'Beasts of No Nation': Director/Cinematographer Cary Fukunaga Brings Unflinching Imagery to Life

“I’ve always been heavily involved in cinematography on all my work—lighting design, camera placement—and I thought, why not keep it more intimate on this film?" says the director.
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Director Cary Fukunaga’s work has generally been quite dark and serious, as anyone who watched the first season of True Detective or the features Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre would attest, but few would say that his new film, Beasts of No Nation, an unflinching story of child soldiers in Africa, is not his most intense project to date. The film, which premiered concurrently on Netflix and in a limited theatrical run in October, concerns a young African boy, Agu (Abraham Attah), who flees his village while it’s under attack by revolutionaries and quickly finds himself serving as part of a brutal army of child soldiers run by the charismatic but vicious Commandant (Idris Elba).

Shot in Ghana with a cast consisting mainly of children with no prior acting experience, Beasts of No Nation was written by Fukunaga, based on a novel by Uzodinma Iweala. Fukunaga also served as director of photography on the film. He had done a significant amount of shooting previously, particularly on some of his own documentaries, but he’d teamed with experienced DPs for his narrative work: Adriano Goldman for Jane Eyre and Sin Nombre, Adam Arkapaw for True Detective. (For more on True Detective’s production, see our article in February 2014’s Digital Video magazine here.)

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Abraham Attah as Agu and Idris Elba as Commandant

What made him decide to add cinematographer to his duties on this project, which would be shooting deep in the jungles of Africa with untrained child actors?

“Mostly naiveté,” he laughs. “I’ve always been heavily involved in cinematography on all my work—lighting design, camera placement—and I thought, why not keep it more intimate on this film? We were using a lot of non-actors. It would be good for me to sit right there in the middle of the action. In relation to True Detective, I thought this would be smaller, more contained. It obviously turned out to be a much more difficult endeavor than any of us imagined it would be.”

In fact, the moment principal photography commenced, he found himself saddled with an additional job title. “The A-camera operator pulled his hamstring on the first day of shooting—first setup, second take. So I had to take over operating as well, which was something I hadn’t expected to be doing.”

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Idris Elba and director/cinematographer Cary Fukunaga

Also unexpected was the bout of malaria Fukunaga contracted after arriving in Ghana that laid him up for about a week while he tweaked the script and oversaw preproduction and casting from his bed. Overall, he planned the 35-day shoot to capture the story in sequence so that his young first-time actors could experience the events in the order they occur in the script.

While he’s quick to say he’d have liked to have shot on film if it had been feasible, he adds that the ability he had to shoot some very long takes from multiple angles—something that his limited budget would have made prohibitive in 35mm—helped significantly with the performances. “We’d run the camera for 15 or 20 minutes and everyone got swept up in the moment. People who didn’t know how to act were suddenly acting because everyone around them was taking part in this larger social experiment. So you had to cover it as though it was something actually happening and not stop people so you could move the camera around. You had to move the camera and find all the angles you needed for whatever was happening in that scene.”

Fukunaga shot with an ARRI Alexa XT and generally used a second camera, often on a Steadicam, to capture as much of the action in as few takes as possible. He credits 1st AC Stephen MacDougall as “a real department head. He took up a lot of slack. I was directing and he made sure everyone was organized.”

After running tests with colorist Steve Bodner (True Detective) of Deluxe New York, he decided he could shoot in ProRes 4444 Log C without any sacrifice to image quality significant enough to warrant the additional expense and bulk of attempting to shoot in ARRIRAW.

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He also chose to make significant use of optical filters in front of the lens, as he would if the movie were being shot and timed photochemically. “I just like old school ways of doing things,” he observes. “Why do it the easy way when you can do it the hard way?”

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The early scenes of Agu with his family were photographed through a series of [Tiffen] Antique Suede filters. Then he used a lot of ND and ND graduated filters when he wanted to darken portions of vegetation and/or sky. “We even used 85 and 81EF filters” and set color temperature to tungsten, rather than correcting for daylight in the camera’s settings. “It made certain colors read differently on the sensor,” he explains, “and gave a somewhat unusual look in places.”

The director/cinematographer deliberately pushed the Alexa’s sensor a bit past its comfort level, setting the exposure index to 1250 but really keying at more like 2000. “I like the look of old school reversal film,” he says, “especially if it’s slightly underexposed and there’s no information in the blacks. It just becomes this greenish blue-gray, living grain-buzz thing. Obviously, I couldn’t shoot reversal film, so that’s how I got that feel.”

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Fukunaga directed MacDougall to get certain Panavision C Series anamorphic prime lenses and a 10:1 zoom. Fukunaga explains, “We did spherical widescreen on Sin Nombre and I wasn’t happy with the look. There’s something special about the way real anamorphic lenses treat the bokeh, the way they feel when the focus shifts, those imperfections along the edge of the frame—the vignettes. I wanted those imperfections.”

The variable zoom in particular gave him the artifacts he loves. “Almost all the places in the movie where you see a lens flare, it was that lens,” Fukunaga enthuses. “It has all these elements, and that would give the rainbow colored but also chunky, rectangular lens flares I love so much. Part of the reason I lost 20 pounds during production came from handholding the camera with this lens,” he adds.

Despite the painful subject matter and difficult conditions, the shoot also had a lot of fun times, particularly for the young actors. Fukunaga says, “Sundays between shooting weeks we would show dailies from the movie, which was extremely helpful for everyone and for the most part a morale booster. It was amazing watching them learn how we all functioned together. They would see the fruits of their labor coming to life. We’d watch scenes we shot that week and they’d scream and laugh. It was all make believe for them.”

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