Director of Photography Ben Richardson made a major splash with the Oscar-nominated BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, winning him Best Cinematography honors at Sundance and the Independent Spirit Awards. His latest effort now in theaters is THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, directed by Josh Boone, starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. The film follows Hazel and Gus -- two teens who meet at a cancer support group. As their friendship blooms, they experience the intensity and urgency of first love amid terminal illness.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS was adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber from John Green’s best-selling novel. Reportedly made for $12 million, it opened #1 at the U. S. box office and has become the most profitable film of 2014 to date. Richardson shot the moving drama with the ALEXA XT in ARRIRAW and ARRI / ZEISS Master Prime lenses from ARRI CSC. Here, he talks about some of his choices for capturing the humor and poignancy of this intimate story.

We talked often about wanting to feel the life in Hazel and Gus, which meant seeing the texture of their skin, the sparkle in their eyes, and the Master Primes let us accomplish that.

What drew you to this project?

I had a meeting with [Producer] Wyck Godfrey to discuss possible projects he was putting together. I read The Fault in Our Stars a few days later – both the script and the book – and fell in love with the characters. Scott and Michael’s adaptation of John’s novel was beautifully direct and honest, and I found Hazel and Gus' story resonant. As does the book, I felt that the film of their journey would mean a great deal to many people around the world, and that made it a film worth trying to be a part of.

What did you discuss with the director regarding the film's visual style?

I met Josh to pitch him on my ideas for the look, and we found that we were very much on the same page. He showed stills from some great movies about young love, including SAY ANYTHING, ADVENTURELAND, Baz Luhrmann’s ROMEO + JULIET; images created by the book’s fans, and shots by photographer Ryan McGinley, also one of my favorites. Josh said the film, "can't be about death, it has to be about life…How knowing you’re going to die crystallizes everything - makes everything brighter, more vivid, more beautiful." We discussed that Hazel’s experience, her perception of the world – this kind of hyper-awareness – would influence the look. Thinking about how to achieve this without the photography becoming gaudy, I realized we could work with tertiary colors: pastels, oranges, turquoise and violet, blues, warm earth tones. Molly Hughes (our amazing Production Designer), Josh, and I looked at more McGinley images, and also Wolfgang Tillmans' abstracts as we developed the palette of Hazel’s world.

This was shot in ARRIRAW. Why did you go in this direction?

This was my first time working with the ALEXA, and happily the newer model – the XT –had just been released with the onboard Codex unit. This meant that the camera itself was compact, and didn’t require a separate ARRIRAW recorder. The ALEXA is extremely clean at 800 ISO, and shooting ARRIRAW allows subtle adjustments to white balance after shooting which ensures the best color palette and dynamic range.

What do you think of ALEXA's image quality?

I think it's a terrific camera. We built a single on-set LUT that we used for all our dailies, and tested it extensively. Once I learned the behavior of the camera (much like learning a new film stock), I could do my work in front of the lens, and expose just as I would have with film. Occasionally in darker scenes, I would overexpose a stop and have the dailies printed back down, ensuring a little extra shadow detail on the "negative," but for the most part I could trust the camera to deliver the images just as I lit them.

You also shot on the Master Primes.

I love the unfussy nature of the Master Primes. They are incredibly sharp wide open, with a rapid fall-off into very beautiful areas of defocus. They provided exactly the “heightened” feel we wanted for Hazel’s world. Even on the wider lenses we could maintain separation in the frames without sacrificing detail on the main subject. We talked often about wanting to feel the life in Hazel and Gus, which meant seeing the texture of their skin, the sparkle in their eyes, and the Master Primes let us accomplish that.


DP Ben Richardson shot the moving drama with the ALEXA XT in ARRIRAW and ARRI/ZEISS Master Prime lenses from ARRI CSC.

Gus and Hazel tour the Anne Frank House. They reach the top of the building and the space opens up with light for a special moment. How did you light this?

We shot the ground floor of the Anne Frank House on the real location in Amsterdam, but the multiple staircases and the attic room at the top were sets, beautifully designed and built by Molly and her team. She was careful to reproduce key details exactly, and we all pored over a video walk-through for hours to see where windows and practical lights existed so we could duplicate them. When it came to shooting, I deliberately lit those scenes slightly imperfectly -- we didn't fully color-balance the outside "sky" and inside lights; let some windows overexpose, for example – and we handheld the entire scene. In the attic I worked hard with my Gaffer and grips to emulate the natural beauty of soft skylight through the small windows, and used only a few small fixtures to carry the light deeper into the room for certain shots. I wanted the audience to feel the reality of that space above all, to find the beauty in the house and the moments between our characters "accidentally," as though we were simply observing and not intruding in that place.

