Conversation with cinematographer Ben Richardson about his work on "Beasts of the Southern Wild", by Benh Zeitlin

By Madelyn Most

[ English ] [ français ]

For a Sundance audience, experiencing something magical and wondrous that seems almost impossible to realize (especially when it was made with so little money) is normal, but for Cannes, a director presenting their debut feature film that is also his cinematographers first feature film winning the Caméra d’or is indeed astounding. Such is the case for Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, photographed by Ben Richardson.

The elements were truly challenging : working with real people who never acted before, and with children and animals, filming on water and on boats, shooting scenes with lots of fires, explosions,and fireworks, photographing dark skins in dark interiors at night, then there were the miniatures, the fantasy sequences with pigs in costumes… and everything was shot hand held. It all seemed so professional and so assured, so mastered and yet this was their first effort !

We learn the scrappy budget was pieced together from different grants and loans and that the actual shooting schedule was only 7 weeks but about 3 months of pre-production. And then, we learn that on the first day filming, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, unleashing one of the most catastrophic oil spills in US environmental history right in the exact location where the crew was setting up their equipment. How was this possible ?

At the age of 22, Benh Zeitlin (now 29), founded an organization called “Court 13”, and relocated to New Orleans from New York City to create what he calls a ‘grassroots collaborative filmmaking army’ of friends, artists, animators, and musicians that like to make art out of bits and pieces of junk. The group’s name originated from the time Zeitlin was making his 7 minute, $7,000. thesis film and their location caught fire so they were kicked out. They moved to an abandoned squash court at Weslyan University in Connecticut which became the famous Court 13 group with their own unique way of working.

Court 13 tells stories about real people living on the margins. Their philosophy is “do it yourself” and taking on challenges that “defy the odds, the gods, nature, and common sense” and being pushed to the limits. It is about grassroots filmmaking as a community. “It is about being truthful to the place and have everything feel organic” says Zeitlin. “The day we started shooting the BP disaster happened and it was like making a film in the middle of a war zone. We had to get the puppets back and somehow the BP executives let us get in and outside the barriers that were holding back the oil.”

Zeitlin says he wanted to turn it into a fantasy story, a folk tale. “It is not about Katrina because I didn’t really want to get reduced to politics. It’s about all storms and doomed places and the people who refuse to leave these places despite the dangers. You cannot transplant people somewhere else if their culture and way of life is so connected to the land and we wanted to celebrate those people who refuse to leave. It’s about people who value freedom over comfort and commodities”, he adds.

 Ben Richardson on the set of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" - Ben Richardson on the set of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" directed by Benh Zeitlin - DR
Ben Richardson on the set of "Beasts of the Southern Wild"
Ben Richardson on the set of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" directed by Benh Zeitlin

Benh Zeitlin says he was very influenced by his visit to the caves in southwest France, and that the aurouchs, the creatures in the film, were based on these cave drawings. “They were the mark our ancestors made before going extinct. The aurouchs were always the building blocks of the film : it is the predator versus their prey, maybe a metaphor about the fearlessness in Louisiana because it tests them. It is good to test them and let them learn how to become strong and defiant. America is constantly scaring people into doing things” says Zeitlin.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is based on Lucy Alibar’s play, “ Juicy and Delicious”, and was co-written by Albers and Zeitlin, and then nurtured into existence through Sundance Film Institute’s Screenwriting, Directing, and Producting Labs. Zeitlin’s remarkable first short film in Katrina-torn New Orleans called Glory at Sea, reveals many of the themes, visual styles and musical elements that can be found in Beasts.

“I wanted everything to be truthful to the place and to feel organic. I wanted to put the cameraman in a situation like a documentary where he was at the mercy of what is happening in front of him. I felt the camera should capture anything that caught his eye, that he should try to be her eyes, with a shallow depth of field and an exploratory focus because that is how a child sees” says Zeitlin.

Cinematographer Ben Richardson was born and raised in England and attended Royal Holloway’s Media Arts BA degree course, but says that it wasn’t terribly vocational- he had to teach himself how to light by working on short films with friends and observing how natural light works. “Rarely did we have any money or access to professional equipment so I just had to figure out how to light the sets we built” , he adds.

“Shooting Beasts on film negative was absolutely a creative decision. Almost all the shorts I had made did were on film, so I understood the way the negative worked and was confident about how far I could go. At that time, I didn’t think the look Benh and I wanted could be achieved with digital capture. On Beasts, I was overrating on my meters – so underexposing the film – and also pull-processing it one stop. That was really important. We wanted a slightly de-saturated and low contrast image for the baseline of the photography”.

“I think with today’s DI techniques, some films look too clean, too sharp, too bright, too consistent. In the beautiful movies of the 70’s & 80’s – which were all photochemical finishes – you see wonderful subdued palettes which is so much more like the world really looks. Today we are bombarded with all this advertising-level imagery all the time, but that is not how we see the world. I think the way some cameras capture the world today and some people manipulate the images to make them so perfect is a barrier to telling human stories.”

