Chaos, counterculture and Canon: behind the scenes on Danny Boyle's Sex Pistols limited series

Director Danny Boyle and DoP Anthony Dod Mantle reveal the unconventional filming methods they used to bring the frenetic energy of 1970s Britain to life in FX's Pistol.
Crew members adjust cameras and props on a stage containing a bar cam, an electric guitar and an elaborate drum kit. In the background, the number 100 can be seen.

Director Danny Boyle and DoP Anthony Dod Mantle aim to introduce punk philosophy to a new generation with Pistol, their six-part biopic about the Sex Pistols, a significant portion of which was shot on Canon kit. "Part of the establishment was saying that sophisticated music belonged to a certain elite: there was a social structure, with opera at the top and comedy clubs at the bottom," recalls Boyle of the 1970s entertainment scene, of which his series so brilliantly recreates. "Punk just exploded all that." © Miya Mizuno

It's been nearly five decades since punk seared itself into the fabric of British society. Even now, its influence still pulses throughout the fashion, design and music industries, and through the creative output of a generation that includes Oscar®-winning English director, Danny Boyle.

"I was a punk and its energy has stayed with me – as a philosophy," says Boyle, in a break from the edit suite of Pistol. He's bringing the chaos and creativity that defined the movement to a six-part limited series about the birth, life and death of the Sex Pistols, told initially from the perspective of the band's guitarist, Steve Jones, based on his memoir, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol.

But this is more than just a music biopic.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to explode, as vibrantly as possible, an amazing moment in time for British and world culture," Boyle explains.

In Pistol, Boyle and DoP Anthony Dod Mantle catapult viewers into the 1970s punk world using Canon cameras including the EOS-1D X Mark III, a vintage XL H1, an EOS C70 and an arc of 12 EOS R5 cameras rigged to shoot bullet-time sequences, plus a second system of six EOS R5 cameras. The series is also shot on the ARRI ALEXA Mini LF and was a collaborative effort guided by Russell Allen from ARRI Rental and Aron Randhawa from Canon Europe.

The multi-camera configurations were established to communicate the idea of losing your sense of time when immersed in music. "Suddenly, in the middle of a busy day, you hear a song and you're transported somewhere else for a brief minute or two," explains Dod Mantle. "We had to understand, in film language, how you 'freeze time'. It was this simple little idea that just exploded."

The punk rock movement emerged in the mid-1970s – a subculture of mohawks, safety pins and tartan which coalesced around the Sex Pistols and other prominent figures such as Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood and Jamie Reid. But it's not the icons that really stuck with Boyle. "The thing I remember of the era, more than anything, is a kind of limitless energy," he says. "There was a sense of community about it which was extraordinary. It felt like they could tear the establishment of everything down.

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"Punk belonged to everyone," continues Boyle, who was brought up in a working-class Catholic family. "It's not about technique, it's about what you've got to say. And there's nothing more wonderful than saying that, because – certainly in my life – it liberated me to believe that I could contribute to culture despite my background."

Director Danny Boyle, wearing glasses and with one hand pressed to his chin, ponders a question during an interview in a small cinema.

Boyle (pictured being interviewed on the Pistol set) and Dod Mantle have enjoyed great success together over the years including winning Best Director and Best Cinematography at the 2009 Academy Awards for Slumdog Millionaire. Made on a budget of just $15 million, and partly shot with Canon EOS-1D series cameras, this feel-good romantic drama set in beautiful India won eight Oscars in total, including the coveted Best Picture award.

A close-up of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, wearing black and yellow glasses, being interviewed in a small cinema.

"Pistol is about a group of characters led by [manager] Malcolm McLaren, the ideas architect. These individuals combine energies to form a band, basically bent on disturbing the peace, and with ambitions to attack the commercial pop music scene of the mid '70s," says Dod Mantle (also pictured in conversation on the Pistol set). "What I have tried to do as cinematographer, together with Danny, is lay down a mosaic of emotional observations of thousands of words floating through a space."

Oscar-winning dream team

Born in Lancashire, England in 1956, Danny Boyle's résumé includes an eclectic mix of films, TV, theatre and other memorable projects, from the career-establishing cult hit Trainspotting to his National Theatre adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, from depicting Mumbai in lucid and sensorial fashion in Slumdog Millionaire (an eight-time Oscar winner) to masterminding the London 2012 opening ceremony. The discernible common thread, he says, is music: "If I'm being absolutely, bluntly honest about it, no matter what story – in the theatre, television or film – there's music everywhere in it."

