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In Apocalypto, two Australians– director Mel Gibson and cinematographer Dean Semler – conspire to take us back in time and place to the ancient Maya of Yucatan, as authentically as possible, from the language to the location.

As Apocalypto got under way, Mel Gibson faced an exceptional set of challenges. Not only was he working with a cast of newcomers and non-professional actors, many of whom spoke different mother tongues, but he wanted the entire international cast to speak in Yucatec Maya for the film. Though Yucatec Maya is the language spoken today in the Yucatan Peninsula, few people outside of that area have ever even heard it being spoken, let alone speak it.

Although the film puts the emphasis on powerful visuals over the use of dialogue, for the actors, getting the language right was a big part of forging authentic performances. Says Rudy Youngblood: “It’s an issue of respect, because we’re not just depicting characters, but a people’s entire way of life, its way of speaking and its way of carrying themselves. So the understanding of the culture and the language was very important to us.”

Native Yucatec speakers trained the actors for five weeks on the correct pronunciation and inflection of their lines, which was challenging for everyone. Says Jonathan Brewer, who plays Blunted: “It’s a pretty tough language to learn because you’ve got all these pops and clicks you make with your mouth and tongue. It’s also one thing to learn to speak it and another thing to speak it wearing false teeth!”

To further assist in the process, each actor was given an MP3 player so they could continually listen to their dialogue lines until the language felt familiar. During production, the dialogue coaches were on set every day to verify pronunciation and make whatever corrections were needed. In cases where the filmmakers needed additional lines or if dialogue changes were made, they would provide Gibson with the correct phrasing and pronunciation of the way it actually would be spoken.

The local dialogue coaches were themselves moved by Gibson’s willingness to use their local language in a major global motion picture. “ Apocalypto will have a great impact on my Maya brothers because of the pride and love of our culture and above all our roots, our language and our ancestors,” says Hilario Chi Canul, one of the Mayan dialogue coaches whose last name, coincidentally, means “Keeper of the Language.”

"the language of the visual"

Yet for Gibson, the real impact of Apocalypto lies in a language that unites people around the world: the language of the visual, with its impact going far beyond words.

Before he set off for the jungles of Mexico, Mel Gibson had a strong vision of what he hoped to accomplish there – and it was nothing less than a time machine effect. “I wanted the audience to feel completely a part of that time and I didn’t want one trace of the 21st century – while at the same time, cinematically, I wanted it to have a kind of break-neck kineticism and be very up-to-the minute,” he says. “That was very difficult to do.” He knew it would require an incredibly talented, but also unusually flexible and devoted team of craftsmen, so he assembled a crew that includes multiple veterans of epics and Oscar winners.

To begin, the team scouted relentlessly for locations that could establish an authentic jungle atmosphere. They scoured Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica but, right off the bat, they faced daunting challenges. As they searched, the team was struck by just how little primary rainforest is left in the Americas. “It really smacks you between the eyes,” says Gibson. “It’s a huge shame that these forests are disappearing by the hectare by the minute. Luckily, we were ultimately able to find a very beautiful rainforest in Mexico that became our jungle.”

This thick, verdant forest with the tangled vines and towering trees so vital to the story’s action was found just outside Catemaco, Mexico. It is one of the last preserved rainforests in Mexico and is known locally simply as “La Jungla.” Meanwhile, to build the Maya City, the filmmakers settled on a vast and remote sugar cane field in Boqueron, about 45 minutes outside the city of Veracruz, where Gibson and his team would have the room to create an entire Mayan metropolis from the ground up. Using mostly regional labor, the production was especially pleased to be able to provide jobs and boost the local economies.

Next, to create Apocalypto’s high-octane look – in which the camera glides fluidly and at great velocity through the Mayan jungle -- Gibson recruited Australian cinematographer Dean Semler, an Oscar winner for his work on the Native American epic Dances With Wolves. Gibson wanted someone who was willing to take daring visual risks and carry off the rapid-fire camera movements he had envisioned. “I need someone who could execute my ideas as well bring their own,” he says.

After intensive discussions, Gibson and Semler decided they would shoot Apocalypto digitally, using Panavision’s state-of-the-art high-definition Genesis camera system. Though the system was brand new, Semler felt it could give them the enhanced mobility, versatility and especially the ability to shoot in extreme weather conditions – drenching rains, searing heat and viscous mud all awaited -- they would need to pull off the story.