“Benh and I met in Prague where I was living and working with a friend on an animated film project with very little money and basic equipment. We were trying to figure out how to make this really ambitious Short film called Seed fueled only by willpower and a lot of tea. We just "locked down" for the long haul. This ten minute animated film took 605 days to shoot, but I have to say, I learned a lot. It was a very natural looking film considering we shot it in an apartment studio. When I got stuck lighting a scene, I would go outside and look at the buildings, and work out what combination of sun and sky, and bounce light off walls and roads made the world look that way. Then I’d go back inside and try to recreate it. Benh stayed for the summer and built some sets for us. When he went back to the US, I stayed in touch with him. We emailed often while he was making his animated projects. I realized there was something going on in the American independent film community that I wanted to be part of. When I moved to the US, I shot the first phase of Glory at Sea, during which time Benh and I discovered that we worked well together this way”.

Glory at Sea went on to win many awards, and was instrumental, in getting Beasts into production, however, Beasts was much bigger and more ambitious, so the financiers wanted to have their say, their input , about the heads of department. I was originally approved for the animation sequences, (the miniatures and Aurochs), but not for the live action photography and they were looking at several cinematographers. I really felt I was right for the job so I made a case for myself by going to some of the locations and shooting a test reel of some scenes. Benh and the producers looked at the reel, and decided it was what they were looking for, and they successfully convinced the financiers to agree to take me on. I found out later on, that the DPs they were considering had said it was impossible to do these things on such a small budget.”

The budget of Beasts of the Southern Wild, rumoured to be around $1.2 million was made up of several funding grants from NHK, Rooftop Films, the San Francisco Film Society, Cinereach, as well as the Arri Sundance grant which provided the Super 16 camera package consisting of an Arri 416 camera supplied by Arri CSC and a basic lens package of Zeiss primes. Richardson says he used the 25mm and 50mm almost exclusively and operated the (one and only) camera and modified the ‘Easyrig’ by putting it below hip height for a lower camera angle, for the point of view of the six year old leading character ‘Hushpuppy’.

“What I tried to do on Beasts was to make it as real or as natural as possible. We had a very little lighting package on a small truck with frames and grids, a couple of kinos, tungsten units, some chinas and covered wagons, and one 2.5 HMI PAR. For certain scenes, we would hire (on a daily basis) some bigger 4K and 6K HMIs and more grips”, says Richardson.

“We used Kodak Vision2 200T (7217) negative rated at 320 ISO and Vision3 500T (7219) rated at 800 ASA and sent it to Alpha Cine Labs in Seattle where it was pull-processed one stop. I wanted a baseline to the photography that was a little flatter and low-saturation so that the more vivid scenes in the movie would feel heightened organically, without needing to be pushed in post. We received dailies back about 3 days a week, and there was a 3-4 day turn around, but once I had established the way to go, I didn’t need to see them. I checked lab reports and was sure about the exposure by that point. Once I was confident that my lighting strategies were working, I didn’t want to watch dailies, because I didn’t want to be influenced and change the look as a reaction”.

 "Beasts of the Southern Wild" directed by Benh Zeitlin - Image from "Beasts of the Southern Wild" directed by Benh Zeitlin - DR
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" directed by Benh Zeitlin
Image from "Beasts of the Southern Wild" directed by Benh Zeitlin

“A lot of the time we shot close to wide open (interiors at T1.3/2 and exteriors at T2/2.8) which made it ‘challenging’ for my focus puller. We used standard filters : 85’s for outdoors, and ND filters to help shorten depth of field. Most typically, I had 4- 6 stops of neutral density working outside in bright light. For night interiors, we used practical fixtures, a couple of Kino Flos, and I would put nets and scrims up against them, and use small cuts of neutral density to break up the light and the shapes it was throwing on the set. Not a lot of work was done in the DI. The look is pretty much what I photographed.
We didn’t do much in the digital grade with only a few exceptions like pulling some colour out of the trees when the world is supposed to be dying”.

“I had tested extensively at the beginning, so once we settled on the the film stocks we’d use, I was confident of the light levels and how far I could go and what I could away with. For most of the dark interiors, it was about getting the textures to read by reflecting the light sources back on the characters. We had wooden walls and put lights on them, small fixures, and had lots of practicals built into the set design. We put fixtures in high and low areas, a couple of small China balls, and covered wagons, and had them on dimmers and moved them around between shots so they weren’t illuminating the scene but reflecting something back into it.

The idea for the film was working in the natural world with direct sunlight. There are moments when the world looks beautiful and that is what I was trying to do in Beasts concludes Richardson.

(Interview conducted by M.G. Most for the AFC, February 7, 2013)