Director Michael Bay’s earliest films took enthralled audiences on action-packed tours of Miami (Bad Boys) and San Francisco (The Rock) before flinging them into orbit with the end-of-days extravaganza Armageddon. His output has since been defined by the five-film Transformers franchise, a realm of unbridled scope and scale. But his latest film, Ambulance, brings us back to ground level once again with an octane-infused trip through yet another city that looks great on camera.
Los Angeles has served as a captivating backdrop for modern action cinema before, from Jan de Bont’s Speed to Michael Mann’s Heat and Collateral. Ambulance is cut from that same cloth, but in Bay’s kinetic hands, the resulting aesthetic is unlike anything audiences have ever seen. The director could have gone any number of directions with his choice of cinematographer on the production, which came in at a modest (for Michael Bay) $40 million – and for just 38 days, at that. Instead, he promoted from within.
Roberto De Angelis is an award-winning camera operator who has brought exciting sequences to life in films like James Cameron’s Avatar, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver and Michael Mann’s Blackhat. He entered Bay’s world as an operator on the 2016 Benghazi thriller 13 Hours, and then again on the globe-trotting 2019 thriller 6 Underground. But he was reticent to take the reins as director of photography on a feature for only the second time in his career.
“Michael asked me a couple of times before I said yes,” De Angelis tells A.frame. “I didn’t know if I wanted to move up just to move up, to say, ‘I’m a director of photography.’ I’ve been asked for a long time. Other directors asked me to do it. The reason I did it with Michael is because Michael is such a visual director and I knew we were going in the same direction. It’s easy to shoot for Michael.”
Though “easy” might be relative. The chaotic energy of Ambulance can’t help but leap off the screen thanks to the sheer amount of footage Bay and De Angelis cranked out while tearing across East L.A. in the winter of 2020 and 2021. Assembled by editors Doug Brandt, Calvin Wimmer and Oscar winner Pietro Scalia (JFK, Black Hawk Down), it’s a dizzying kaleidoscope of material. De Angelis says it was common to blow through more than a hundred set-ups in a single day, given the number of cameras at play and the pace of work.
"Pietro was amazed with how much we were shooting," De Angelis says. "He was asking, ‘How do you shoot all this stuff in one day?’ I said, ‘Pietro, I don’t know. I didn’t have time to think. I didn’t have time to pee!’ It was a fast ride. The first time I worked with Michael on 13 Hours and I saw how he worked, I said, ‘How is this movie going to make sense?’ Because sometimes you really don’t understand what you’re shooting. He would joke, ‘Don’t worry, when you watch the movie, you’ll understand.’"
De Angelis leaned greatly on gaffer Michael Ambrose and a crew he is eager to shout-out, given that this was his first shot at leading the camera department since director Phillip Noyce’s 2013 HBO movie “Mary and Martha.” That was an unfulfilling experience for De Angelis, who admits that the technique and craft of cinematography were intimidating for him at the time, particularly for someone as instinctual as a camera operator.
But when he finally agreed to take it on, he had definitive ideas for how to capture the world of Ambulance. De Angelis splits his time between Los Angeles and Rome, so every time he comes back, he says he has fresh eyes to the urban landscape. He’s taken particular note of how the city has changed and evolved, how the homeless situation has metastasized and how COVID-19 fueled an explosion in street art. He is friends with French artist JR, with whom he collaborated on the documentaries Faces Places and Paper & Glue. He even managed to get a few shots of the photographer’s large eye portraits into the film, among other works.
“I was telling Michael I wanted to start the movie with a lot of this street art and Mexican music,” De Angelis says. “In Los Angeles, it’s so important. It’s like one of the characters of the movie. I’ve always been attracted to downtown. Beverly Hills, it doesn’t do anything to me. Yes, it’s pretty to watch, but the real life of Los Angeles is down there.”
A particularly enervating element of the Ambulance experience is the incorporation of FPV (First Person View) drone photography. We’ve seen drone work in movies before, but never quite like this. The audience is often sent hurtling into the action, spinning and dropping from steep landmarks like City Hall, tearing through chase sequences and under catapulting vehicles. Combined with an immersive sound mix, the world of twisted metal “Bayhem” almost flirts with virtual reality.
“Michael Kase is a longtime producer for Michael and he found those kids who were racing with drones,” De Angelis says. “It was a new technique, and Michael always embraces new technologies. He likes the challenge. We gave a lot of freedom to those guys, which was also clever of Michael. He just pushed them to do cool shots.”
De Angelis does think the drone material is “a little overused” in the film, but that’s also the uncompromising energy that comes with working with a filmmaker like Bay. It’s an energy that ultimately makes its way into the very DNA of the film.
“He’s different than everybody else because he doesn’t care about what other people say,” De Angelis says. “He asks my opinion, and Pietro Scalia’s opinion. But at the end of the day, he won’t listen to anyone! And I respect that. I’d rather work with a director who has an idea and pursues that as much as possible than to work with someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
Ambulance is now playing in theaters.