After wildly successful screenings at Sundance, Cannes and the Los Angeles Film Festival this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild opened last week in New York and Los Angeles to rave reviews, with limited engagement screenings to roll out in select markets across the country beginning this week. Directed by Benh Zeitlin, and nurtured in the Sundance Institute Labs, Beasts is a reminder of what the power and magic of filmmaking is all about. Demonstrating incredible cinematic and emotional strength, Beasts is the story of a 6-year old girl named, Hushpuppy, and her journey to survive in a forgotten and defiant bayou community, cut off from the rest of the world by a sprawling levee. Through her fantastic imagination, we watch her cope to survive the treacherous fate that nature has bestowed upon her community while tending to her ailing father and sinking home. A visually stunning tour de force, Beasts is a rare poetic gem that transports the viewer into a unique world, so visceral and haunting that one becomes lost in this tiny hero’s beautiful and terrifying fantasy and wonder.
Director of Photography Ben Richardson, took home the Sundance Award for “Excellence in Cinematography,” and has been lauded by NY Times critic A.O. Scott, to have found “rugged, ragged beauty in nearly every shot.” The textures, compositions and overall cinema verite style successfully fuse a painterly, expressive visual palette with a documentary sensibility. I was anxious to talk with Richardson about his creative and technical approach to shooting the film, and caught up with him after the screening of Beasts at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Richardson’s early career was in short animated films before moving into the VFX world. From there, he worked in post-production and color correction, and continued to shoot short films. Richardson got to know Director Zeitlin in Prague 10 years ago, and stayed in touch through the years while also collaborating on the short, Glory at Sea. He won best animation at Slamdance in 2010 for his short, Seed, and continued to be a part of the development process with Beasts. He had been living in NY when, a month before the shoot, Zeitlin decided to work with Richardson on Beasts, and was hired. He had three days to get his NY life sorted out, so he sold half of what he owned, bought a van and drove to New Orleans to shoot his first feature film.
How long was pre-production and production?
Production was originally scheduled for 35 days, and it turned into a little over 40, and then we did 7 more on special effects. By the time I got to New Orleans, pre-production and some of the production design was underway. But I was able to get in early enough to talk to the production designer about the way I wanted to light things and having him put in additional light fixtures and spots to build in soft lighting, without needing to bring film equipment in, which is a big part of what I wanted to do aesthetically and practically. Then, it was an incredibly intense tech scout, getting to know 30 or so primary locations — trying to understand what the sun was going to do, at every given day we were going to be there. If you can use natural light, and be there at the right moment, that is without a doubt, one of the most interesting things you can accomplish. I made a promise to Benh that I would be extremely quick and unobtrusive in the lighting so that we could spend as much time as possible rolling the cameras, but I also made an agreement that there was going to be 4-5 scenes that was going to take a lot of time to light.
I’m going to guess those scenes were in the home environment and the brilliant storm scene. How you created and captured the storm scene, was just breathtaking.
It’s one of my proudest moments, it was defining for me actually. I started with the resources we had, and I wanted to make it as real and as dark and as scary as possible. I wanted to have almost no light in there. The intensity of the storm wasn’t so much what you saw or didn’t see, but you could feel this thing happening outside in your imagination, in Hushpuppy’s imagination.
It was probably advantageous to shoot 16mm to maneuver in small environments and to achieve such naturalistic look. The format and look of the film stock really takes you into the fantasy world and into Hushpuppy’s imagination. How did you come to the decision to shoot film on “Beasts”?
I’ve shot almost everything in my life on film, and I really understand the way it works. I’ve had a theory that there’s a certain focus that shooting on film gives you because you’re not seeing an immediate result on a giant monitor. You have to stay present in the world in front of the camera, and stay focused on your mental picture of what you’re accomplishing with your lights. To me, it’s a stronger way of working. I also knew from early tests that I wanted to do a little bit of non-traditional processing. I was under-exposing and pull-processing the film, which was really important in earlier conversation with Benh. Lower contrast and lower saturation was something that Benh responded to. But most importantly, I realized that if you set up a world where the baseline for your visual medium is lower contrast — when the beautiful events happen, they pop very organically, making the fireworks really sing and the crabs looks so vivid.
What film stocks did you shoot?
7219 and 7217.
How did you decide on your workflow?
