"Beasts of the Southern Wild" is like a tasty cinematic gumbo: part Mark Twain, part "Where the Wild Things Are," and part neo-realism. And Ben Richardson (who won the best cinematographer award at Sundance) wonderfully captures the unique flavor of the Louisiana bayou through the innocent eyes of Hushpuppy (played by six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis), whose secluded town called the "Bathtub" is devastated by a storm because of the melting Arctic ice caps.
The acclaimed "Beasts" marks the feature debut for both director Benh Zeitlin, who relocated several years ago to Louisiana, and Richardson, who's English. They met in Prague as animation students and first worked together on the short, "Glory at Sea." "What drew me to Benh's work in the first place is his love of myths and monsters," Richardson recalls. "He's always been interested in creating the best kinds of legends, the kind of thing that feels like it's always existed."
Everything in "Beasts" is an organic, living thing, and Hushpuppy effortlessly taps into her primitive nature while the adults have difficulty coping with the disaster, especially her alcoholic father, Wink (played by Dwight Henry, a non-actor who owned a bakery in the town where they shot the movie).
Richardson was originally tapped to work on the miniatures for the beasts (the prehistoric Aurochs that call to Hushpuppy), but grabbed the opportunity to be the cinematographer when Zeitlin was unable to fill the position. Richardson made a test reel and credits the intensity of the moment for its success. "I'm a cerebral person but I enjoy the opportunity to get out of my head a little bit," he admits. "And the speed we were moving allowed me to be emotionally present and think on my feet."
Richardson made a special rig that enabled him to move the camera up and down. This was vital in maintaining Hushpuppy's POV and the result is almost Ozu-like in its perspective. "I discovered in the early tests something that I knew a little bit about from still photography: that there was a real strength to the specific height of the camera relative to her," Richardson explains. "I think one of the mistakes sometimes that hand-held movies do by going shoulder-mounted all the time is you have this permanent adult male's eye view. And I dropped the camera a couple of inches below Hushpuppy's eye line and kept it horizontal. It just gave her this real power and strength in the frame. So what would happen is the further away I got, instead of tilting the camera down to accommodate more headroom, I would just push the camera down slightly.
"Cinematically, what I think we were trying to achieve was a camera that was reactive and inexperienced, naïve, and exploratory. We just wanted the world to be revealed moment by moment, just the way she's discovering it. We had scenes where Benh would encourage me to keep the camera less stable. I got pretty good with the rig we were using: it wasn't Steadicam but I could lock it off and Benh would look over at me and say, 'Give it some life.'"
Richardson shot on 16mm film for two reasons: the digital cameras weren't stable enough two years ago for shooting in the bayous and he wanted a less saturated, less contrast look for capturing the rich textures of the locale. Thus, when there's a rush of color during the iconic fireworks scene, the ethereal quality will be more impactful.
However, the most challenging sequence was on the riverboat. Richardson knew it had to be magical, that it had to be differentiated, but it also had to be grounded in keeping with the rest of the movie. "That kitchen, crazily enough, was the most difficult lighting rig on the film," he continues. "There were like eight little fixtures all snuggled up on the ceiling. I just wanted that scene to seem so warm and so enveloping."
Yet working with Wallis was inspirational because she remained uninterested in the camera. Inevitably, the relationship between the cinematographer and his star was like a dance. Richardson would keep in step with her and float the camera, even when they weren't rolling and the director was giving her instructions. "It was a very fluid or organic thing because she was probably the most focused person on the set."
That's maybe why they pulled off the most difficult shot where Wink teaches Hushpuppy how to grab a fish with her hands from the boat in only one take. "Benh was concerned that we'd never run a scene that long in two-shot, especially with a relatively complex camera move that had to be accomplished on water," he relates. "That we actually nailed it in one take and still had 11 remaining to get the other six angles in the scene was exhilarating."