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Thrilling Adventures: Recording Remote Locations on ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’

"We watched many movies from the ’70s through the early 1990s," says DP Lachlan Milne. "We liked camera language of the era, including the use of zoom lenses."

Based on the beloved novel Wild Pork and Watercress by New Zealander Barry Crump, the film Hunt for the Wilderpeople has delighted audiences worldwide, offering a charming mix of genres spanning coming-of-age films, road pictures and buddy movies. When child welfare services places city kid and loner Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) with an older country couple, there’s inevitably a bit of a settling-in period for the wild child. After Ricky finally warms to his adoptive mother, she dies unexpectedly, and the boy, unwilling to return to orphan life, flees into the landscape. Her surly husband Hec (Sam Neill) chases Ricky down, but the not-very-dynamic duo finds themselves pursued by both social workers and police, who believe the child has been kidnapped. As they make their way through lush and sparsely populated lands, Ricky learns what Hec describes as “the knack,” developing a variety of survival skills while eluding pursuers and bonding with his “Uncle Hec.”

Director Taika Waititi (Eagle v. Shark, What We Do in the Shadows), who is currently shooting the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel, had long been associated with this project, penning drafts years back before returning in 2014 to serve as writer-director. He chose Lachlan Milne, ACS, as his director of photography. Milne, who has since gone on to lens “I Love Movies, IMAX Movies,” the first IMAX-shot commercial, had worked with Waititi on numerous TV promos.

“We discovered a shared interest in many directors and film genres, and had wanted to work together on a feature project for awhile,” the cinematographer relates. “Prep began in November 2014, as we watched many movies from the ’70s through the early 1990s, including some trailblazing pieces of New Zealand film history like Roger Donaldson’s Smash Palace [1981], which was particularly inspiring to us. We liked camera language of the era, including the use of zoom lenses, and that fed into our approach.”

Milne also cites Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, along with Terence Malick’s Badlands and Tree of Life, as spurs to creative discussion over how best to shoot and cover Wilderpeople. Although these pictures were all shot between 1.66 and 1.85, as were Waititi’s past features, Milne advocated successfully for 2.39 aspect ratio. “This is such a landscape-oriented film that the many horizontals in our locations lent themselves to a wider aspect ratio,” he declares. “But anamorphic wouldn’t have worked because we needed to be on faster lenses for two reasons: working in the bush beneath the canopy, plus having to make the most of short days, since production had scheduled 12-hour days at a time of year when we had only ten hours of useable light.”

Director Taika Waititi

The DP relied on a single ARRI Alexa XT for about 85 percent of the film—additional Alexas saw action in the elaborate climax, and the production used a RED camera for certain aerials—shooting with Cooke S4s and a 24mm-290mm Optimo zoom lens.

“I love the focus that going single-camera gives the whole crew,” Milne remarks. “Everybody is on the same page creatively. We tried to avoid interfering with the chemistry of the performers, instead doing only minimal coverage. With the pace we had to maintain on this five-week schedule, it wouldn’t have been smart to get bogged down with a lot of unnecessary reverses and close-ups. When you get that great two-shot in one take, you shouldn’t have to cut in closer out of some obligatory sense, but instead work to serve the story.”

Milne finds that the base ISO of 800 is the true beauty of the digital revolution. “That stop and a half up from what we used to have with film, coupled with faster lenses, has made a huge difference,” he maintains. “I was able to shoot all the night scenes at 800 as well. I’ve never been big on creating huge moonlit night scenes, and with these expansive locations, that wouldn’t have been something we could have lit anyway.” Instead, Milne preferred to rely on natural firelight sources, augmented by small tungsten bulbs or pulsating LEDs, along with out-of-frame flame bars.

Director Taika Waititi

Daytime exteriors in the brush meant dealing with foliage that blocked out much of the sunlight. “We needed to use supplemental lighting, but I didn’t want it to have that ‘lit’ artificial feel,” he notes. “Fortunately, on one location there was a canopy of silver firs overhead, which my gaffer pointed out could be used to our advantage. I treated it like a 40×40 overhead Ultrabounce, with my lights behind trees and out of shot shining up into that canopy to create a general overall ambience that not only didn’t look faked, but also gained me half a stop at a time of day when I desperately needed it.”

Since production was without readily available power at most locations and did not always have access to a generator, the team often had to rely on batteries. Maximizing existing resources was the order of every shooting day. “We usually had only three electrics and three grips, so there wasn’t manpower to carry a ton of stuff into locations,” says Milne. “In terms of moving the camera, that meant I’d be pretty much living off a 6-foot slider, which let me do small moves as well as adjustments to reframe if somebody missed a mark. It was portable, so we could deal with hillsides and the other tough environments. There were also a few significant track-ins and other moves that were incorporated as part of a holistic approach to the whole film, rather than just to be moving at any given time. We also have a couple documentary-like freeform moments, but in general we wanted to keep things a little more static and looser, which lets the audience look around the frame rather than just be on these talking heads.”

Since scenes of the adventurous pair took place largely in the bush, there was occasional need to break up the visuals with a bit of local spectacle. “Getting up above the canopy helped the scale of the film,” Milne acknowledges. “When Ricky is on horseback with Kahu [Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne], there is a drone moving right along with them that then rises up to let us play the landscape. The drone was employed again toward the very end, when Ricky and Hec go back into the bush, but all the big chase stuff in the climax was done with a helicopter using a Shotover K1 six-axis gyro-stabilized head.”

One of the more unusual filming days took place right at the start, when unexpected snows arrived. “We did one of Taika’s 720-degree shots that day,” Milne recalls. “It looks like a series of shots that were put together digitally, with the characters appearing and reappearing in different parts of the frame as the camera continues to pan, but except for a dog, that was all 100 percent an in-camera shot. We used body doubles for some of the move, plus had the two principals, once they had passed out of frame, run around and get to their new marks before the camera reached their second position. It was a lot of fun to get old tricks like this out again after 20 years and see how well they still work!”

Milne considered employing different lookup tables for each environment before electing to stick with a single one throughout. “I figured I’d rely on timing in the DI to address color shifts,” he reports, “since the green-saturated environment was always shifting. With how fast we had to work, my DIT [Andy Lau] was always off-set, working from a portable 9-inch TVLogic monitor. He’d turn over to editorial after getting cards that had gone from the 2nd AC to our data guy.”

Colourspace in Auckland handled the digital intermediate. “I’d seen and admired colorist David McLaren’s past work,” states Milne, “and when we met, I liked his approach, which favors emphasizing the narrative side of things rather than beautiful pictures for their own sake. I was on another project during the DI, so could only spend a couple days going through key parts of the film with him, but David carried it all right through, bringing a lot to it that seems natural and uninfluenced.”

With Wilderpeople an overwhelming critical success and now poised to become the highest-grossing film to emerge from New Zealand, the uninfluenced naturalism Milne cites seems to have been just the right recipe.   

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