Well it goes right back to my love for the way film looks when it’s film. A negative is not just the point, the point is a negative is supposed to be printed on a positive print stock. Unless you have those two details in play, you’re not really getting that designed color response. I don’t think digital is inherently worse or film is inherently better, I just think film is a more mature medium. So it was really important that we have what basically amounted to a film print of our color positive, which meant going to proper film scans. A lot of low budget movies shot on 16mm or even 35mm do more like a commercial’s workflow with a telecine, where they’ll transfer it and set up the colors the way they want. And I really didn’t want to do that. I wanted it to feel like a work print, there is just something magical about that. In order to do this workflow, you have to make sure film scans are in your budget, so you can transfer the stock for dailies and then go back and do color film scans of the selects — but that was way beyond our budget. But what we did come up with was a way of doing it basically with the resolution of HDCAMSR, and transfer in the same color space as the way film scans work, which means basically by the time we got our dailies back, we had effectively scanned our whole film. At a nominally lower resolution than a full 2K scan would be, it’s 1920 pixels instead of 2048, about one hundred less pixels. That gave us the freedom so that when we went through the rest of the workflow, everything went through a look up table and gave us the primary color look. We did most of our color grading using digital emulation printer lights, that really did feel like traditional color timing instead of a telecine color correct. There were a lot of VFX shots, tiny corrections, adding textures, so this also meant that for the VFX workflow, the VFX team had access to any of the material at almost no cost.
So you did the visual effects from the telecine material?
For the most part everything came off the HDCAMSR.
Did you go back and do any selects?
No, that was the point. There wasn’t any HD color space and that’s the thing that was the most important to me. I’m far less interested in resolution, I’ll accept a little bit less if the color is correct. Most people who do this transfer go into REC709 color space, which kills all the filmic qualities of the negative. So we scanned into log space, based on Kodak’s old Cineon specs from back in the day when they were figuring out how to digitize a film negative. You run that material, which looks very flat, and then you put it through a look up table which is an emulation of the positive print, which gives you the final look of the film, and then you can obviously make color corrections underneath that LUT if you like. It was really like a super low budget version of a high-end film workflow, we just didn’t have to go back and do film scans.
Which lab did you use?
Alphacine in Seattle. They processed and did the workflow, and we got our dailies back on hard drives. We just got editing dailies and they kept the tapes. When we did the conform we went back to the HDSR for the color grade.
What was really amazing was that you were able to create a feeling of looking through Hushpuppy’s eyes. Could you talk about some of the techniques that you used to really make us feel that?
That was one of my primary achievements, after establishing where I was going to light the movie, that was the biggest question. It came down to a couple of very specific ground rules, about the height of the camera. It’s actually a fraction below her head height and depending on how close or wide a shot it is, it actually steps a few inches down. It’s very subtle. We were trying to make her into this little hero. It was just an attempt to be extremely reactive, to not pre-empt anything, to allow the camera to be surprised by what was going on in the world, to explore the world and not know what was about to happen. That was the kind-of documentary component of it, but combining that with Hushpuppy’s eye view, added up to it all. Once I came up with the ground rules, I then tried to follow my gut and be very present and in the moment when I was on set and stay in tune with the performance. I would keep in step with them and they got used to me being there all the time. It kept me really in sync with their performance and a lot of the times, I would quietly roll in the middle of a moment that was happening organically. Sometimes the actors would know, but without the fanfare of announcing the shot and slate, which would allow everyone to stay in the space they were in.
What were some of the visual references that inspired the look of the film?
There’s a 1970’s short documentary called Dry Wood, by Les Blank, that had a lot of the palette we were looking for. It’s a real run and gun documentary from the 70s, and I think it was even shot on reversal stock. A lot of the qualities of the Bathtub are present in this documentary. It was one of the most perfect encapsulations of a cinematic version of the world we were trying to create. A key touchstone for the camera aesthetic was the short film shot from a children’s perspective called Jerrycan, by Julius Avery. Obviously after we watched these films a few times and understood what we were getting from them, I preferred to stop specifically trying to make references to them and went back to responding to the world that I was seeing in front of me.
Who are your cinematography influences?
My hero is Harris Savides. There is no film that he’s shot that I don’t love. It’s interesting, since I shot Beasts, I’ve been reading articles and interviews with people including Harris, and I was amazed to discover that there are a lot of things that I did, that he does! That was really delightful to learn! He does the same pull-processing negative trick and uses a lot of the same light fixtures I went for. I love his work.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.