Beasts of the Southern Wild, filmed in the Louisiana bayous on a tiny budget, is turning out to be the “Little Engine That Could” of this awards season. It has captivated audiences with its story of Hushpuppy, a child who is innocently in touch with her primitive surroundings while wise beyond her years. On the brink of orphanhood, she endures a series of catastrophes including a violent storm that all but destroys her home while she tries to save her badly ailing, alcoholic father. Six-year old Quvenzhané Wallis, in the starring role, has been mentioned as a serious contender for an Oscar nomination as best actress and the film is in the running for the best motion picture Academy Award as well.
The film’s look, a blend of naturalism and magical realism, is beautifully captured by Ben Richardson, an English director of photography. He won the best cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival Beasts. The film is Richardson’s movie debut as a DP. He previously worked with director and screenwriter Benh Zeitlin, for whom Beasts is also his first full-length feature, filming part of a 2008 short. They had first met eight years ago in Prague where both were studying animation.
Richardson was originally supposed to do special effects miniatures for Beasts. When he arrived he learned that no cinematographer had yet been hired, so he decided he would try out for the position. He shot a test reel with a Handicam “in the way in I thought the camera should move and what the film should look like in the environment,” he recalled. “I gave the tape to Benh and happily it was very much in line with what he had in mind.”
“I wanted to shoot the movie very organically but also with an edge, and I knew the way I wanted to control the lighting so I chose to go with film because I didn’t think digital technology was there yet.” He shot with a Super 16mm camera.
Working constantly on the water and dealing with the bright Louisiana sun were among the challenges Richardson faced. “We wanted to feel the water, wanted the camera sitting on the water, and moving with the motion of the waves,” he notes. One low-tech solution was to shoot on a piece of plywood that was attached to a floating Styrofoam base.
Shooting outdoors required working around the persistent sunshine. “I had to find ways to pick the right times of day and the right set of angles to create the different moods and atmospheres of the movie,” he noted. “One of the biggest achievements for me is that we managed to control these natural environments and make the arc of the movie work at the same time.”
Playing Hushpuppy, Quvenzhané was on camera for well over half the movie, and nearly always at the center of the action. “My job was to keep following her, feeling out the way she was looking at things, just engaging with her world,” said the DP. “We wanted it to be her story, revealing what she saw moment by moment. That translated into things like tiny differences in camera height. I found that if you captured her from certain angles and in certain ways you could really make her the strongest, proudest little being in the movie.”
One of the most moving scenes in the film takes place when Hushpuppy is reconciling with Wink, her very sick father and they tightly embrace. In an extreme close-up, tears spontaneously begin streaming down her face and her father also begins to cry. “There were only a few of us on the set that day,” Richardson said. “We kept it as small as we could. Very quietly and gently everyone was allowing them to go for that place and that moment. There was an almost unspoken mood, and the camera resets, the rearrangements were all very quiet. It was one of the most powerful and most emotional experiences I have ever known in a filming environment.”