The '70s set crime tale won raves, not least for the photography, with our review saying, "Hickory smoked and sunstroked, Bradford Young's tremendous eye makes for some breathtaking and dusty gorgeous visuals, feeling tactile and lived-in." The two films again won him the Sundance cinematography award. Wherever he goes next, it's bound to be fascinating, and he's bound to keep growing. As he told the New York Times: "I feel like I’m still in a great discovery process, trying to figure out what it is, ultimately, that I want to say with the camera. I’m exploring. I’m looking forward to the day where I can communicate: ‘This is what the intention was. This is what I do.’ It’s been a really fulfilling couple years, but it’s only been a couple years.”
You wouldn't have thought from looking at "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the wildly acclaimed, extremely beautiful, bayou-based magical realist debut film from director Benh Zeitlin, that it was shot by a British DoP with no formal training, registering his first credit on a feature. But Ben Richardson was all of those things, and still pulled off one of the more distinctive and gorgeously photographed films of 2012.
The U.K.-born Richardson knew he wanted to be a filmmaker from an early age, and ended up going into animation, telling Hitfix: "[It's] 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." Richardson was studying in Prague in 2003 when he met Zeitlin, the pair bonding over their shared love of Czech animator Jan Svankmajer ("Alice," "Little Otik"), and five years later, shot the first half of Zietlin's short "Glory At Sea," a thematic and aesthetic precursor to 'Beasts' (Ray Tintori and Kentucker Audley collaborator Rob Leitzell shot the rest of it).
Richardson became a firm part of Zeitlin and Tintori's filmmaking collective, going on to co-direct and serve as DoP on the animated short "Seed" with Daniel Bird, which went on to win the animation prize at Slamdance in 2010. He also directed and lensed a black-and-white short called "The Drip Machine" later that year, as well as reteaming with Zeitlin on a music video for New York singer-songwriter Elizabeth & The Catapult, but even before that, they'd shot "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Originally, according to Anne Thompson, Zeitlin was going to serve as his own DoP, with Richardson working only on the miniatures for the aurochs, but the director changed his mind, and asked if Richardson would take over.
The pair rejected digital cinematography (they thought the cameras of the time weren't stable enough for the remote locations) in favor of good old-fashioned 35mm. Richardson mostly used natural light for the shoot, but there were still challenges, not least in the youthful main character. In the end, Richardson built a custom-made camera rig that enabled him to shoot from the height of his lead Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis), something important in terms of establishing her POV. He told Anne Thompson, "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're sure that Richardson has lots of offers these days, and could well reteam with Zeitlin down the line, but his next gig promises to be very different, as he's teamed up with mumblecore enfant terrible Joe Swanberg for "Drinking Buddies." The film, which stars an atypically high-profile cast including Anna Kendrick, Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson and Ron Livingston, will premiere at SXSW next month, and it should be fascinating to see how an advocate of 35mm works with a filmmaker so closely associated with digital photography.