Ari Wegner ACS • The Power Of The Dog
By Ron Prince
If Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in Jane Campion’s The Power Of The Dog is considered one of his best, and a worthy awards-season contender too, the same could equally apply to Australian DP Ari Wegner ACS and her cinematography work on the film, described as high art that shimmers with empathetic, emotional intelligence.
Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, the slow-burning psychodramatic Western is set on a remote range in the brutish badlands of Montana in 1925. Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons lead as brothers Phil and George Burbank, who manage the ancestral cattle ranch, and have even shared the same bedroom for 20 years. Until, that is, George suddenly takes a wife – the widowed Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), who runs a nearby restaurant and rooming-house. He moves Rose into the mahogany-panelled mansion with her sensitive son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), but the hard-bitten Phil treats these interlopers with mocking cruelty and derision, until the unexpected comes to pass.
The Netflix production had its world premiere to critical acclaim at the 2021 Venice Film Festival, where Campion won the Silver Lion for Best Direction, prior to a run on the worldwide festival circuit and limited release on the streaming platform. Wegner picked-up the Artisan Award at the Toronto Film Festival.
“I have been a great admirer of Jane’s work for as long as I can remember,” says Wegner, whose recent credits include Lady Macbeth (2016, dir. William Oldroyd), In Fabric (2018, dir. Peter Strickland), The True History Of The Kelly Gang (2019, dir. Justin Kurzel) and Zola (2020, dir. Janicza Bravo).
“As a cinematographer you dream about the possibility of collaborating with an auteur director like Jane Campion”
“As a cinematographer you dream about the possibility of collaborating with an auteur director like Jane. She is one of the first filmmakers I ever discovered – back in high school actually – and is maybe my original inspiration, as her work got me excited about film as an art form as well as a career.”
“I shot a commercial with Jane about five years ago. It was a brief experience, but we really clicked. Cut to the last few days of 2018, I’m in the supermarket, I look down at my phone and Jane Campion is calling. She tells me she’s read a book and she’s writing the script, and might I be interested in talking about it?”
“As soon as Jane started telling me about the setting, the time period and the characters, I knew The Power Of The Dog would be an incredible project for a cinematographer – and, of course, the chance to collaborate with her was completely irresistible,” recalls Wegner.
One of the prerequisites for the job was that Campion wanted someone who would be accessible throughout the 12 months before production actually started, and who would be especially willing to spend time early-on getting involved in planning.
“A full year before production started, we started scouting and talking,” Wegner recalls. “Driving and talking, exploring on foot and talking. Basically a lot of talking!
“One of the most important things for us was scouting the locations at the same time of year we would be shooting. Colour and light in that part of the world change drastically with the seasons. So it was important to us that we saw places as they would be a year later, when we would arrive with a crew. We did more trips over the rest of 2019, finally settling on a location for the ranch, discussing the big picture decisions as well as minute details.
“The great thing about having time is you can sleep on every idea. A few months before the shoot, we left the production office and settled down at Jane’s house, about three-hours drive from where we were going to shoot. We spent four weeks together storyboarding, going through the script one beat at a time to crystallise what each shot needed to convey or hint at. Both of us would draw then compare, adjust and refine.”
“We landed on a set of values – unadorned, deliberate, non-judgmental – for the photography”
Wegner adds, “I usually love creating quite specific visual rules for films, but for this project I’d say what we landed on would be better described as a set of values – unadorned, deliberate, non-judgmental photography, no emotionally-manipulative camera moves, no shots that were trying to convince an audience about anything. Shots that could show a character feeling something without telling a viewer what they should feel about it.
“The whole film would hopefully lead up to complex, multiple, emotional feelings for the audience at the end, and we knew that would be strongest if viewers could bring their own preconceptions to what they were seeing, rather than have the film dictate an opinion to them.”
Inspiration for the visuals started with B&W portrait and documentary photography of the time, including the work of Evelyn Cameron (1868 – 1928), a British woman who documented her pioneering life and times in Montana as a diarist and a photographer.
“Her work is beautiful and heartfelt and delicate, in a world that wasn’t easy for her, and I found that, and her images, endlessly fascinating. There’s a very gentle eye and mind behind the camera, you can just sense it,” notes Wegner.
Painterly references encompassed Andrew Wyeth and Lucien Freud, for the restricted, muted colour palettes and minimalist compositions in their work. Amongst the filmic inspirations was A Man Escaped (1956, dir. Robert Bresson, DP Léonce-Henri Burel) for its stripped-down, matter-of-fact and cinematographic style, full of tension.
“Jane and I discussed the colour palette of the film at length with Kirsty Cameron, the costume designer, and production designer Grant Major,” says Wegner. “Essentially we distilled our palette down to a dusty rainbow of colours between sliver and brown, with some pastels and gold to highlight Rose. The only exception was to be the verdant green in the scenes where we filmed Phil’s private space in the willow glades. We wanted these to feel like an exhale, an oasis, full of life.”
Principal photography on The Power Of The Dog took place in New Zealand over a total of 50 shooting days, spread across two separate stints due to a nationwide Covid-19 shut-down.
Filming began on New Zealand’s south island in January 2020, in the Hills Creek area of Otago, where a remote, former sheep farm was transformed into the cattle ranch. Special attention was paid to the geographical layout of the main house and outbuildings, both in relation to the path of the sun and the eyelines from the property to the mountainscapes in the distance. The first two storeys of the mansion’s façades were constructed – the third floor and roof were VFX-composited in post production. The shell of the house acted as a useful space for cast and crew dining, wardrobe and make-up, as well as the video village. Shooting also took place in the town of Oamaru on the coast of North Otago.
