Cinematographer Ben Richardson Takes Us To "Yellowstone"
Cinematographer Ben Richardson
Paramount Network series earns him his 1st ASC Award nomination; DP reflects on his collaborative relationship with director/writer/EP Taylor Sheridan
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Earlier this year, DP Ben Richardson earned his first career ASC Award nomination for “Daybreak,” the opening episode of Paramount Network’s original series Yellowstone starring Kevin Costner as John Dutton, patriarch of a family that controls the largest contiguous ranch in the U.S., under constant attack by those it borders--land developers, an Indian reservation, and America’s first National Park.

The ASC nod for Yellowstone, which bodes well for Emmy prospects, adds to Richardson’s awards pedigree. For example on the features front, his lensing of Beasts of the Southern Wild garnered assorted honors, including the 2013 Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography. The prior year Beasts won Best Dramatic Cinematography distinction at the Sundance Film Festival and a Golden Frog nomination at Camerimage.

Yellowstone marks Richardson’s second major TV gig. He previously shot the pilot for The Chi. Additionally Yellowstone marks a return engagement with series co-creator, director, writer and EP Taylor Sheridan. Richardson shot the feature Wind River, a 2017 release written and directed by Sheridan.

Richardson cited Sheridan’s involvement as a prime factor drawing him to Yellowstone. Citing their “great rapport,” Richardson related, “When he asked me to be part of Yellowstone, it was an obvious fit. His work is some of the most dynamic writing for the screen today, and with Yellowstone I saw have a chance to build a huge world over many episodes. I enjoyed that opportunity and challenge.”

Asked to specifically pinpoint  a prime challenge or two, Richardson shared, “Yellowstone was shot in two states with a huge cast and a vast array of stunts, set-pieces and scenes with animals. The challenge was bringing the scale and grandeur of the Montana landscape and the very physical reality of ranching life to the scenes, while also allowing for room and time to capture the human stories which are the center of the series. We were often blocking and shooting nuanced, character driven scenes, while the camera and crew were being bumped and nudged by herds of cattle, horses, bears and more. The trick was doing justice to both elements, as the human stories were very dependent on the audience feeling, viscerally, the challenges of maintaining and running the huge Dutton ranch, or the tough physical reality of Reservation life. I tried to always keep a sense of the landscape and the earth within the frames. I used longer lenses at a distance for wide shots in order to bring the scale of the environment closer to the people. There was an omnipresent reminder that the struggles of the characters are part of a fragile symbiosis with an indifferent nature.”

Sheridan directed and Richardson shot all the season one episodes of Yellowstone. The DP talked of their working collaboration on the series, noting that Sheridan’s vision hearkened back “to the great Westerns, while showing that there was a continuity to that way of life even today. That juxtaposition of the new and the ancient was our focus. We actually found a camera language very swiftly--drawing on our experience together on Wind River--and the goal each day was to discover the truest way to represent each scene. Working with minimal time to scout, we would approach each morning with open eyes. I would watch quietly as Taylor worked with our incredible cast, animal wranglers and stunts, stalking from the edges of the location, looking for the details he was discovering with them. And by the time the scenes were blocked, we had typically arrived at the same intent for the camera that day. We would discuss the details that mattered to him, I would add in defensive camera blocking to accommodate the unpredictability of the ever-present animals, and we’d go to work!”

Cameras, lenses, lessons learned
Relative to choice of cameras and lenses, Richardson explained, “We shot three-cameras most days, on the ARRI Alexa Mini and the ARRI Amira in ProRes 4444 3.2K, Log-C. We carried several sets of ARRI Ultra Prime lenses, and a selection of Angenieux zooms, including the 45-120 and the 24-290. I am a big fan of the Ultra Prime lenses for their simplicity and gentle rendering. I shot Wind River on the older ARRI/Zeiss Standard Speed primes and have always admired their elegant sharpness and gentle yet detailed falloff. The Ultra Primes carry that same DNA in a more modern housing, suitable for the scale of a production like this one. I find them unfussy and gently flattering, with just enough personality to enhance the natural lighting scheme we were striving for. I viewed on-set--and subsequently completed the DI--through a custom LUT I have been refining over several years.”

Regarding his biggest takeaway or lessons learned from his experience on Yellowstone, Richardson said, “The pace required for TV is different than feature work, and I enjoyed that challenge very much. The main difference was the speed with which we had to be up and running on our complex scenes in order to complete the days. I learned to make very quick decisions and really use all my senses to constantly evaluate what was being laid out in front of me. The entire crew did a phenomenal job of getting the required elements in place each day, and my wonderful team of three camera operators, ACs, grips and electrics kept pace with the ever-changing reality. At times I felt like a conductor working with the most talented musicians; everyone’s goal was the same, and all I had to do was provide a tempo and nuance as the show found its voice.”

This is the ninth installment in a 16-part series that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, production design and visual effects. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 14 and 15, and the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 22.

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