After Beasts of the Southern Wild premiered at Sundance earlier this year, director Benh Zeitlin picked up the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Narrative Feature. The film also won the Dramatic Cinematography Award, recognizing the work of Ben Richardson. Although Richardson was already an award-winner for co-directing the short film Seed, and had shot the award-winning short film Glory at Sea for Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild was Richardson’s first feature. In his cinematography for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Richardson showcased an unmatched imagination and bravery, both vital in bringing to the screen the surrealist bayou fable told from the perspective of a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis). Beast of the Southern Wild opened in limited release this week (review) with a national rollout to follow, so audiences will soon be able to appreciate Richardson’s work.
In anticipation of the film’s release, I recently spoke with Richardson about his work on such a visually complex and challenging film. Here’s what he shared with me about filming in Louisiana, acting as his own camera operator, and crafting the look of Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Jackson Truax: Benh Zeitlin has said that other directors of photography saw Beasts of the Southern Wild as being unfilmable. What possibility did you see that no one else did?
Ben Richardson: I don’t really have a tremendous amount of formal training. I didn’t work in the industry and I didn’t really go to a proper film school. So I think the honest answer to that question would be that I didn’t know it couldn’t be done… But I knew that the things we wanted to accomplish…could be done incredibly minimally. I knew that there were ways to work closely with the natural environment that we were shooting in, and to work with the production designer on the way the environments got put together that would allow us to realize the kind of beauty in the visuals that we wanted without being dependent…on a lot of lighting time. I wanted to put eighty percent of my energy on the movie into the camerawork. Because I was also operating the camera. So that was where I knew the real work was going to be, being there ten, twelve hours a day, making sure that when these non-professional actors were giving these wonderful performances, it was…getting captured correctly. It was getting filmed…in the way it needed to be… That was a huge amount of physical work. We knew that the lighting design and the whole lighting strategy for the movie needed to be something that was very simple, very swift to accomplish.
JT: How did you decide to act as your own camera operator? What do you think that added to the movie?
BR: I knew it was something I was comfortable doing. I’d basically operated on everything I’d done to that point… The truth was, I didn’t think that I was going to be able to shoot the movie. I didn’t have feature experience. This was my first feature. I actually only have a half-a-dozen short films on my reel. I have a very wide range of animated and smaller projects. Obviously, I’d worked with Benh on Glory at Sea. I shot the first half of that film. I knew that my camerawork was a big part of what was appealing to Benh in working with me, my specific camera operating… But I felt that I could do a really good job for the film. I felt like I understood what Benh wanted. I really wanted to try and at least express that. I took a little camera and I shot a test reel, walking around some of the locations. A friend of mine just came and interacted with some the animals that were living down there. I shot this little test reel and I got it into the hands of the producers. Sure enough, my instinct was right. It was what they wanted to accomplish, and a big part of that was the way I was moving the camera… This gentle, exploratory camerawork. This camera…it’s definitely reactive. It’s not preempting what’s going to happen in front of it. It’s not quite documentary. It’s a little more controlled that that… It’s this gentle presence moving through the world, relating the things in the world that Hushpuppy’s experiencing, in a way that translates without hammering the idea home to the audience.
JT: What was biggest challenge of shooting around the sun in Louisiana? How much say did you have in working with key crew members in making the shooting schedule, so you knew you could get what you needed from the sun in terms of light?
BR: I worked incredibly closely with the first assistant director Chris Carroll on the scheduling, pretty much at all times. It was a changing schedule. It was a moving target… Some days we would accomplish everything we hoped to accomplished. Some days the world would just be against us and we wouldn’t get some of the things we wanted. We were constantly reimagining that schedule to keep the project on track… I had done a ton of tech scouting ahead of time… In all the different locations, I knew the times of day, the hours, the days when it was going to be best to shoot. That was definitely a big part of the scheduling. Chris was great in working with me on making sure that we could go to a place. Because he understood everything about what it meant. It meant the look of the film. It meant the time savings. If we could go somewhere because I knew that for two hours we were going to have the sun coming through this angle and coming through in this way, and all I needed to do was put up a little bit of a bounce or open a few different doors and windows, and we could shoot the scene, that obviously meant that we could get the scene with so much less time and energy expended than if we had to go in and light the entire thing to recreate that… There are scenes in the movie where, for one reason or another, we lost the light halfway through, and my gaffer Wyatt [Garfield] and my team were incredibly wonderful in those moments. We would hustle, and we would get traditional film lighting equipment up very quickly, and get the scene recreated when we did lose the natural light. I hope you can never tell.
