Cinematographer Ben Richardson discusses his work on Taylor Sheridan’s film “Wind River”

Predatory Nature

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British cinematographer Ben Richardson was discovered by international audiences in 2012 when his film Beasts of the Southern Wild received a Golden Camera Award at Cannes. Since then, he has signed off on a number of feature-length films. He is back this year on a Taylor Sheridan (author of the screenplay of Sicario and Hell or High Water) film, Wind River, a wintertime thriller filmed in the snowy Utah countryside. (FR)

Why did you choose to work on this project?

Ben Richardson: When Taylor sent me the script, I hadn’t yet seen Sicario. But I had read the screenplay of Hell & High Water, although I was unable to work on the movie. Wind River seemed an unbelievable visual opportunity to me. Both a great character movie, and the opportunity to shoot in those unique landscapes. He’s able to combine classic narrative aspects, in the vein of a genre film, with very complex characters and contemporary social themes. Honestly, it’s very rare to be offered the opportunity to work on projects like this. I said yes immediately to my agent and told him I’d do it no matter what!

Ben Richardson and Taylor Sheridan surrounded by their team
Ben Richardson and Taylor Sheridan surrounded by their team

This is Taylor Sheridan’s first film as a director. How was it working with him?

B.R: I think he spent a lot of time as a guest on the set of Sicario and Hell & High Water, and was able to observe and immerse himself in the real making of a movie. Even though Wind River is his first film as a director, I immediately realized he was an old hand when it comes to visuals. One of his basic ideas in terms of general ambience was to dramatically portray nature as the ultimate predator, and to make the viewer feel that whenever you take on nature, you’ll lose!
I can tell you that based on the experience on set, the entire team ended up adopting that point of view. The isolation, the cold, the immensity of the outdoors often submerged us and that’s exactly what I tried to bring across through the screen.

What were your references?

B.R: We’d discussed classic Westerns… Taylor had seen a lot of them! I can also cite Michael Mann’s Insider, Heat, or Manhunter, films that we both admire. A sort of model for classic staging, where the use of techniques inherited from the golden age of Westerns (intense close-ups, very wide shots) is combined with shoulder cam, the dolly and the Steadicam… That’s the type of the cinema where you know that you’re watching characters and situations that are often similar to the archetypes, but in which the camera and the directing style distil a host of modern and authentic details. A sort of millefeuille whose flavour is familiar but which surprises you with each mouthful.

Jeremy Renner and Jon Bernthal
Jeremy Renner and Jon Bernthal

I guess you like heavily-contrasted lighting?

B.R: Dante Spinotti’s lighting style was pretty exaggerated, with powerful contrasts and raw light pouring in; it went perfectly with Michael Mann’s directing style. When I began working on Wind River I sent a note to my gaffer that said, “Don’t be afraid of hard lighting!”. The problem is that when you want to create lighting with deep shadows, you’ve absolutely got to place the spots far away, and they’ve got to be pretty powerful. That means you’ve got to have the money, the team, and the time… Not always easy on a small budget production! I know the end of the story, and I wasn’t always able to live up to the initial idea, but that exaggerated style was a major concern of mine.

What was your main challenge on this film?

B.R: Racing against the weather. The beginning of shooting was pushed back by two weeks, and we found ourselves in early spring by the end of the shooting schedule, which meant a chronic lack of snow. I think that most viewers won’t realize it, but a couple of scenes were a nightmare to film. The sun began to shine brightly, and we needed a forest of diffusers to recreate the same conditions as in cloudy weather, and an army of people carrying in blocks of snow on tractors to cover the backgrounds as much as possible… A few scenes at the end of the film make use of the sun as a sort of respite or breath of fresh air, but the rest is immersed in uniform white from the ground to the ceiling!

The opening scene is pretty impressive, with a young girl running barefoot on the snow outside at night-time…

B.R: Taylor wanted the viewer to feel the threat within him from the first moments of the film. The duality I was discussing between nature’s beauty and its extreme dangerousness guided us throughout the film… For example, in this scene, the snow isn’t portrayed as the soft, white, cushiony thing you see in ski resort advertisements! On the contrary, here it’s ice.
I can also tell you that on this set, you couldn’t put your unprotected hand on the ground for more than a dozen seconds without burning yourself. As a result, we filmed at nighttime using a moonbox light hung from a crane that I would move along with the camera in order to always try and capture reflections or nuances in the ice crystals.
The actress was followed by a stunt-double wearing flesh-coloured latex slippers that protected her from the ground. But despite that equipment, she could only handle one wide-shot take, the cold was just too intense for the human body to handle. We dubbed in a couple of close-ups on the actress and that was it! The simple interaction between the actress and the ground was highly expressive.

