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DPs Bob Richman, Buddy Squires and Thorsten Thielow on Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman

Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman

It took a team of four seasoned documentary DPs to capture the stories of Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman. Shot in Montana, Kansas and Louisiana, the film documents the lives of three men (the titular rancher, farmer and fisherman) who act as environmental conservationists in their respective fields. Directors Susan Froemke and John Hoffman have the action unfold in a vérité fashion, which stresses the land and the people who work it. Among the DPs they hired for the project were Bob Richman (An Inconvenient Truth), Buddy Squires (The Central Park Five) and Thorsten Thielow (30 for 30). Below, these three cinematographers discuss the unique challenges and rewards of shooting Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman. The film will have its world premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival this week.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Richman: I’ve worked with both John Hoffman and Susan Froemke, the directors, for many years and on a variety of films. Susan and I both learned our craft working with the vérité pioneers Albert and David Maysles at the start of our careers.

Squires: I suspect that John and Susan were looking for people with extensive vérité experience along with a strong portfolio of landscape work. RFF is a film that requires DPs with an intuitive feel for the land and the people. Hopefully we succeeded in doing justice to these individuals’ stories and the land they love.

Thielow: I came on to RFF about halfway through the project for times when Bob and Buddy were not available. Susan and John where looking for someone with strong vérité experience along with extensive gimbal experience – for filming on horseback, on fishing boats and other adventurous circumstances. While I was a little intimidated at first to be working along with those two rockstar DPs – Bob and Buddy – I can say it has been a huge pleasure, and hopefully we all succeeded in having achieved a coherent visual language and cinematic consistency throughout the film.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Squires: Artistically this film is about the land and the people that live closely with it – the intimate relationship between the two. It was important to find ways to connect those two elements, making it beautiful while working fast and striving to give the film an elegant, composed quality.

Richman: We were hoping, as we always do, that the film would be character-driven. So it was important to create an honest portrait of them, capturing intimate moments as they worked and interacted with their family.

Squires: We wanted to show them in these grand landscapes while giving context to the places they live and work. For example, in the footage on the range: the way Dusty, the rancher, moves in that space connects the specifics of his character with the romantic image of the mountain landscape revealing aspects of his soul and personality. For Justin, the farmer, it was about showing the relationship with his young son and the passing of a tradition from one generation to the next – all within this majestic setting.

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?

Richman: My earliest influence, and one that remains my main one in almost everything I shoot, is the film Salesman, and all the work of that first generation of vérité filmmakers. Being in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains in Montana with modern-day cowboys, I couldn’t help but think of the films of John Ford.

Squires: When I saw those giant combines working the magnificent Kansas landscape during the harvest, I couldn’t help thinking of The Plow that Broke the Plains – as well as Flaherty and Leacock’s Louisiana Story.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Squires: Although I was working in the wide open space of Kansas, it felt like I was constantly shooting in the smallest of spaces. In one of the scenes Justin dug a six-foot deep trench to show the superior qualities of untilled soil. Trying to see the intricacies of worm channels and root structures in the dirt was a bit tough in that tight, contrasty space. Other scenes required working in the close confines of a combine’s cab or being crammed into a single engine seaplane for vérité work. Our charge was to create beautiful imagery while the people we were filming were struggling to meet their own deadlines. They weren’t doing things for the camera, they were under pressure to complete the task at hand. For example, in filming the wheat harvest we had seconds to get the camera into position as these massive machines came churning by – inches from the lens – throwing dust and chaff in all directions. Constantly working against time and chaos, while hoping to capture the beauty of it all was the challenge and the fun of it.

Richman: Trying to capture the beauty of the mountains, while trying to get the lighting just right, was also difficult. We were constantly capturing fleeting moments that would never happen again.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Richman: I shot the beginning with the c300 and using that allowed me to put on a b4 zoom lens. Then I moved to the Arriflex after I saw the beautiful colors in Buddy’s footage. I got the 17-120 Canon zoom.

Squires: I had been frustrated doing handheld work with most of the 35mm digital cameras – they just did not balance well. With the Arri Amira I finally have a digital cinema camera that feels good on my shoulder. My primary lens is a Canon 17mm-120mm zoom. I also carry a 300mm Canon telephoto and an Abel IB/E 2X extender. These lenses combined provide focal lengths ranging from 17mm-600mm. I used every one of these on this project. The beautiful drone work in Kansas was done by a local drone operator who is also a farmer. He really understood the harvest and the way we wanted it filmed. The resulting footage is spectacular and a huge asset to the project.

