LOS ANGELES – Cinematographer Ben Richardson was living in the Czech Republic in 2003 working on an animated film with a friend when he moved into a building full of interesting, creative filmmaker types, a salon of sorts for like-minded film enthusiasts. One of those enthusiasts was director Benh Zeitlin, who was hard at work on his own animated endeavor. They hit it off over their love of animator Jan Švankmajer and a collaboration was born.
“I”d always wanted to be a filmmaker,” Richardson says, “but I had kind of concluded that I really wanted just to explore something unique. And animation is a great way to do something ambitious on an incredibly low budget. The only thing you really need is time and perseverance. You don’t need a lot of materials or equipment, you know, lighting-wise. You just need a sensitivity to light.”
Eventually his passion for animation bridged a gap to a passion for photography. He had played with dark rooms when he was younger and took classes in school, but he was mostly taken by theater at a younger age. Soon, though, he started to fall in love with the role of the camera in filmmaking and the way it related to the actors.
He eventually brought his work ethic to the short film “Glory at Sea,” which he shot for Zeitlin in New Orleans, where the seeds of another film were already sprouting: “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” The latter has been a life-changing experience, to say the least.
“I think one of the strengths that me and Benh had in putting this together from the camera and the production side was that we didn”t know what couldn”t be done, so why wouldn”t we try,” he says. “And the scale of the project didn”t seem daunting to me because I had accomplished so much, relatively speaking, with so little on my previous projects. And animation really was a huge learning experience for me in terms of an attitude to lighting and, you know, a focus on naturalism that I really enjoy.”
That necessity of the inexpensive was what had guided his instincts for so long that it was a natural fit on the production. The 16mm photography in the film is very observational, a lingering kind of visual attitude that is ultimately identifying and quite beautiful. But Richardson owes a lot of that, he says, to his muse on the screen: actress Quvenzhané Wallis.
“Without her, very obviously on every level, there wouldn”t be a movie,” he says. “What it was for me, I could sense this incredible energy in her performance, and she”s one of the most amazing humans I”ve ever met, irrespective of her age; she”s a remarkable human being. It really sort of made me step up my game in a way. The things that we feel when she”s standing in a room delivering these performances, I just don”t want my photography to be a reason that that doesn”t come across to an audience, you know? It really felt like I had this responsibility to what she was putting out into the world.”
And indeed, there is a real intimacy in the relationships between the characters in the film. Richardson’s task was to make the camera feel present in the moment. “I didn’t think it was handheld per se, I just felt that it was responsive,” he says.
Richardson naturally did a lot of stock testing in finding the visual approach to telling the story, and particularly he notes the correctional procedures on photography today and how that was something he didn’t think spoke to the material. “I just feel like somewhere along the line, some part of the magic connection to reality gets lost, you know, this connection that it”s real physical things happening in the physical world gets lost. And with the film stock we used, I was actually underexposing it and pull processing it so it was a very flat negative we had to begin with.”
Richardson and Zeitlin had a couple of touchstones and references throughout, but first and foremost was “Dry Wood,” a 1973 Les Blank short documentary detailing Creole life in the Louisiana delta. “A lot of what you could see in that was just the richness of the world, if you get it right, if you capture it right,” Richardson says. “There were rougher edges than I think would have been appropriate for the film, but there was a lot of stuff in there and Benh very much liked to look at that.” There was also Julius Avery’s short film “Jerrycan,” which was inspiring for the way the camera expressively connected with the performances in the film.
But ultimately, of course, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” has its own distinct visual signature. Elements like miniatures and lighting full environments rather than specific shots presented their individual challenges, but the film resonates because of its imagery and the spirit of discovery behind it.
“I just thought that it would be an adventure to make it,” Richardson says. “I really did. I thought that it would be this challenge, but I didn”t have any doubt whether it could be accomplished.”
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is now playing and continues to expand throughout the country.