Ben Richardson at the camera, with Elizabeth Olsen
Ben Richardson at the camera, with Elizabeth Olsen

To tell you the truth, I was just happy to have the right level of light to produce her silhouette on each take and to preserve a certain homogeneity. The background with the mountains was added in during compositing, as was the moon. It was above all a question of precision in the placement of the light source and a bit of preparation using sketches. The exposure was average, and we brought it down during colour grading in order to bring out as much matter as possible.

What lenses did you choose?

B.R: I think that modern lenses have reached a level of technical excellence that is near to perfection. Zeiss Master Primes and Cooke S5s all deliver an extremely sharp image without any aberration at any aperture. But for this film I wanted to work with lenses of the 1990 generation, somewhere between a vintage look and a modern look.
So I chose Zeiss Standard T2.1 lenses, which provide some imperfection without the expressive flares or other things that would be overly-reminiscent of the 1970s. They are also very compact, but the drawback is that the quality of their mechanical construction isn’t as good as modern lenses. It’s not as easy for the focus-puller and the motorization is problematic because the focus ring isn’t extended. We also used an Angénieux 45-120mm for second team shots from a helicopter or on the ground.

Elisabeth Olsen
Elisabeth Olsen

Do you miss analogue film? Beasts of the Southern Wild was filmed in 16mm.

B.R: To tell you the truth, what I miss most is the freedom we had on controlling the image without having to go through so many intermediaries to get to a digital copy. Let me explain: when you shoot using film, the lab offers a Kodak-approved development process that is basically the same throughout the world. That standardization allows each cinematographer to work in the way he or she pleases, overexposing or underexposing…
Nowadays, I have the feeling that the cinematographer’s work is highly dependent on a series of choices made in postproduction that are not standardized as negative and positive development processes were. So you need to learn and master basically all of the ins and outs of the digital steps, and so you lose control over the basic element of shooting a film, which is to capture images on the spot. The interaction with all of the people who intervene in between – on set with the DIT, and especially in postproduction –, has become crucial, and I try to give as precise instructions as possible on how I want my images to be treated.

Is this also linked to the different methods of handling RAW, in your opinion?

B.R: Wind River was shot in RAW on an Arri Alexa, but I’ll admit that I think in 99% of films, I’ve noticed that the image was “digitally developed” using the basic camera settings chosen while shooting.
On this film, I think that there are only four scenes where we went back to the RAW to treat it differently and really go further during colour grading. This observation leads me to the conclusion that shooting in ProRes is good enough in most cases, so long as you can save the image at a decent sampling rate and a good log space. That’s why I believe that Arri has done great work on Log, and in any case much better than what RED has been able to offer up to the present (even though now they’re starting to catch up). I just apply my LUT to the Log images and pick up the contrast a bit in the same way the development of a positive would do from the film negative.

On my last four projects, I’ve applied the same chain. I have to have two LUTs in total, that I slightly adjust in function of my needs. The result on the monitor is good enough for me, and I feel like I’m seeing a nearly-final image. We only spent eight days colour grading, probably in large part because I always took great care measuring the lighting on set. Aided in this by my Sekonic 700 spectrometer, I was able to give each scene, and sometimes each take, a precise colour setting at the camera, which was a great help later on in keeping the whiteness of the snow intact.

Elizabeth Olsen and Graham Greene
Elizabeth Olsen and Graham Greene

Deep down, what is your greatest satisfaction?

B.R: When you step back a bit from a set and you look at all the technological excess in terms of cameras, diffusers, and spots a team can put in place for a single shot, you realize the unnatural quality of what we do. That’s the paradox I prefer… observe reality, realize what’s significant in it, and try to reproduce it.
Without ever forgetting the letting-go that is the essence of cinema, in my opinion. There’s a bit of a Jackson Pollock side, where the artist’s uncontrolled gesture can result in the unexpected and in creation, like the sun can suddenly make you say in the street “Damn! That’s a super effect!”

(Interview conducted by François Reumont, and traducted from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe, on behalf of the AFC)

See several stills from the film in the portfolio below