For BEASTS OF NO NATION, director Cary Joji Fukunaga (HBO's TRUE DETECTIVE Season One, JANE EYRE) had the challenge of working with a cast of young non-professionals for an intense story about child soldiers set during
a civil war in Africa. The Emmy and Sundance winner also decided that he would shoot the project himself. "I've always been heavily involved in the cinematography on everything I've done," he explains. "I thought, 'Why not keep it more intimate?' I'm using a lot of non-actors and it would be good to just eliminate anyone from the process that I could."
The story concerns a boy named Agu (Abraham Attah), who is brought into the brutal revolutionary army of children led by the Commandant (Idris Elba). Agu undergoes harsh abuse, initiation rituals and horrifying battles. Eventually he is promoted from ammo carrier to rifle-toting soldier.
Production was further challenged when the A-camera operator pulled his hamstring on the very first day. Fukunaga then took over operating duties for the 35-day shoot in Ghana, which included 22 locations. The grueling conditions forced the director/DP/operator early on to take a week off when he was hit with malaria.
Fukunaga is quick to point out that he would have shot on film if it had been practical, but cost and logistics made that impossible. "I can pick up a 35 camera and have full confidence that what I'm seeing, I'm getting," he says, adding that he was quite pleased with the ergonomics of the ALEXA XT. The director notes that ultimately he did take advantage of letting the cameras roll for extended periods.
Shooting ProRes 4444, he captured the contrasty jungle exterior by setting the exposure index for 1280 and then underexposing further by close to a stop. "I was really pushing the ALEXA sensor deliberately," he explains. "I like the look of old-school reversal film, especially slightly underexposed reversal film where there is no information in the blacks. It just becomes this greenish, blue-gray, grainy, buzz thing. It has the look of slightly attenuating the spread of the stops."
Wherever possible, Fukunaga prefers to "bake in" his look and then refine it in post rather than shoot "clean" and define the look later. He frequently works with colorist Steven Bodner of Deluxe NY, who collaborated on BEASTS OF NO NATION.
Having been disappointed with the effect of faux anamorphic photography on his feature JANE EYRE, Fukunaga made sure to bring Panavision anamorphic C- and E-Series primes and a particularly large 45-90 Panafocal Anamorphic Zoom to Ghana, the use of which caused the already svelte filmmaker to drop 20 pounds during the shoot. He also used SLZ11 24-275 mm Primo Zoom and ATZ 70-200mm Anamorphic Zoom. Pairing those lenses with the ALEXA's 4:3 sensor allowed true anamorphic capability to deliver the cinematic widescreen look Fukunaga desired. Panavision Hollywood provided the camera package.
The director also made use of traditional optical filters to define the look of the film. BEASTS starts out in a warm, comfortable feel of Agu with his family and becomes harsher, more neutral once the boy is abducted. "We used a whole variety of Antique Suedes for the early scenes," he says. "Then we had a lot of NDs and ND grads to just darken areas of vegetation or sky."
Fukunaga shot the film in sequence to let the non-professional actors play out scenes in extended takes. This allowed the action to take on an energy and momentum of its own. The B-camera was generally handheld or on Steadicam. "From JANE EYRE to TRUE DETECTIVE," he notes, "I liked to shoot in organized, two- or three-camera arrays. On BEASTS, when things got crazy, there were scenes where the B-camera operator and I would just have one wider and one tighter shot -- we'd just be raking around for information, like you'd do on a documentary."
The filmmaker extends particular credit to A-camera first AC Stephen MacDougall. "He was a real head of the department and he took up the slack when I was directing, making sure that the entire camera crew was organized," Fukunaga says. "He and I had long conversations when I was already in Ghana about the camera and lens packages he was prepping in LA. Once we were shooting, it was a very tough shoot technically for him when it came to pulling focus. He came through in so many ways on a shoot that turned out to be a lot more complex than I'd imagined."
BEASTS OF NO NATION is now streaming on Netflix.