Discovering the Brilliance: The Rapid Creation of the Stunning Visuals for Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father

Leading up to the announcement of the Oscar nominations on January 23rd, Entertainment Weekly will be catching up with various contenders in the behind-the-scenes categories to discuss their work and expertise. In a recent interview, award-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle shared his innovative approach to capturing the powerful story in Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir “First They Killed My Father”. The film delves into Ung’s childhood experiences during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in 1970s Cambodia. Mantle’s sensitive touch brings a humanistic quality to the movie, elevating it as one of Jolie’s most impressive directorial efforts. Jolie’s vision, combined with Ung’s co-written script, provides the emotional core of the film, while Mantle’s artistic sensibility and technical skills enhance its essence, portraying the perspective of a child caught in the midst of darkness with poignant clarity.

It’s an interesting story… I was all set to start working on a comedic film with Michael Winterbottom and Will Ferrell, but unfortunately, the project fell through. Around the same time, my mother, who was 95 years old, passed away. Just three days after the movie with Will Ferrell fell through, I received a call from Cambodia. I quickly made my way there and met Angelina Jolie on November 14th. We began shooting on the following Thursday, with 600 extras in the background.

During the four days leading up to filming, Angelina shared her very clear ideas with me. She had a specific vision in mind: to capture the perspective of a child as much as possible. This presented a challenging technical hurdle, as we needed to figure out how to achieve a fluid and free camera movement at a child’s height – just under a meter – in sweltering heat. To tackle this, we had to come up with a new camera setup. With the help of a few engineers, we quickly put together a rig that allowed me to use a lighter camera – a surveillance camera converted into a 4K center – and I built a handheld rig to achieve the desired look while filming.

Did you manage to get everything done in just four days?
Absolutely! I arrived in Cambodia on the 14th of November, and we started shooting on the 19th. It was a whirlwind experience… all we wanted was to make Angelina happy. In the blink of an eye, I found myself on set, standing next to Angie, surrounded by hundreds of kids. It happened so quickly, but maybe it was all for the best.
So, you didn’t get much sleep during the shoot, right?
[Chuckles] Angelina was incredibly understanding and caring, and most importantly, she was so kind to me. I was still grieving the loss of my mother, and she could relate having gone through a similar loss back in 2007. Despite feeling like I was thrown headfirst into the project, the landing was surprisingly smooth.

I was eager to spend my time in the hotel meticulously going over scripts and preparing for what would typically require six to 10 weeks. During filming, I would shoot from early morning until late at night, then spend hours in my room delving deep into the script until the early hours of the morning, trying to decipher how to bring it to life. It was a challenging situation, but we approached it with nothing but the best intentions. Despite the complexity and potential emotional trauma for some Cambodian individuals due to the sensitive subject matter of the Khmer Rouge, we were driven by the desire to do our best.

Reflecting on your extensive experience, what stood out to you stylistically about your work on this film? I still feel like a teenager at heart, even though the media now refers to me as a “veteran cinematographer,” which makes me chuckle nervously. It feels like I’m on the fast track to retirement! Although I may have years of experience, it’s impossible to fully prepare for a film in just four days. What I can do is surround myself with the right people, like Angelina and the crew. Angelina was raring to go, well-prepared, enthusiastic, and resilient, even in the oppressive heat of Cambodia where people were collapsing on set. I used to think shooting “Slumdog Millionaire” in India was tough, but that now seems like a walk in the park compared to the challenges we faced on this project.

How did you go about immersing yourself in the mindset of a child? What were the challenges you faced in achieving that perspective?
Angelina is no stranger to determination. She is focused on her goals and will persist until she achieves them. A bit of a perfectionist, she faced some limitations when it came to using the Steadicam for conveying emotional movement. But she approached the task by putting herself in the shoes of a child. In a scene where adult actors were speaking, she thought about how a child would react – perhaps turning their head to look at a butterfly or getting distracted by something else, requiring the camera to follow in somewhat unconventional ways. To overcome this challenge, smaller cameras were added to the setup, allowing for a more intimate and personalized perspective. This required the operator to not only focus on technical aspects like composition and lighting but also to embody the character’s viewpoint, noticing details that one wouldn’t typically pay attention to.
In a sense, the camera itself became a character, playing a crucial role in conveying the protagonist’s emotions. This approach reminded Angelina of her earlier experience working on “The Celebration,” where she emotionally connected with the characters through her camera work. In “First They Killed My Father,” she remained dedicated to telling the story authentically while also staying true to the main protagonist’s feelings.

How did the camera play a role in showcasing the character’s growth as she navigates through a harsh dictatorship as a young girl? We made a conscious decision to avoid displaying explicit violence, as the story itself was already quite brutal. Our goal was to guide the audience through a journey of emotions as this child faces unspeakable horrors. Starting in her colorful and lively childhood home, we wanted viewers to experience the joy and innocence of her world. The vibrant yellows and greens mirrored the beauty of Cambodia and the carefree existence of a child. However, as the new regime takes over and strips away individualism and prosperity, we gradually drained the color from the setting to reflect the bleakness of their reality. Flashbacks served as a reminder of the vibrant past, contrasted with the colorless and desolate present. The final scenes, almost devoid of color, captured the grimness and despair of the character’s journey.

The aerial footage is truly remarkable! The barren and desolate scenes were inspired by photographs of tears’ DNA that I shared with Angelina. These images had a deep impact on her, as there was a sense that the world was shedding tears. The main character in the film is portrayed as lost, abandoned, and traumatized, yet the audience can also see her bravery, courage, and determination to overcome any obstacle. This story is deeply rooted in Cambodian culture, but it also serves as a cautionary tale for the future generations. Working with producer Rithy Panh and the Cambodian community to bring this story to life has been a significant accomplishment.

Scroll to Top