The world held its breath for three weeks in 2018 as a team of divers attempted to save 12 young soccer players and their coach trapped miles underground in a water-filled cave. The heroic rescue succeeded against all the odds in what director Ron Howard has called “a triumph of volunteerism” in contrast to the “triumph of professionalism” which characterized his previous clock-ticking account of real-life survival, Apollo 13.
The seemingly impossible outcome was solved due to the ingenuity, skill and bravery of groups of diverse people putting their lives and livelihoods on the line for one common goal.
“The event itself is very well known, almost everybody knows what happened and how it ended but the missing link is what happened inside the cave,” explains Thirteen Lives’ cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. “We wanted to fill in the missing link.”
Mukdeeprom is a Thai native who received international acclaim for shooting 2010 Palm d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and the Academy Award-nominated 2017 feature Call Me By Your Name.
He says he was drawn to the story by Don Macpherson and screenplay by William Nicholson, because of the way it respected the truth of events. “There is no superhero,” he says. “Our aim was to create a similar look and feel to that which audiences would have had experienced watching on the news but with cinematic quality.”
The filmmakers could draw on some of the copious smartphone and action-cam footage recorded by onlookers and divers at the time. However, the heart of the action for Thirteen Lives takes place in the cramped, dark, highly dangerous tunnels often underwater for which there was next to no first-hand source material.
They did, however, have the expertise on set of two of the lead divers on the rescue, Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, who are played by Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell in the film.
“The underwater part was very important and we had to focus on this first,” says Mukdeeprom, whose main concern was that the caves – rebuilt in large tanks in Queensland to be as realistic as possible – had no light source.
“Our set was open at the top so I could light from above with very soft fluorescents and then adjust the lighting scene to scene based around sources from headlamps or working lights [that the divers brought into light various parts of the chambers.”
He selected a large format camera to give context to the environment augmented with a smaller, lighter camera for a variety of point of view, over the shoulder and detail shots.
“In this environment, because the operator has to work up close to the divers, there are so many shots that the LF couldn’t give us. We had to have a camera handy enough that someone can just grab and use. Andrew Rowlands [A Camera] suggested the RED KOMODO and I agreed with him.”
The KOMODO’s small 4-cubic-inch form factor, weighing only 2.1 pounds made it ideal for the grab-and-go situation. Though tiny, the 6K camera includes a global shutter sensor and maintains the high standard of image quality and dynamic range required.
KOMODO was used extensively for cave interior shots of boys on the rescue gurney with the camera attached to the gurney as well as wide shots looking down at the boys and their rescuers as they moved from the cave to the open air. Many scenes used the KOMODO in an underwater housing to shoot wide angle close ups and diver to diver shots. “Sometimes Andrew let the actors who were diving grab the camera and take their own reaction shots.”
The space was so tight that this worked really well, and several shots filmed by Farrell and Mortenson or Joel Edgerton made it to screen.
“Colin Farrell loved shooting Viggo with the KOMODO underwater. He was one our best underwater camera operators!”
Footage was recorded RAW with a LUT which was devised by Adam Glasman, senior colorist at Goldcrest Post, applied for video monitoring set.
The story’s pivotal moment occurs in chamber nine of the cave when the divers eventually discover the team cold, hungry, scared but safe sheltering on a small rocky shelf. It was also one of the first scenes the production shot.
“This was the most difficult set in terms of emotional complexity,” says Mukdeeprom. “We had to stick to the facts and create the right emotional balance between relief at discovering the boys with the realization of what whether it would ever be possible to bring them out alive.”
This documentary-style extended to the whole aesthetic of the movie, while scenes depicting the chaos underwater were influenced by the language of the horror genre.
“Since the Thai boys were first time actors, Ron decided on minimal rehearsal. He didn’t want any marks. Of course, they and the actors have to move to be convenient for camera but, we let them move where they wanted in the scene, and we captured it.
While Rowlands was tasked with filming wides Mukdeeprom looked for other angles or actions that might be useful in telling the story in the edit. In many spots in the underwater cave sets they were able to jam the KOMODO into tight spaces and get shots of divers that would be otherwise not possible.
“KOMODO was very helpful in some of those really tight spaces. It allowed me so much more freedom to let these shots unfold.”
Filming the make-shift base camp outside the Tham Luang caves presented its own technical difficulty. Since the rescue took place during monsoon season, they needed to turn Village Roadshow Studios in Australia’s Sunshine State into a lush, muddy jungle with stormy skies.
“In Queensland, the weather tells you to be on the beach, not a film set,” says Mukdeeprom. “I was always fighting the sun, so we had to black it out. We had a 70m x 30m fly swatter (canopy) to block some of the light which was still not big enough for the area we needed to cover. We had to move scenes and plan the shot according to the direction of the sun. We’d shoot scenes in a corner where there was most shadow. We had rain towers beneath the fly swatter. Managing all of this was very complex.”
Thirteen Lives can currently be seen on Prime Video.