The production then moved to a sizeable warehouse in Auckland on New Zealand’s north island, where the interiors for the film had been constructed. Location photographs of the vistas from the ranch on the south island were printed on to scenic backdrops, which were hung and appropriately lit outside the interior set-builds. Production in Auckland lasted for one week, before lockdown ensued. Filming resumed in June 2020 for the remaining four weeks.
Recalling the decision-making about aspect ratio, cameras and lenses, Wegner says, “We explored lots of framing options – 4:3, 2:1 and 1.85:1 – but there were shapes that were calling out for 2.40:1 – the ensemble scenes around the long table, the cattle drives and long mountain ranges. We shot using Alexa Mini LF and Panavision Ultra Panatar lenses, from a package provided by Panavision in Auckland.
“I had never used the Ultra Panatars before, but I really loved them, they are beautiful without being attention-grabbing. The lenses have a 1.3 x Anamorphic squeeze, so the look is not entirely spherical but not obviously Anamorphic either. I used a Tiffen 812 warming filter for pretty much the entire shoot, as I wanted to mute and unify the colours a touch more, and the 812 did that in a surprising and subtle way.
“Jane generally enjoys longer lenses than I have typically used, and I really fell in love with using them on this film as a powerful tool for setting the geography of a scene, or embedding characters in landscapes in an authentic way. Plus, when you are working with locations so vast, there is almost no limit to how far you can take the camera back. There are very few wide shots in this film using wide lenses.”
Wegner says that after production wrapped each day, she spent time with DIT/dailies colourist James Gardner applying a grade that would carry the film through the editorial process.
“At the end of a day, I enjoy watching what we’ve shot again – away from the time pressure of the set, on a nice monitor in a dark environment” she says. “On-set we monitored in Rec.709 which is a LUT I know very well. It’s not always the prettiest LUT, but when I monitor in Rec.709 it’s one less variable to take into account. Spending time with James at the end of the day meant we got the best of both worlds, monitoring in Rec.709 on-set and having graded images for the editorial team. When the time finally came for the DI, the colourist Trish Cahill at Sound Film, myself and Jane spent three weeks rediscovering the footage all over again. That was a real joy.”
Although Wegner operated the handheld scenes, Grant Adams took on the lion’s share of A-camera duties, including Steadicam moves. 1st ACs Daniel Foeldes and Ben Rowsell supported them with Henry West joining after the Covid lockdown. Aerial drone photography was shot by Sam Peacocke. Sam Strain was the key grip, and Thad Lawrence the gaffer.
“What you see of the amazing landscapes on-screen is for real”
“In keeping with our philosophy of not being emotionally-manipulative, we aimed to only move the camera when prompted by an actor’s movement, or to be in lockstep with a physical action, like Rose’s stop-start piano playing.” says Wegner. “When it came to the handheld sequences, we took a similar approach, but gave the camera more agency to be curious, to tilt or pan to discover something that was of interest.”
Recalling her lighting strategy for the film, Wegner remarks, “I generally don’t use lights on exterior scenes – but I love daylight control, what you can sculpt with bounce and neg. What you see of the amazing landscapes on-screen is for real. The natural light in New Zealand, during the first and last hours of the days, is magical. Having spent so much time there in prep, Jane and I knew the light in that valley particularly well. So we were able to strategise during the day if we knew something was going to happen with the light and get a break away camera ready to capture that.”
For the fearsomely-dark interior scenes shot in Auckland, which play such a strong role in the psychological storytelling, Wegner kept the lighting low-key.
“The house is an opulent mansion, but it’s not a welcoming place,” she explains. “It was important to us that Rose felt ill-at-ease from the moment she entered, and that this place could be intimidating day or night.
“I wanted it to feel anxiety-inducing and dark, but obviously without losing the glorious set that Grant had built for us. So I lit the dark timber panels a lot with sheen, worked with silhouettes of the architectural shapes, like the banisters and animal heads, and made sure the angle of the keylight on an actor was just enough to see the emotion and light in the eyes, but not much more.
“I wanted the mansion to feel anxiety-inducing and dark”
“For night interiors I really enjoy Jem Balls and bounced Dedolights – for our day interiors I would light the backdrops quite hot, allowing the inside to feel dark and oppressive. We would generally bounce-in HMIs to key, and light the backdrops with SkyPanels or ARRI X Lights, depending on the season or time of day we were trying to depict.”
Wegner concludes, “A quote from Andrew Lesnie ACS ASC which has always stayed with me is that ‘some directors want a facilitator, others want a collaborator’. One of the things I appreciate most about Jane is that she is a true collaborator. She creates a family environment which puts everyone at ease and, from there, ideas can flow in both directions, loop around, and go through various generations until the strongest ones stick.
“At the beginning of official pre-production Jane requested a two-day read-through of the script with all the department heads. All together in one room she was able to share how she envisaged what was on the page, and we all shared our early vulnerable ideas and research. In prep, those big picture conversations, with everyone around a table is what I crave more than anything, but in my experience those moments actually turn out to be so hard to come by. So two whole days was a feast! We certainly didn’t have all the answers by the end of it, but we were adrenalised with ideas and the knowledge that we were all starting the conversation from the same place.”