Enamored by ‘The Power of the Dog’: How DP Ari Wegner, ACS Captured Jane Campion’s Stunning Cinematic Vision

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank

As part of the 46th Toronto International Film Festival, Australian cinematographer Ari Wegner, ACS received the TIFF Variety Artisan Award for a career that includes Lady Macbeth, The Girlfriend Experience, Stray, In Fabric, True History of the Kelly Gang, Zola, and The Power of the Dog, which screened as part of the festivities and is considered to be a major award contender for Netflix and filmmaker Jane Campion (The Piano) at the 94th Academy Awards. The Power of the Dog, an adaptation of the novel by Thomas Savage, takes place in 1920s Montana and revolves around sibling conflict that erupts when one of the Burbank brothers brings his wife and her son to live on the family ranch. “A lot of my films have played at TIFF,” notes Wegner. “It’s lovely to receive an award that is about a body of work.”  

Director of Photography Ari Wegner, ACS

Along with directing the cast of Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, Campion wrote the screenplay. “It’s rare for a director who doesn’t write to cross paths with a script that is perfect for them,” notes Wegner. “There is something special about films where the director has been involved with the creation of the whole thing. I read the book before the script. When Jane called me, the first draft was not finished and she made a throwaway comment, ‘You can read the book or wait for the script.’ I went out that day to find it. The book is incredible. The script does such a beautiful job of capturing the essence of it. Working with her was a real joy. The way that Jane makes films is similar to how she approaches life, which is openhearted, vulnerable, honest, and just because it works for someone doesn’t mean she’s going to do that. There are a lot of things that Jane does differently which is a testament to her being great, knowing herself, and being able to say what you as a director need.”

DP Ari Wegner, ACS with director Jane Campion

Most of the action unfolds on the Burbank family ranch. “It was important to us to find a location that had an iconic mountain range, where we could look 360, and be epic but also humble,” states Wegner. “There was a huge amount of planning about where we were going to build things. The beautiful aspect is that you’re in complete control from the texture of the exterior to where the windows are. Early on I did a breakdown of the script to make sure that in all of the pieces that we built, the eyelines connected in a way that we needed them to. From Phil’s [Benedict Cumberbatch] room, we need to be able to see down to the alley where Rose [Kirsten Dunst] is drinking as well as the piano. In the kitchen you need to be able to see the hides.” The ranch was entirely a set build. We knew that we weren’t going to find an intact 1920s Montana mansion that happens to be in New Zealand. It was a testament to our production designer Grant Major who worked on The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We built the exterior on location in Otago and interiors on a stage in Auckland.”

George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) & Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst)

A couple of months before principal photography commenced a decision was made about the aspect ratio. “We explored down every possible rabbit hole from Academy to 16:9 knowing that this film would always have a home on a streaming service,” remarks Wegner. “Jane and I did a full month of storyboarding and would go out into the landscape to see if we were right. We couldn’t keep it all in the frame with 16:9 because there was a lot of imagery that lent itself to this long rectangle shape such as the mountain range, a group of people around a table, and a line of cattle on a ridge. The final aspect ratio was 2.40:1. We went widescreen and chose these Ultra Panatars at 1.3x anamorphic from Panavision. They were lovely. I didn’t want to shoot anamorphic as it would feel too much like a movie, but the Ultra Panatars have such a beautiful mix between spherical and anamorphic; the lenses have the naturalism of spherical with a tiny bit of the anamorphic magic in there. Jane loves long lenses. What is great when you’re shooting a location that is so vast as that part of the world is you can shoot a wide shot on as long as a lens as you want. The long lens allowed the mountain range to be big. There is not so much a difference between the deep background and foreground as you would on a wide lens and shooting with a deeper stop to avoid it looking fuzzy.”

DP Ari Wegner, ACS

Footage was captured on two ARRI ALEXA LF cameras over the course of 52 days. “We shot a lot more two camera setups than I have in the past,” notes Wegner. “Jane fell in love with two cameras when she was doing the Top of the Lake series. If we were looking at having a single camera day the other one could be sent away. I had a shopping list of stills that I had taken over the last year in the valley where we were of certain weather phenomenon. This specific mountain range just after it rained, and the sun has come out again. The weather changes 12 times a day in New Zealand. I had GPS markers that I sent to A camera/Steadicam operator Grant Adams. We shared the operating so we could tag-team if he needed to go on a mission. Some of my favorite shots are ones that I saw when we were setting up for something else. The light at certain times of the day was so magical that it felt criminal to be standing with a camera and not shooting something!”

Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) & Peter Gordon (Kodi Smit-McPhee)

HMIs were utilized for the daylight scenes. “Outside the windows, the landscape was printed backdrops,” reveals Wegner. “Our visual effects supervisor Jason Hawkins took photos on location and printed them as if they were advertising billboards. I used LED SkyPanels to light those. We only had a photo of one time of day, and it wasn’t designed to be backlit so I would front light them for dusk or night. What I do love about LEDs is how quickly you can change the color. The pastel silvery sun-bleached whiteness of the grass and hills influenced the color palette; into that we added natural tones such as the black and brown of the cattle, leather and weathered skin, timber floorboards, and wood paneling. Rose’s room is floral and rosy. The glades where Phil swims needed to feel like an exhale of relief and an oasis of water and life. I would describe the palette as being dusty with exceptions! We also used the Tiffen 812 warming filter which is like a half-correction that unified the colors, and I loved what it did to the skin tones as well.”

DP Ari Wegner, ACS

“My biggest fear from a cinematography perspective was how to make the studio work feel like you just stepped in from this incredible landscape; do that stylistically but also pull it off technically,” remarks Wegner. “Once the backdrops started working my fear turned into excitement. As traditionally where you might say, ‘Let us bluescreen or greenscreen and later in post, we’ll put something there.’ You’re dealing with this old-school optical illusion, and as a DP you’re still crafting the entire image as one thing which allows an extra level of risk-taking. You have this incredible set with these dark timber walls and beautiful sheen.” The dusk scene near the end is a personal favorite. “It is like we’re seeing the place refreshed with a lightness because of what has just happened in the story. There is a feeling of quiet and peace. It’s a showcase of everyone’s work from Jonny Greenwood’s music to Kodi’s beautiful performance.”

-S&P-

Images courtesy of Netflix

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