It's this musicality that, alongside Boyle's restless enthusiasm and the unconventional visual approach he brings to each project, made him the perfect choice to direct Pistol, which stars Toby Wallace as Steve Jones, Anson Boon as John Lydon, Christian Lees as Glen Matlock, Louis Partridge as Sid Vicious, Jacob Slater as Paul Cook, Sydney Chandler as Chrissie Hynde, Talulah Riley as Vivienne Westwood, Maisie Williams as punk icon Jordan, Emma Appleton as Nancy Spungen and Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Malcolm McLaren.

Boyle has collaborated with BAFTA and Academy Award-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle on multiple films over two decades, including Slumdog Millionaire, Trance and 28 Days Later. The British-born, Copenhagen-based cinematographer began his career in stills photography before moving into movies. It's a foundation that's given him an original way of working: "You see outside the frame as a photographer, and I think it's very important. Most filmmakers have got their eye buried in the viewfinder, and their other eye is shut, or they're just staring at the monitor," says Dod Mantle. "I never do that. I operate while I'm looking with both eyes. I'm looking with one side of my brain and the other side is watching what's outside the frame, which is why I sometimes move very quickly to other things when I'm operating."

This style of working creates a fluidity of movement that is a visual trait across all of Dod Mantle's productions. It's also what brought him and Boyle together. "That's something Danny fell in love with very early. He was particularly interested in where I moved the camera, and why I moved it," says Dod Mantle. "Obviously, light is important, technicality is important, the tools you use are important – but one of the most important things is movement."

The Pistol brief

It was the very soul of punk – the community, energy and chaos of the era – that Boyle wanted to portray with Pistol. "There is no creativity without this kernel of absolute chaos, and we wanted to try to get the essence of that on film, if we could," he says.

The process began with a highly experimental few months, as Boyle and Dod Mantle researched the era and tested out their ideas. "There were obvious things you do look at, like archive [footage], texture and colours, and detail rendition from the late 1970s," Dod Mantle explains, "but to find the tools, and the canvas, and the 'paintbrushes' – as I call my cameras – that's a long and complicated process."

Perhaps reflecting the personalities he was capturing, Dod Mantle was drawn to less conventional filming techniques and camera setups. "Danny and I talked about how to capture the intensity [of the era] and radiate it: the energy, the bombastic personalities, the music. I knew we needed something else, different ideas, and that's where Canon came into the picture," he says. "I often think we [filmmakers] are overcautious. People see so much imagery. It's very important to understand tradition, where it comes from, but it's pretty futile to repeat it."

"Cameras are very important to me," echoes Boyle. "I'm very visual, so I've always wanted to work with a great visual cameraman like Anthony. These philosophical ideas about what you're doing, these script ideas, are all very well, but how are they going to manifest themselves in front of people?"

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle films a band member with a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III on a stage bathed in red and yellow light.

"The key thing [about the series], especially in terms of cameras, is that it's an attempt to capture a moment in time and explode it, expand it – to take you inside it and just open it up," says Boyle. In this behind-the-scenes image, Dod Mantle films with a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III.

Canon cameras on Pistol

Pistol was shot on a mixture of more than six image capture systems including the ARRI ALEXA Mini LF, various vintage lenses, 18 Canon EOS R5s, a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, a Canon XL H1 camcorder from 2005, and a Canon EOS C70.

"It was kind of rebellious," Dod Mantle says, about his choice of kit. "It's about a looseness of attitude and a freedom – and a spontaneity. Having more cameras, and juxtaposing something as complex as a bar cam with something as simple as a handheld cam, that's what this film was going to be all about for me."

Boyle was also involved in the camera selection process. He'd previously shot some of the mystery drama Trance using the 4K Canon EOS C500 (now succeeded by the Canon EOS C500 Mark II) and used Canon EOS-1D series cameras in burst mode for both Slumdog Millionaire and the biographical survival thriller, 127 Hours.

"Some of the costumes that [punks] wear are outrageous, and we wanted to use a whole range of camera techniques to capture that," says Boyle. "Normally, you're using cameras and you don't want people to be aware of them: you should completely disregard them as you watch the story. But we wanted people to be aware of the cameras. It felt like street photography, but at an incredible resolution that's only possible in the modern era."

"I have a long history with Canon going back to 28 Days Later, where I'd worked with the Canon XL H1," adds Dod Mantle. "We've done some extraordinary things together."

A close up of multiple vertically mounted Canon EOS R5 cameras positioned in an arc on a television set.

