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‘Wild’ Life: Yves Bélanger Captures Emotion, Motion and Mountain Ranges (All While Walking Backwards)

"It’s very corny but I’m proud of every shot in the movie," Bélanger says.

When Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) hikes the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild, so did cinematographer Yves Bélanger, CSC, who spent most of the shoot walking backwards to keep the camera focused on her journey forward. He estimates they hiked 50 miles over the 35-day shoot.

“Yes, we were on the Pacific Crest Trail,” says Bélanger. “We’d be walking and see the real PCT logo on the tree. We did all of Oregon and a little bit of California, faking some of the California desert scenes by shooting in Oregon and adding some Joshua trees.”

Although there may be a handful of fake Joshua trees in Wild, nearly everything else you see was captured in-camera. Director Jean-Marc Vallée and cinematographer Bélanger developed a style of shooting that worked for Dallas Buyers Club and was repeated for Wild. For that reason, Vallée not only brought Bélanger on board but also much of the crew that worked on Dallas Buyers Club: editors Martin Pensa and John Mac McMurphy, production designer John Paino, art director Javiera Varas and set decorator Robert Covelman among them.

“We were shooting in a very special way, so we needed people who were used to it and wouldn’t be shocked,” says Bélanger. “We use almost no grip, electric, no dollies or cranes. It’s all handheld and all natural light. We also create shots for 360 degrees and sometimes shoot an entire scene without cutting. A lot of people aren’t used to that.”

Photo by Anne Marie Fox/Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Digital cameras were an ideal solution for this “special” way of working. “I said to Jean-Marc, I want you to try the Alexa on Dallas Buyers Club,” Bélanger recalls. “We did and he just loved it. Since then, we’re shooting everything with Alexa. The camera sees the world like we do … almost like a human eye.”

Since Bélanger likes to capture as much as he can in-camera, lenses played another important role. With the Alexa, he likes to use “old Zeiss high-speed T1.3 lenses,” he explains. “They’re contrasty, a little yellow. At the same time, they’re softer, so it makes the Alexa look a bit more like film stock.”

For Wild, he also took a look at ARRI’s Master Primes. “I showed Jean-Marc the difference between the Master Primes and the old Zeiss lenses we’re used to using,” says Bélanger. “He said, let’s shoot all the hiking with Master Primes and the flashback sequences with the Zeiss lenses. The Master Primes are sharper and have very nice colors, and react well to the landscapes. The [character of] the two sets of lenses will be different, but subtle.”

“DPs are technical, but in the end it’s my instinct that made me pick the lenses,” he adds. “Outside, in Oregon, we saw how the lenses react to the colors and Reese’s face. It was sharper but still flattering. We didn’t want to use filters, but we pushed the sensitivity a bit so the image looked a little grainy. The lenses—in combination with the Alexa—were a good choice for the storytelling. We mixed a lot of temperatures and the camera could take them all in a nice way. We never felt we didn’t like the colors.”

Reese Witherspoon, cinematographer Yves Bélanger (operating camera) and director Jean-Marc Vallée. Photo by Anne Marie Fox/Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Bélanger was not just cinematographer but also camera operator on Wild. “In Quebec, in general, the DP always operates,” he explains. “In bigger shows, I use a camera operator, but with Jean-Marc, because there’s no lighting, I really have to operate, to frame the natural light so it looks good. And because I don’t add lights, I’m always changing the aperture with my little finger. It would take too much time to explain to the operator, and this is also where I put my mark.”

Very occasionally, Vallée would take hold of the camera. “When Jean-Marc is operating, I control the iris with the remote, look at the monitor and expose the shot according to what I think is good,” says Bélanger.

For the many hiking scenes, Bélanger used a technique he’s developed over the 25 years he’s been shooting: matching the walking rhythm of the actor for a handheld look that’s less jumpy. “When you’re handheld and walking with someone, you have to find the same beat of the actors,” he says. “It’s like dancing. Sometimes it’s Reese taking my pace and sometimes I take hers. With Reese, it was easy to shoot her; she understands everything and has so much experience.”

Nonetheless, Bélanger was still walking backwards on rough terrain. “I had two people ahead of me trying to make sure I didn’t fall,” he says. “They were very good at taking away all the things that could trip me up. I’m not that athletic or young, but it went very well. For the first few days, I wasn’t sure I would make it, but I got into good shape.”

There is one scene on which neither Bélanger nor Vallée operated. A week before they shot the seven-minute end scene of the movie, Vallée revealed that he had had a dream about it: at the moment she leaves the forest and approaches the Bridge of the Gods, the end point of her hike, the movement should become very smooth and very different from the rest of the movie. In other words, he wanted a Steadicam. “My friend Stephen Campanelli, a great Steadicam shooter, had just finished a Clint Eastwood movie,” says Bélanger, “and we had him for two days.”

Photo by Anne Marie Fox/Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Despite the avowed lack of lights, Bélanger did a bit of lighting for a couple of scenes that needed the extra help. “We had to shoot a night exterior where she’s getting drunk in the forest, hiking and puking in the rain,” he says. “We’re in the middle of the forest and there is absolutely no light. At that point, I had to ask Jean-Marc to put a fake moon there. For that scene, which took two nights to shoot, we had two cranes just with 6K soft light—a space light—to be the moon. The moon was out of frame, and the rest of the lights were only the flashlights and the fires.”

He also lit a handful of interior scenes, for practical reasons. “If I’m afraid I won’t have time to finish the daylight scene inside a house, I’d ask the gaffer and grip to prepare some lights in case we have to shoot and it’s night,” says Bélanger, who estimates he shot a scene with lights once a week. “We shot in November, so the days were short. But we would always light it realistically, through the windows, never movie lighting.”

When asked to name a favorite scene or shot, Bélanger laughs. “It’s very corny but I’m proud of every shot in the movie … for the first time,” he says. “Usually when you shoot a movie, there’s some scene you wish were better. Each time I see Wild, I’m more proud of it. It’s like marrying someone and each day you discover another thing that makes you love her more. We were very prepared and had a great crew. And we got a little lucky. With these kinds of movies, you need a little luck.”