Five Frames: Bone Tomahawk cinematographer Benji Bakshi

The Film: Bone Tomahawk
The Cinematographer: Benji Bakshi
The Tools: Shot on Red Epic Dragon
The Plot: In this western, four disparate men (sheriff Kurt Russell and deputy Richard Jenkins, accompanied by Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox) embark on a rescue mission to retrieve Wilson’s wife from a tribe of cannibalistic cave dwellers.
Further Reading: Check out my interview with Bone Tomahawk director S. Craig Zahler for Filmmaker Magazine.

How was your experience with the Red Epic Dragon?
Benji Bakshi: The Dragon was a serious improvement from previous models. Color was much more accurate and the latitude has improved, which was essential for our day exteriors. As always I tend to underexpose with Red, which gives more room in the highlights. The Dragon was improved in the shadows as well versus previous models, but in testing I saw noise at the toe. Knowing we intended to ride the edge of darkness, I set up a LUT to crush the shadows, which forced me to put light there. On set sometimes people would mention it was very dark, but I knew when the LUT was removed it would reveal lots of detail in the shadows, which proved to be the case. Normally I lift the shadows by using atmosphere (haze) but since our sets weren’t airtight the haze would have drifted in shot so in general I didn’t use it. So the LUT took the place of physical atmosphere to put light into the shadows.

What are some of the difficulties of shooting a Western? Popping fill light under those cowboy hats? Horses that don’t like to hit marks and stand still?
Bakshi: The toughest part of this shoot was the elements: heat, dust, shooting in desolate areas, essentially enduring what the actors/characters endure. Unlike westerns shot in Montana or mountain areas, we were in Santa Clarita outside Los Angeles and it was blazing hot and arid even in October. Shoot days were long and conditions were never in our favor, except that it never rained. Camera magazines had to be run back to base camp sometimes a mile away. The horses were actually good to work with except Brooder’s (Matthew Fox) horse, which was a mare (female) among stallions. She was never comfortable and never, ever landed right or even stood still. You can see it in the film.

Talk about Bone Tomahawk’s overall aesthetic. It’s a beautifully lit and composed film, but it has a very invisible style. This isn’t a movie with showy Technocrane and Steadicam moves.
Bakshi: (Director) S. Craig Zahler had a camera aesthetic planned before we even met, possibly even as he wrote the script. The entire film is handheld and follows the “hero” of each scene (which changes by scene) and sees physically over their shoulder, except for wide master shots and special inserts. This was how we shot the movie. The operators Jonathan Bruno and Jeff Powers did a fantastic job and really fought to maintain this visual language, sometimes using shovels to smooth their path during long tracking shots or just plowing through thick brush with their bodies. Not glamorous but it brings you back to the reason you get into the film industry, which is having fun and trying to tell cool stories. The lighting followed the tone of the story, usually implying some mystery, imposing challenge, harshness, or sometimes just despair. I mentioned to S. Craig when we began the film, “Tell me when it’s too dark.” I don’t think he ever said anything.

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The Shot: Nurse Lili Simmons tends to an injured drifter (David Arquette) in the town’s jail.
Bakshi: These were standing sets at Paramount Ranch in Malibu. It’s a western town that the general public can visit and, of course, is available to film. Almost all the night scenes in the town were day-for-night. In this scene there is a subtle amount of fill coming from the upper left. We stuck a 750-watt Leko on the right side up and over the frame pointed left to bounce off the wooden wall. We dimmed it down and tried to ride the edge of darkness.

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The Shot: Sheriff Kurt Russell and deputy Richard Jenkins enjoy a jailhouse dinner. What are the challenges of motivating sources in a pre-electricity era?
Bakshi: In this particular era we were recreating electricity did exist, but it was rare and only happened in town centers like the saloon. Here everything was motivated by gas lamps. I like creating darkness in frames and have learned to embrace that instinct. Once again the hair light you see in this frame was a 750-watt Leko bounced into a board just above frame. Kurt Russell commented about how warm and natural this set felt and asked me, “Does it actually look like that on camera?”

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The Shot: Kurt Russell bids his wife goodbye before commencing his journey
Bakshi: S. Craig Zahler loved this shot. It’s the transition from pleasant to grim in the film. In the background Kathryn Morris is lit by the window, which is a 4K HMI PAR shooting through some thick curtains. Kurt is being lit by an 18K Fresnel outside the front window and cut by a “diffusion topper” at his chest. These were basically the only lights in the scene and all the other nuances were “recycled” light bounced back by boards.

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The Shot: Having embarked on their mission, our heroes make camp. How much of this is lit practically by the fire?
Bakshi: About 40%. There were a few bare bulbs on a flicker gag. I think they used the first take of this (rehearsal), which I felt was too bright on the bulbs. Subsequent takes were more subtle, after we laid diffusion over and dimmed them down.

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The Shot: A night-time standoff with potential bandits.
Bakshi: This was another one of our night exteriors. Due to many factors, we did not have a condor or balloon light to work with. To counteract this, we chose a location nestled against a hill, onto which we placed lights – a (bunch) of 2Ks and I think a 5K with chimeras. We decided not to do a “moonlight” look, as I often feel that when fire is present it completely overpowers ambient light. Once again we exposed the area at the edge of darkness with what looked like it could come from the fire. When the intruders struck matches they used several long campfire matches taped together so they were brighter and burned longer.

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The Shot: A wide shot of the cave that serves as the third act’s setting.
Bakshi: This was a standing set in a desert movie ranch. I believe it was built for Iron Man’s cave sequence. It was not photographable from the outside. Production Designer Freddy Waff retrofitted the existing design to incorporate the cage elements and we cut some skylights into the roof. The cages became a big creative discussion about how to best see actors’ faces but still remain authentic to what the cannibals could build themselves and their captives could not escape from. And then also how to minimize damage to the cave set. When we filmed we kept playing “the pole game,” constantly adjusting the camera to see the actors’ faces but not have them literally searching back and forth trying to find it. It’s annoying for an actor to have to adjust to find the camera so much, but since this was unavoidable we all had to work together.
The fire (extinguished in this shot) had a trough beneath the fake embers with LED lights on a flicker and a small fogger. Power was run under the dirt and through a mouse hole in the wall to the outside. We had four looks for the set: #1 was a brighter central fire with no skylight; #2 was a dimmer fire with no skylight; #3 was hard sunlight through the skylights with extinguished fire; and #4 was diffused light through the skylights with a strong light coming down the tunnel.
Footprints became a big continuity issue. Every reset, the crew would walk around with treaded sneakers. So before each take they would sweep the floor and then ask the (cave dwelling) “trogs” to walk around in their bare feet. On some shots the floor was too clean, but I don’t think we ever saw a Nike logo. There was so much dust in this set we all had to wear masks. At the premiere Lili Simmons said, “nice to see you without a mask on.”

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The Shot: Kurt Russell tangles with his cannibal captors.
Bakshi: This shot is special to me because it took a lot of coordination off-camera, which you would never know. First of all Kurt is wearing a prosthetic chest that had been cut open and his body was dug into the dirt about one foot. He had been lying there immobile for a while. In addition to staying out of the overhead toplight, the “trog” shoots the gun off camera which had to motivate some smoke, then as Kurt Russell tries to yell the bullet shell lands in his mouth adding insult to injury. Art department painted a plastic shell copper to avoid hurting Kurt’s teeth. I consider myself pretty good at aiming and insisted on throwing the shell into Kurt’s mouth from next to camera. We nailed it, and I received a genuine Kurt Russell high five. Considering the tight schedule and all the elements we had to deal with, it was a nice moment.

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