One idea that was very important early on in our film Neptune was the creation of a living mandala.

Though “mandala” is a Sanskrit word for “circle,” the idea of a mandala has come to mean any sort of visual symbolic representation of the universe. The original mandalas from ancient India are symbolic geometries created to show how the universe is laid out, and how elements of that universe affect each other.

In Neptune, we wanted to create a living mandala for the protagonist, Hannah, and articulate her inner landscape in a way that had the gravity of a spiritual awakening. Hannah is a 13-year-old girl discovering her identity on the coast of Maine, in the ’80s, torn between a life of the spirit and a life of the physical world. It’s a coming of age story, a spiritual thriller, a period piece, a geographical drama. Neptune came from ideas about spiritual awakening and finding our place in the world. More specifically, Neptune was inspired by images of those ideas.

The idea was good, but the execution turned out to be very difficult.

There were a number of logistical considerations. The location for the shot was in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, on the far side of a beach and over a large crag. This meant that all props and equipment had to be carried in over somewhat treacherous footing and arranged amid the dramatic rock formations. Additionally, the tides in Maine change quickly and we were forced into a tight schedule, working hard to wrap before high tide came in and soaked us all.

Producer Allen Baldwin remembers: “We spent a good part of the day carrying expensive equipment over sharp rocks. Then the lobster traps showed up. We had sourced them for free, and as a result they were rusty, old, broken piles of metal, heavy and awkward to hold. It was a long day, and I kept making references to Herzog, one of Derek’s favorites, and the mountain in Fitzcarraldo. Ultimately, it was a great day of work, and we got everything we needed to get. The shot in the film looks tremendous. I would do it again, but I think I would wear gloves.”

Setting up for Neptune's mandala shot in Maine

Setting up for Neptune‘s mandala shot in Cape Elizabeth, Maine

The finished shot required some heavy composite work, so we knew we needed to have a motorized zoom in order to capture a background plate at the same rate of changing focal length as the main composition.

“We needed a calibrated zoom lens for the shot Derek had in mind,” DP Jayson Lobozzo says, “and didn’t have money to rent a proper cinema lens, so we borrowed an old 16mm Zeiss 10-100 and a zoom motor and retrofitted it to work on the RED. One of the issues with this set up was that the sensor was vignetting at full wide, so we had to limit how far we zoomed out in the final shot.”

Jane Ackermann, the actress who played Hannah, may have gotten the short straw in all of this. She basically sat in a tidal pool covered in seaweed and flies for the day. “I was surrounded by people doing things, fixing lights and adjusting lobster traps, and all I could really do was sit there so they could get a frame,” she says. “It was really a process and Derek was very particular about the exact composition of the frame, but I think it turned out beautifully. My skin got really wrinkly from being in the water for so long, but the shot was worth it!”

The throne

A throne perches on top of a rocky crag for the mandala shot

Post on the shot proved challenging as well. Composited elements required the motorized zoom. These included images such as a boy on a throne, as well as the figure of a dying priest who was to appear semi-transparent in the arm of a beekeeper. All CG elements, including sky replacement, that required the use of a post camera tracker inside of Adobe After Effects benefited from the fixed rate at which the focal point changed.

The composites included several elements culled from still images, namely the lobster boat on the cliff and the corpse of a lamb, which posed problems in that they read as flat in the 3-D space. This was remedied by creating a crude 3-D effect using duplicates of the still and then offsetting those duplicates towards the camera.

Bill McDonough, who played the lobsterman, was filmed up on the ledge hauling traps and was then composited behind the gunwale of the boat. Bees buzzing around the beekeeper character were made in a particle generator and composited in, but the mask of bees was culled from stock footage of an actual beekeeper.

Lens flares complete the final look of the mandala shot

Lens flares complete the final look of the mandala shot, with Jane Ackermann in the center

We knew it would be difficult to marry the over-stylized aesthetic of this shot with the realism of the rest of the film. In addition, the first composite didn’t do enough to suggest the circular structure of a mandala. To solve this problem, the final step was to composite lens flares from filmed stock that featured round aberrations on the lens. These overlays subtly suggest the circular shape of the mandala and hint at the spiritual landscape we hoped to capture.

Whether or not the shot accomplishes what we set out to do is hard to say, but it is certainly an image we hear about a lot from viewers—and one that was memorable for the crew as well. MM

Neptune screened in November as part of ArcLight Presents Slamdance Cinema Club. The next screenings in the series are Slamdance Anarchy Shorts (December 11 in Hollywood and December 21 in Chicago) and Smash (December 12 in Hollywood and December 22 in Chicago).