New post from my Filmmaker Magazine column – a chat with Mare of Easttown cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Fault in Our Stars, Wind River). Shot on Alexa Minis with Leitz Summilux-C lenses.
Here’s Richardson on how the Summilux lured him away after years of using Arri glass:
Filmmaker: Looking through your filmography, you’ve tended toward mainly using Zeiss glass.
Richardson: That’s very true. I am a big fan of the old Zeiss Standard Speeds. They’re these tiny little nuggets of a lens and there’s something about them that is similar to what I like in my lighting approach—they have enough imperfections to my eye to make the world feel real. They make it feel tangible and tactile and that’s basically what I’m always looking for. I don’t want something that is too flawless. So I love those Standards, but they’re in these tiny little, older housings and the blunt truth is they’re just impractical for a fast-moving, television-based set. So, a few years ago I moved over to the Zeiss Ultra Primes, which have a lot of the same qualities as the Standards but in a more modern housing.
I started to notice over the last job or two that there were some flare characteristics and some contrast issues with the Ultra Primes that I was finding frustrating. So, I did a deep dive before shooting Mare and tested probably 12 different lens sets at Arri and there was just something about those Leitz Summilux lenses. They’re a very modern lens. They’re very clean and very sharp, but the background rendering is also a little imperfect. You get a few little aberrations that stop it from feeling as clean as some of the other modern lens designs. They’re kind to faces, you can get nice and close on the wider lenses without distorting too strangely, skin texture renders beautifully, and then the backgrounds fall off in this really delightful way. It just sort of tickled something in my brain and I’m actually using them again right now for that same reason.
Filmmaker: Attention is being paid to Kate Winslet’s deglamorized look in the show. How did that extend to the way you lit her?
Richardson: The last big [television] project I’d done was Yellowstone, which is set in Montana in these vast landscapes. On that show I leaned into that and made that vastness part of the visual language, but in reading the scripts for Mare I became acutely aware of just how much was going to take place in these smaller domestic interiors, particularly in close, intense, personal conversations. I realized there was going to be an opportunity here to make the visual language about the landscape of people’s faces. The casting throughout is fantastic and there are so many rich, beautiful and complex faces to look at in this show and I really just tried to find ways of lighting them that were supporting those looks and supporting Kate’s look. There were a handful of little technical tricks I used—nothing terribly elaborate, just lighting direction and light quality and a certain softness throughout. But my overriding goal became to make the mediums and close-ups the anchors to the look of the show. By the end of the shoot, my gaffer [Nina Kuhn] and myself had a lot of little shorthands. We knew which character took a certain kind of toplight nicely and it modeled their face well, so we would start out from that and then finesse it. With another character, they might need a slightly softer wrapping light, but it was always trying to find that balance to make sure that it never felt lit. It’s a little bit of a trick, but I like to have plausible deniability. I want to be able to almost claim that it’s just how the lighting fell off the truck, barely designed at all. I want it to feel that way to an audience, but obviously we’ve sculpted it and shaped it as much as we can within that framework.