Thielow: I agree with Bob and Buddy’s feeling on the Arris. For the packing trip with Dusty, I used the Canon C300, because of its size and economical power usage. We had one C300 rigged for handheld and one on a gimbal. That allowed us to be flexible and switch seamlessly from gimbal to handheld. For the fishing with Wayne in the Gulf and other trips, I used the Arri Amira for handheld and a Alexa Mini on the gimbal. For the handheld vérité I used a 30mm to 105mm Canon Cine Zoom. The built in ND filters of both the Canon allowed me to stay mostly consistent at a F2.8. On the gimbal, I used mostly a 24mm and a 35mm Canon Cine Prime I kept the F-stop consistent with the vérité at a 2.8. I pulled my own focus with a Redrock Fingerwheel.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Richman: What lighting? I did very little lighting. When I did I kept it very minimal using one or two diva lights. I’m always looking for an interior that is daylight lit with windows, and then I try to enhance it slightly trying to keep it both natural and dramatic and always single-source.

Squires: Basically we tried to keep it as natural as possible. As is typical in this type of production there was very little time for lighting. Often I relied on the tremendous dynamic range of the camera and its ability to hold highlights smoothly. I used backlight whenever possible in an attempt to turn the hard sun into an ally. Doing an interview on a sun-baked Kansas wheat field is not ideal.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Richman: I can say the most difficult for me was the scene with the group in the cabin only because it’s hard to shoot handheld with a large group of people sitting around in a semi-circle. Trying to reach across the room and the movement of the camera can be tricky and it ends up turning into interviews.

Squires: For me, Justin with his son out in the field was tough because the light, which was beautiful, was going down fast and I only had fifteen minutes with the boy. I knew it was iconic imagery that was perfect for the film and that the moment was fleeting. Getting down to the boy’s level to see things from his perspective and to capture this touching moment between father and son was difficult given the rugged terrain. The characters are showing you what they see in the soil and one wants the camera to capture that detail clearly without ruining the moment or distracting them. Their action is not particularly dramatic, they are kneeling on the ground, heads down, and digging in the dirt. To film it well one has to be on the ground with them, sensitive to their interaction and expressions while searching for the details that make the scene significant. It’s a constant ballet of complex movements, but when you get it right it’s amazing and feels really good.

Thielow: One of the most difficult scenes and at the same time one of the most stunning trips I filmed during my career was the packing trip with Dusty to the edge of Montana’s wilderness. Dusty, his crew and more than a dozen horses loaded with utensils like tents, camping kitchens, food and such. The night before the trip Dusty had us over in his cozy cabin up in the woods, and we explained to him and his crew members that I would like to be sitting on a horse, facing backwards while holding a gimbal for some of the ride. Dusty gave me one his beautiful smiles, shook his head and said only one word: “Impossible.” A few whiskeys later that night we convinced him to at least give it a try. Shortly after sunrise the next morning when it was time to get on the horses, about twenty people fell silent as Peter Miller, our wonderful sound recordist, and I got on the horses. Peter with his full field recording kit and I with the gimbal. The caravan started moving up a small path into the mountains. To our left a canyon with a steep drop of about 400 feet, the first sunlight peeking over the top of the mountain. Suddenly my horse stepped on a rock and slipped. It jumped up and both of us almost went over the edge into the canyon. Dusty, who was right behind me jumped off his horse and grabbed the holster. He probably saved both of our lives. While the rest of the trip was nothing but amazing, I would like to mention how important it was to have Peter Miller and Beth Aala there. Both Peter and Beth are such experienced rockstars in their field and their professionalism and team spirit made this adventurous and at times dangerous mission a great success.

Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?

Squires: What we try to do is create as good a “negative” as we can to make as much room for color correction as possible. When the camera is on your shoulder in the middle of a cornfield you don’t have the tools to get the perfect look or perfect exposure.

Richman: Unlike a fiction film we do not have the luxury of creating a look and in fact that would work against us. We are in the moment, reacting to what is in front of us.

Squires: It’s a process of discovery. If you set out with a predetermined shot list in your mind, you might well miss what is happening right in front of your camera.

  • Camera: Arri Amira, Alexa Mini, Canon C300; Gimbal: Freefly Movi M15, Redrock Micro Focus Wheel
  • Lenses: Canon 17mm -120mm, Canon 30-105, Canon 300mm, Abel IB/E 2X extender, Canon Cine Primes, 24,35,50,85mm, Canon 100mm-400mm 2x Extender
  • Lighting: Available Light
  • Processing: Digital
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