In the last Amsterdam scene, Gus and Hazel sit outside on a bench and he reveals he is sick. The performances feel extremely raw and real.

That was one of our last scenes to shoot, and was extremely rewarding. We tried to work as simply as possible to allow the actors to immerse themselves in the scene. We found a beautiful location and selected a bench with soft tree cover, which made for gentle and consistent cross lighting even as the clouds moved above. We placed a few large frames for fill across the canal, to gently reveal their eyes. We chose simple cross coverage, but also ensured we held both Hazel and Gus in the frame on the closer shots, because you want to be able to feel how they’re handling this difficult moment together.

Positioning the cameras was interesting because the bench they sat on was so close to the canal. We tried moving it further back for the closer angles, but it felt wrong in frame, and something was lost. We weren’t budgeted for a crane or jib, so we ended up with our dolly precariously placed on the edge of the canal and the offset hanging out almost over the water. Our camera and grip team were terrific, so it was never unsafe, but I was sitting out over the edge operating. As with all the camerawork in FAULT, though, it was most important to allow Ansel and Shailene to live in the moment, so we did what we could to allow that.

There are many extremely emotional scenes. As a DP, who works right there with the actors during these challenging scenes – how do you help give the actors an environment to be vulnerable? Did you ever shoot with simultaneous cameras?

I definitely try to help my directors create the right environment for their actors. I ask my Gaffer, Key Grip, and camera team to try to remain aware of the energy of the set. Our jobs demand that we move heavy and complex pieces of equipment, send instructions over walkie-talkies, etc., but there are ways to do that which are quiet and respectful without making it awkward. On the other hand, sometimes it’s useful to allow the actors and director to enjoy some background noise while they work – much like having a private conversation at a crowded party – so really it’s a matter of awareness above all. On FAULT, we primarily shot single camera. Obviously you can refine the lighting for a single angle more effectively, but I also think there are other benefits for the director and actors to working that way. There’s an intensity to knowing that this is the shot you’re getting in this moment, which I’ve found people appreciate. Sometimes, of course, you need to use multiple cameras to cover a scene more quickly, or manage complex blocking or a certain performance interaction, and then you make it work, but it’s not my preference.

Do you have a favorite scene? There must be many that you are proud of.

Perhaps my favorite is Peter Van Houten’s home in Amsterdam. That had to be something completely different to the rest of the film, without breaking the naturalism we were striving for. Josh and I talked about the scene being like meeting Colonel Kurtz or The Wizard, and I worked hard – again with Molly’s help in providing heavy drapes and sheers – to give it the feeling of cave lighting, or a stone cell. You know the sun is out there, but it’s barely creeping inside, almost afraid to. Combined with a couple of burning orange practicals – not warm like Hazel’s house, but hot and unkind – Van Houten lives in an oppressive cage of his own making.

There are flashback shots that have a soft and muted look to them. Was this done in-camera?

We wanted both Hazel’s initial "cancer story" as a young girl, and the end montage to have a distinct flashback feeling. As we revisit all the places we have seen throughout the movie, we felt it was important to render them as memories, not just re-use shots from the actual scenes. We tested several options, filters and vintage lenses, etc. but in the end we chose the Lensbaby system to create that look, specifically the Sweet-35, and the Edge-80, mounted in the Composer Pro. Each day after shooting one of the scenes we wanted to include in the flashbacks, we also would do a "Lensbaby take." I would manually operate the Lensbaby's frame and focus to drift over the performers, creating the look you see.

There's a funny, yet heart-wrenching scene when Gus gets to hear the eulogies from his friends. How did you cover Hazel's monologue?

BR: That scene was blocked and shot to gradually focus in from the wider context of their situation, and to enjoy the humor and irreverence of that moment, to the intensity of Hazel and Gus' connection. And to hopefully draw you in from that humor and perspective to Hazel’s eulogy without making it too obvious that the entire latter half of that scene – necessarily! – plays in extreme close-up. I also have to note that Shailene's performance in that scene, which was at the end of a very long day, was incredible. At the end of her take, we all just froze – you could have heard a pin drop.