Robert Richardson, ASC counts three Oscars®, and four other Academy Award® nominations among his many accolades. His remarkable and highly-influential body of work includes Born on the Fourth of July, JFK and Natural Born Killers with Oliver Stone; Snow Falling on Cedars with Scott Hicks; Casino, The Aviator, Shutter Island and Hugo with Martin Scorsese; and Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds with Quentin Tarantino.
Richardson reunites with Tarantino for Django Unchained. The film is a mélange of the director’s signature ingredients, including spaghetti western and Blaxploitation elements, stylized and extravagant revenge violence, and snappy, memorable dialog. In the story, a former slave becomes a bounty hunter determined to rescue his wife from a villainous plantation owner. The cast features Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson.
As with all their previous collaborations, Richardson and Tarantino shot Django Unchained on film. “There was no discussion of any digital component,” says Richardson. “From the beginning, we discussed the look of the picture on a film basis. Anamorphic was Quentin’s preference.”
Tarantino envisioned the story in a widescreen aspect ratio. Super 35 was considered, in part because of Tarantino’s predilection for zoom lenses and the film’s many important night sequences, which often unfold in rural settings. “We screened about 20 or 30 films as reference,” says Richardson. “We looked at the work of a number of Italian directors like Corbucci, Argento and Fulci.
The use of the zoom may have been aesthetic, but we also saw it as a practical element, a way of providing a number of setups from one angle. That became part of the visual feel for us on Django Unchained.”
The color palette was developed in conversations that included production designer J. Michael Riva. The Western portions of the story would feature more muted tones, but in the South, the color “explodes as much as possible,” says Richardson. “If we’d had our druthers, we’d have shot the Southern portions in three-strip IB process, and the opening, Western scenes would have had more of a desaturated or silver retention process.”
Richardson is referring to the Technicolor IB process, used to create the vibrant colors in Hollywood classics like Gone With the Wind and Shane. Richardson used digital techniques to mimic the dye transfer process in The Aviator, but he says that Tarantino prefers to use the digital intermediate only for effects that could be accomplished using photochemical printer light techniques. But Richardson says that the film’s color palette was mostly controlled in the production design, including costumes. The lush greens of Louisiana also contrasted naturally with the brown tones inherent in the Western locations.
Richardson used Panavision cameras and lenses, and the film stocks were KODAK VISION3 200T 5213 and 500T 5219. For the low-light night scenes on zoom lenses, Richardson sometimes pushed the 5219 a stop. “I did tests pushing the film stock to 800 or 1000, depending on your point of view of the speed of the stock,” he says. “That allowed me to take it to a 5.6, essentially a T4, so I gained one stop of capability. It definitely required more light, but the look of a full anamorphic negative is unbeatable – unless you go to a 65mm negative, as was done on The Master.”
The lab was Deluxe, and the 4K DI was done at EFilm in Los Angeles. Richardson used photochemical techniques for two different flashback sequences that called for unusual looks. He used reversal stock and cross-processed for a scene in which Django recalls an attempt to escape the plantation. And for a second intense flashback sequence, he pushed the negative film one stop, printed, and made a dirty dupe from the print.
“The grain is enhanced, and the images take on the quality of older film,” he says. “It’s pretty rugged. Yvan Lucas was the timer. It’s a big help to have a grader who started in the photochemical world.”
Richardson says that film was the right format for Django Unchained because that was Tarantino’s preference. “Quentin wants to shoot on film,” he says. “I have no intention of convincing him otherwise, or pushing another concept. Why would I do that? I am extraordinarily flexible. I see my job as a constant learning process, with respect to creativity and also with respect to the way technology alters our perceptions and the filmmaking choices we make. Take the zoom lens, for example – what a tremendous shift that was. And it was a very different aesthetic with the Italians I discussed with Quentin, compared to the work of Conrad Hall (ASC) and Haskell Wexler (ASC) and Vilmos Zsigmond (ASC).
“With Quentin, it was old school – and yet it doesn’t look old school,” says Richardson. “That’s the beauty of his work. It’s very out-front. It’s more dazzling. He’s a remarkable director. You can take contemporary equipment and new school ideas, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that your work is going to be any better. In fact, your work could become worse. How often have we heard that with digital, you don’t have to light anymore? That’s not true. You need to light and shape the light because the element of light remains a contributor to the story. Why give that up? It’s absurd.”
Django Unchained opened on December 25, 2012 release in North America. The film has already been nominated for five Golden Globe awards, and was named one of the 10 Best Films of the Year By the American Film Institute.