The Genesis also offered other advantages. “Apocalypto is about a heart-pounding chase so we wanted to emphasize speed, which can only be enhanced by some sort of strobing effect -- an effect we were able to create with the Genesis and its 360 degree shutter capability,” explains Semler. “It proved to be phenomenal in the chase scenes, giving us images that could not have been gotten on any other camera. It’s all there, it feels real, and it has given us a whole new heightened dimension and velocity.”

Genesis also gave Gibson and Semler the opportunity to use natural light sources and shoot in the near-darkness of a rainforest canopy, where the ambient light often would fall to drastically low levels by late afternoon. Furthermore, night time scenes could be shot with incredible detail using just the light emanating from campfires around the village. “During the campfire scenes, we looked at the monitors and the whole village was illuminated. The whole place came to life – the people, the faces, the huts and trees. I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Semler. “And because we were shooting with a slower aperture, it made the flames look languid, flickering but almost like liquid, very smooth. It was absolutely beautiful.

"The creative possibilities were truly phenomenal"

Semler was especially thrilled to be able to use long lenses at night, which gave the film’s opening action sequences a kick right from the start. “Using the long lens in that opening night scene, when you see the Holcanes running towards the camera, they are very compressed, very stacked. It’s spectacular, something you couldn’t have done on film,” he says.

Often utilizing four cameras simultaneously, shooting digitally further allowed Semler to let the camera run in long, continuous takes – sometimes for up to 20 minutes at a time – which would also have been impossible on film. On top of the camera system’s versatility, it also withstood some outrageous conditions, including hurricanes, high winds and days of 120-degree heat.

Sums up Semler: “I was able to go to places as a cinematographer on this film, I’d never gone before. The creative possibilities were truly phenomenal.”


3100 B.C. According to the Mayan calendar, the creation of the world takes place

2600 B.C. The Mayan culture begins to form in the highlands and lowlands of Central America. Village farming techniques are established

1500 B.C. The Pre-Classic period of the Maya begins as the culture begins to flourish

700 B.C. The first writing appears in Mesoamerica

400 B.C. Stone Mayan solar calendars, the earliest known, first appear

300 B.C. Major Mayan cities start to dot the landscape., including Tikal, Uaxactun and El Mirador. The royal system of rule by kings and nobles is established

200 A.D. As the Olmec civilization declines, the Maya become the dominant power in the region. The Classic Period, a peak of knowledge of cultural expression, begins.

600 A.D. The city of Tikal reaches a population of 500,000, becoming the largest and most powerful city-state in Mesoamerica, while an unknown event destroys the once powerful city of Teotihuacan.

750 A.D. A period of war and tumult ensues as Mayan trade declines and conflict between Mayan states increases

800 A.D. Many major Mayan cities are abandoned, as power shifts eastward to cities such as Coba in Mexico.

899 A.D.
Tikal is abandoned

900 A.D. With the collapse of the great cities, the Post Classic period begins. Although many Mayan townships continue their traditional ways, within a few
hundred years the Maya culture will have become mixed with the Toltec culture

1517 A.D. The Spanish arrive in the Yucatan, bringing diseases that will kill 90% of the remaining Mayan population. Though most of the Maya are conquered, many continue to revolt against Spanish rule in skirmishes that continue for a century

1695 A.D. The ruins of Tikal are discovered by a Spanish priest

1697 A.D.
The last functioning Maya City, Tayasal, falls

2012 A.D. On December 22, the Mayan calendar ends. According to the Mayan prophecy, the world will be forever altered by a series of powerful earthquakes.

Published January 11, 2007

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Mel Gibson... on set

Apocalypto Australian release, January 11, 2007

As the turbulent end of the once great Mayan civilization approaches, the rulers send troops to capture villagers who will be sacrificed to the gods to help break the drought and restore the health of the community. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), whose wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) is pregnant with their second child, is captured and taken on a perilous journey into a world ruled by fear and oppression where a harrowing end awaits him. But a solar eclipse has a profound impact on these superstitious people and gives him a chance, but escape is fraught with deadly danger, and the soldiers set off in pursuit, as he heads for his village, his family – and, he hopes, a new life.

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