almost had to use a mallet to turn the focus rings. It allowed us to deteriorate the look, adding aberrations and genuine flare — organic photographic elements that broke down the definition while keeping that amazing ArriRaw latitude.”
Monaco was one of the settings in the archived footage that influenced Dod Mantle’s visuals. “I wanted to identify colors to push, and Monaco was good for that because it had such a colorful look to it, with the yellows and cyans of the reversal [film stock] of that time,” he says. “I started showing Ron pictures of reversal processes and Cibachromes. I wanted it to look like a sexually exciting old painting full of blood and fashion and lovely bare legs, and debonair soldiers who could die at any given moment.”
The archive shots had to stand up to visual-effects work that removed unwanted elements and added others that were necessary to the story, usually cars. In some cases, CGI could make an archive shot usable when the quality wasn’t quite there. “A good example was some fantastic aerial archive footage over a track, with thousands of people and all kinds of other elements we couldn’t hope to replicate,” says Dod Mantle. “Unfortunately, it was underexposed by 3 stops, damaged and grainy. I worked on it with Double Negative and couldn’t get it right, but then Ron had the great idea of adding a foreground CG element of the helicopter screen and some controls, which, of course, allowed the background to fall off.”
To achieve the shot, explains Johnson, “We photographed a period-correct helicopter, re-created it digitally and added that to the shot. Then, we looked at what lens the background was filmed with and matched that with our foreground piece, tying all the elements together with focus, buzz, blooming and camera movement to make it look like something shot handheld inside the helicopter. The original was actually shot from a mount on the outside.”
Another archive clip Dod Mantle found inspirational was an extremely bumpy shot taken aboard a car racing at Monaco. “You really felt the vibrations, and it got me thinking that these cars are like beasts,” he says. “Traveling at such speed, you can’t even register what they’re doing. Everything looks beautiful and sexy on the outside, but underneath are these nuts and bolts that are shaking and struggling. It made me look more analytically at the cars — these strange, attractive death machines.”