Ben Richardson Talks Beasts of the Southern Wild

Published on website: June 26, 2012
Categories: 16mm , Feature Films , Focus On Film , VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219/7219
Quvenzhane Wallis as "Hushpuppy" and Dwight Henry as "Wink" on the set of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. Photo Credit: Jess Pinkham
Quvenzhane Wallis as "Hushpuppy" on the set of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. Photo Credit: Jess Pinkham
Dwight Henry as "Wink" on the set of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. Photo Courtesy FSP
Quvenzhane Wallis as "Hushpuppy" on the set of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. Photo Credit: Jess Pinkham

For Ben Richardson, the road to accepting the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Excellence in Cinematography Award began in college.  It didn’t begin in his classes though. It was his party pictures that brought things into focus. His friends asked   him to light their parties and when their pictures came back, everyone noticed just how good they looked.

Richardson is a natural talent with a talent for the natural.  When he and a friend made a few short films, he used a long-forgotten Bolex that had been euphemistically ‘acquired’ from a dusty old shelf. They fixed it up and used it to shoot what Richardson remembers as “truly terrible” movies.

But these projects became more points on the curve toward defining his own sense of cinematic style. For Richardson, cinematography is all about capturing the truth of the moment. And while truth can sound simple, capturing it isn’t. There are literally an infinite number of components that affect the way a moment is seen. And it’s those possibilities that make film the clear medium of choice for Richardson.

In Ben Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Richardson had to help realize a visually complex, highly emotional story—the journey of a young girl, Hushpuppy, who lives in the bayou outside New Orleans. Her father is dying, and she must go on an adventure to find her lost mother.

“To tell Hushpuppy’s story, I wanted to explore the limits of the visuals, from the blazing heat of the bayou sun to the darkest, scariest night. Film let me dig deep into the shadows – sometimes barely getting a reading on my meter – and still deliver a beautiful image with subtlety and texture.”

To Richardson, digital often doesn’t have quite the depth to handle certain demands. To go too deep into shadows risks sensor noise, while in higher exposures one can reach a hard clipping point. Film doesn’t have these issues. “If you know your stocks and know how to print them, you know exactly what you’re going to get,” Richardson noted.

Richardson and the producers of  Beasts of the Southern Wild explored both film and digital budgets for the movie, and found that film was ultimately a better financial, as well as creative choice. While a highly moody film tinged with magical realism that features prehistoric animals might typically rely on a lot of color work in post, that wasn’t the approach they took.  Richardson set out to shoot scenes as close to their final appearance in the film as possible, as there would be relatively little time to create a look in the DI.  “I find that creatively rewarding, rather than waiting to see the images ‘fixed’ later,” he said.

After an extensive tech scout of the exterior locations, Richardson used as much natural light as possible. “It’s about knowing what you want and where the sun is going to be, and scheduling around that.” He worked closely with 1st A.D. Chris Carroll to ensure they were shooting at each location at just the right time for the natural light to be on their side. And armed with knowledge of film stocks and their ranges, Richardson could capture images moving in and out of shadows without worrying about their digital values.

“Although we were finishing digitally, I very much wanted the feel of a traditionally color-timed print. After extensive testing with our lab, Alpha Cine, we settled on a print LUT that felt like a one-light work-print. That allowed me to expose and filter each day’s photography knowing exactly what each frame would look like. Our digital dailies came back looking exactly as I imagined them, and many scenes in the final film remain exactly as they were in the dailies.”

He is also a strong believer in the emotional connection that film provides. “Film isn’t just a ‘capture’ medium. It’s one of the most versatile interpreters of visual reality ever created. The best color scientists have dedicated themselves for a century to making it not just ‘accurate’ but beautiful.  A post-production process that overly controls the visuals can flatten everything out, making contrast ranges exactly the same. But the world isn’t all the same. Contrast changes from moment to moment, frame to frame. Whether the audience understands this or not, they ‘know’ it in the way they connect with the characters.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild won Best Dramatic Feature and Best Cinematography Prizes at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. After learning he earned the award from Sundance, Richardson was asked how he felt. “It was the second happiest moment in my life.” And the first? “Shooting the movie.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild  has gone on to capture the Camera D’or at the Cannes Film, and the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, among others. The film opens in theatres June 27.

More from Kodak on Beasts of the Southern Wild:

2012 Sundance Premieres Shot on Kodak Film

Vive la Cannes! - Kodak