JT: The Bathtub feels very much like a specific place, without being a stand-in for any one place in particular. How did that narrative interpretation affect how you shot it?
BR: I can’t answer that question without massively praising the art department. The production design was truly inspiring… The Bathtub was so well integrated into the natural world, that people almost can’t imagine that it’s not real. But it’s not. It’s a fabricated, imaginative world… You can’t make a beautiful picture without something to point the camera at. And my job, really, in those situations was…basically to play to the strengths of what that art direction material was… We didn’t have a huge budget for these things… The production designer was great in terms of being flexible with me, in where he could put doors and windows and things in sets, and putting light fixtures for me. So that I could create this illusion of it just being the natural world, and it being almost this found environment. But still create images with the beauty that we wanted.
JT: It sounds like the collaborative process on the film was one of a lot of dialogue and preparation in pre-production, and then just executing as quickly as possible when you got on-set.
BR: We established very quickly in pre-production what everyone wanted to accomplish. There was a huge amount of work that went into that, obviously. Pre-production on a film is a very intense time creatively. When it came to the actual day-to-day production… It was like I was watching this magical thing happen in front of me. I was watching this incredibly beautiful world get physically constructed. I was watching these amazing first-time, non-professional actors pull these performances together that just felt so real. All credit to Benh for everything he did with them to make that happen… When I came in, I just felt like my job was to be as brave as everyone else was, to just push the photography. And push the lighting design. And push the camerawork as far as I felt I possibly could… I just didn’t want to be the weak link… I just wanted to make sure that what I was seeing happen literally in the physical world in front of me was going to come through in the images that we caught and going to translate to an audience.
JT: You’ve talked about the film feeling very much from the perspectives of Hushpuppy. What were the practical implications of capturing that on film? How did you shoot that?
BR: Practically speaking, the camera was at her height, almost the entire time. We made the decision early on to go almost entirely handheld. That was an aesthetic that Benh and I felt comfortable with, both with what that meant in terms of how quickly the camera could respond to things in the world… Also, we did design the shots very carefully… We had a formal strategy for everything. But a lot of it depended on keeping the camera down at this height, keeping it moving through the world in a way that explored and understood the world in the same way that Hushpuppy did… Her character’s a six-year-old. Even though she’s the hero of the movie, her logic is not the logic of an adult. That meant that the camera needed to follow that same logic. If you came into the room and you saw a certain range of things, what is it that a six-year-old takes away from that? How does that feel?
JT: How did you manage the logistics of filming so many scenes in and around so much water?
BR: Just try not to drop the camera, basically. We had a couple of very, very low-tech ways of moving the camera around in the water. We had a wonderful piece of [equipment] we called The Titanic. It was two-foot square piece of plywood… A lot of the on-water photography, literally, the camera just sat on top of that thing on a folded towel. I just waded through the water moving it, with the same aesthetic as the on-land scenes.
JT: What did winning the award at Sundance mean to you? What impact has it had on your life and career?
BR: It meant more than anything, almost, has ever meant to me before. It was one of the most incredible moments of my life… I put a lot into that film… I was trying to be brave. The producers and Benh and everyone, they inspire you to be brave. I just wanted to be brave, and not let them let them down. I’d been given this incredible opportunity to be a part of this, what was the biggest project for all of us up to that point. I knew when I saw some of the earliest cuts that I was personally pleased with what the photography was accomplishing. I felt that I had done what I had set out to do. But actually getting that award…it’s mind-blowing.
JT: When the credits roll on Beasts of the Southern Wild, is there anything in particular you hope the audience is thinking or feeling? How do you hope your work will contribute to that?
BR: I just hope that they’ll be feeling hopeful. That’s one of the things that I think is so beautiful about this film… For me, it’s everything a great story can and should be. It basically says, the human spirit can triumph. That you can stay brave and strong and make your way through the world, in spite of everything that’s aligned against you. That was the process of making the film. There was a lot practically, logistically against us… At the end of watching that movie, I feel optimistic, always. I hope that that’s something audiences feel too.
Filed under: LiC Interview