"Beasts of the Southern Wild" stars a 6-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy and is set near New Orleans, in a fictional island region in constant danger of being washed away. The denizens' ingenuity comes as a constant surprise to viewers, who can almost feel the humidity and smell the swamp. But how did a crew of feature-film novices with a budget of just $1.5 million so persuasively create this idiosyncratic world?
"The film jelled really well with people who were amateurs or who didn't have experience," says first-time feature director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin. "It's about people figuring out how to survive. Something about that reflecting itself in the crew made a kind of sense."
Case in point: The production had failed to persuade an experienced director of photography to shoot with too little equipment and not enough crew in too much actual swamp. While working on special-effects photography for "Beasts," Zeitlin's longtime short-film collaborator, cinematographer Ben Richardson, shot a video representing a possible look for the film. Suddenly the obstacles the other prospective cinematographers had deemed insurmountable became part of the appeal.
"That was half the fun, if you could physically get the camera into the environment, into the spaces and get the shot — however you accomplish that — you're getting the shots, you're making the movie," says the smiling Richardson, an Englishman who looks like he could be Peter Sarsgaard's younger brother.
Richardson wasn't chosen simply for his willingness to brave alligators and swamp-borne diseases.
"I loved the way he moved the camera and what he was paying attention to in the shots," says Zeitlin of the sample reel, referring to camerawork as a "performance" in a film. "You get a lot of DPs interested in lyrical filmmaking. They were focused on background and composition — I didn't think it was right for the film. I felt like Ben understood how to interact with the environment the way that Hushpuppy did."
"What I would do is go into a scene and key off what Quvenzhané was doing," says Richardson. "We went in deliberately with what I call a 'humble camera' — I had to let go of that idea of shots in that sense. I wanted the camera to be responsive and reactive."
Richardson manipulated his hand-held rig to shoot most of the film from hip-height — Hushpuppy's eye level.
"You weren't literally in her shoes, seeing exactly what she's seeing in POV shots," Zeitlin says. Instead, he says, it was more the world from a child's point of view. "The idea of the perspective of the film is that if she knew how to make a film, she would see things from this perspective. You look at caterpillars the way she looks at caterpillars. I didn't want to feel any other personality guiding this. We all needed to think of, 'How would she see this?'"
Not just for camera movement but also for the color palette and lighting, understated naturalism was the goal … mostly.
"I was kind of underexposing the film the entire time," Richardson says. "I was over-rating on my meter … and using pull-processing to flatten the contrast down in that lower register of tones. So when you have these colorful or bright moments, they leapt off the screen — the fireworks, the crabs, the Elysian Fields scenes — I wanted those things to pop off the screen and be magical without us pushing them into your face.
"I like the idea of things always being a little less than perfect lighting-wise, balance-wise. We tried to keep as much film equipment as we could off the set. If we had a door I could open or close a little bit instead of bringing in a solid, or a flag, something that could be a bounce that could feel like it was part of the space, that was always the way to go."