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‘Drinking Buddies’: Cinematographer Ben Richardson on Capturing the Conversational Comedy

Last year, Ben Richardson’s gripping, handheld Super 16 camerawork for director Benh Zeitlin on Beasts of the Southern Wild was the talk of the cinematography world. For his follow-up feature, Richardson teamed with indie director Joe Swanberg on very different kind of film. Drinking Buddies, which has been called an “indie romantic comedy,” follows Kate and Luke (Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson), co-workers at a craft brewery who find themselves alone together one weekend apart from their respective significant others. 

Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston in

Drinking Buddies

, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

“With Joe, there is no script,” Richardson explains. “In our first conversations, we talked about how we enjoyed filmmaking as ‘creation in the moment,’ as much as about planning and preparation. For Drinking Buddies, we just had a two-page outline describing where the characters needed to go. It was very loose.”

During production, the filmmakers expanded that outline with much more detail about the scenes and the locations. But there was still nothing in the way of dialog, which was left entirely to the actors. Richardson had no trepidation about the improvisatory approach.

“In Beasts, which was scripted, I found a real energy shooting non-actors and not knowing exactly how the scene might go,” he says. “It was enjoyable to repeat that in a different situation, watching these actors create in the moment. It was my job to keep up, and that’s an exhilarating way to make a movie.”

The improvisational aesthetic, and the fact that much of the roughly 27-day shoot would unfold in an actual microbrewery in Chicago, led the filmmakers to some of their technical choices. “I was interested in exploring the RED Scarlet,” says the cinematographer of this, his first digitally shot feature. “I had some consultations with the RED people, and once I understood exactly what the sensor was doing, I knew I could make it work. I wanted to be able to light as efficiently as possible, but also make daylight scenes work. We paired our Scarlet with the Zeiss Compact Prime CP-2 lenses, which are good looking and very light. It was a nice combination. I could shoot by cutting and manipulation the existing light rather than trying to add light.”

Jake Johnson and Anna Kendrick. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

A 2.40:1 widescreen frame was extracted in post from the 16:9 .r3d files, which allowed for reframing and stabilization of shots wherever it was deemed necessary.

“With digital cameras, careful exposure is the most important thing,” Richardson says. “You’re losing a little bit of dynamic range with the Scarlett’s sensor compared to what I was used to with film, but I think a lot of what makes things feel filmic has to do with the look of the highlights.

“I rated the camera EI 1250 and metered primarily to preserve highlights sometimes just letting the darks go,” he elaborates. “That wasn’t a problem because there’s so much more detail in the shadows [relative to film negative] than you know what to do with anyway. You typically crush some of that [shadow detail] out in post to give the image a bit more grounding anyway. What I really wanted was to not just protect the highlights, but to allow the highlights to have the kind of detail and texture that we’re used to in film work.”

Like some cinematographers with a film background, Richardson prefers to skip grading on set and to treat the sensor as he would a film stock. His preferred method, he explains, is to “learn exactly how that medium is going to see the world, and adjust the world to the medium, rather than trying to adjust the image after the fact. That’s the way I approached it. Then I made occasional ‘printing’ notes for dailies if we were on the edge of exposure, or in a weird color temperature scenario.”

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Richardson says he used minimal equipment when it came to lighting, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t fussy about illuminating his shots. “I’m very particular about the way I cut light,” he says. “I’ll spend as much time as tweaking and refining the lights as placing them. [In cinematography] you’re always trying to bring a three-dimensional feel to a two-dimensional image.”

The freedom accorded the actors in performance sometimes argued for a handheld camera. In many situations, Richardson would light a set for 360 degrees to facilitate this approach. Richardson says that in operating, he was always looking for edit points during a take. “There wasn’t always continuity to the dialog,” he says. “So I would sense that a certain line or moment might be a good place for Joe to cut later, and take that opportunity to swing over to the other character. I’m getting ‘coverage,’ but not in the usual sense.”

Swanberg would subsequently Richardson’s camera moves in his editing to help him piece together the final scenes from the best performances. “Being behind the camera is something that I really enjoy in that situation. Rather than treating a shot as a defined thing, and wondering if you executed it correctly, I’d get to remain focused and aware, in the moment. I like thinking about how a performance will read to an audience, and what we can do with the camera to support that.

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

“If the performance is so strong that we don’t want to look away,” he explains, “then I’ll just hold on the actor. It’s great to have a director who is supportive and who leaves some of that kind of decision-making to me. Joe is a very good editor also, so when he said, ‘We’ve got the scene,’ you knew we did. It was an efficient, fast, comfortable way to work.”

In post, Richardson worked with colorist Alex Bickel at Color Collective in New York. “Alex is a wonderful colorist who really understood what I was going for,” says Richardson. “I wanted the process to stay as close to that of traditional film timing as possible. I find when images are over ‘DI’d, they can lose a little bit of life. We stayed mainly in the [Blackmagic Design] DaVinci Resolve‘s ‘printer light’ settings and used the new log curve tools to open shots up a little and hold soft detail in the highlights.”

While Beasts‘ look was deliberately stylized, Drinking Buddies was designed to have a more naturalistic feel.  Of the new film, Richardson says, “It was very important that the characters and environments feel natural.  And everyone was a part of that: The costumes, the makeup, the way we lit and the way we shot. The two productions couldn’t have been more different, but they were both a tremendous amount of fun, and I think the films complement each other in many ways. I’m incredibly grateful to have gotten to do them both at the beginning of my career.”