"It's a flat screen but you do everything you can to not make it flat," says Boyle of his and Dod Mantle's experimental approach to shooting Pistol, which included using a novel configuration of multiple Canon EOS R5 cameras rigged together (pictured).

Crewmembers operate Canon kit on a TV set bathed in bright purple light.

After a period of time where live music has suffered greatly, Boyle wanted to bring to life the magic and intensity of the stage in Pistol. "The appeal of it is to give you that sense of being immersive. It feels like it belongs to everybody – you can just step into it," he says. © Miya Mizuno

Bullet time and the bar cam

With the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, Dod Mantle shot spontaneously, handheld and with speed, using the camera for 20fps burst image capture – an approach which he describes as "liberating and invigorating". But the technique did not fully provide him with the means to 'freeze time'. For that, Dod Mantle and Boyle decided to experiment with a process they didn't have much experience with, but which Boyle calls "the final part of the jigsaw": bullet time.

Also known as time-slice photography, bullet-time sequences pause a moment in time by splicing together bursts of still images captured by several cameras positioned in an arc around the scene. This creates a panning effect that shows the exact same moment in time from multiple angles, as made famous by The Matrix movies.

"The Matrix was an incredibly sophisticated experience of bullet time. We wanted to use a much more 'punk' version, which captured segments of violence, intensity, movement – the dynamics of the era," explains Boyle.

"I approached Canon about a camera with a full-frame that could have an electronic or a mechanical shutter; a camera that could be carried and set up as a time-slice effect – a wide arc of 12 or so cameras, or a smaller arc of six cameras," elaborates Dod Mantle.

The smaller 'arc' would be lighter and easier to manoeuvre quickly. "Everything I tested in pre-production was based on the fact that we were on a TV schedule, and Danny's one of the fastest directors I've ever worked with. I would not be able to get involved in extremely complicated rigs with special lighting. It would kill the day."

Dod Mantle and his team modified and simplified as much as they could, trying to find a manageable way of achieving the time-lapse footage they required. Finally they hit upon the perfect formula: 12 Canon EOS R5 cameras with Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 IS USM lenses mounted vertically, for compaction (using a reduced percentage of the sensor).

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle films with a Canon camera. He is wearing a warm black jacket, yellow gloves and headphones.

The Canon kit behind punk series Pistol

Discover the Canon cameras and lenses Pistol director Danny Boyle and DoP Anthony Dod Mantle used to bring '70s subculture to the screen.

The configuration was a filmmaking first, utilising the EOS R5's continuous recording system to shoot 24fps 4K video, with Dual Pixel CMOS AF focus calibration, which was then cropped to 2K 4:3. "We tried different exposure times, we experimented – mechanical, as well as electronic shutter. We didn't know where we were going with it and this material until we sat and watched it together, and saw how it titillated," says Dod Mantle.

Eventually, the pair achieved a system that was reliable and quick. Together with ARRI Rental and with support from UK-based technical production studio The Flash Pack, they built a robust setup that could be attached to cranes, put on the ground, and moved in and out with ease. "We got to the situation where we could shoot conventional cinema and have very, very demanding shooting days. Instead of spending whole afternoons doing time-lapse – which is what it would've taken – we could bring in these camera rigs."

A line of Canon EOS R5 cameras film two people in a 1970s-style car from behind. On a screen in the background, a moving London street can be seen.

"There's never been a greater need than now for young people to voice and use music and arts, poetry, architecture, sculpture. And I think this has been, for me, a project that's a homage to that," says Dod Mantle.

Even for those unfamiliar with the Sex Pistols, there is inspiration to be found in Boyle and Dod Mantle's TV series. "Hopefully, there's an allegory in there, enhanced by the way we've shot this film, that helps artists and young people to believe there's an essential value to voicing what you think and what you feel," says Dod Mantle. "The punk period was explicitly clear in what it was about: it was freedom of speech, making noise, chaos."

Boyle agrees that the juxtaposition of "incredibly resonant and rich images, like technicolour" from the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, and the vintage aesthetic of the Canon XL H1 camera, alongside '70s archive footage, created exactly the effect he was after: unconventional, emotive and immersive.

The result is powerful footage ready to transport viewers back in time in a way only Danny Boyle can. He aims for "this incredible mixture of different textures and colours that you can use to take people from 2022 back to 1975, but not freeze them there like it's a musty period – make it feel like it is happening now".

Pistol premieres on 31 May exclusively on Hulu in the United States and on Disney+ in the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

Emma-Lily Pendleton

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