<I>The Power of the Dog</I> cinematographer Ari Wegner
Issue: September/October 2021

The Power of the Dog cinematographer Ari Wegner

Netflix’s The Power of the Dog is a feature about a charismatic rancher, who inspires fear and awe in those around him. When Phil Burbank’s brother brings home a new wife and her son, he torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.

Directed by Jane Campion, the film stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Netflix is releasing The Power of the Dog in theaters on November 17th and will begin streaming the feature on December 1st. Cinematographer Ari Wegner (www.ariwegner.com) shot the project and recently took some time to speak with Post. Her credits include Zola, The True History of the Kelly Gang, In Fabric and The Wonder. Here, she shares her experience working on this latest project for Netflix.

How did you get involved in shooting The Power of the Dog?

“About three years before Jane contacted me about Power of the Dog, we'd met on a commercial actually. (It) was a really short, little experience, but we knew that we got on really well and we thought in a similar way. Then she called me pretty much out of the blue and said that she'd read a book and that she was adapting it into a screenplay, and she was looking for a DP that would be interested in doing a really long prep, and basically, what was I up to? The rest is history.”
Can you talk about your camera and lens selection?

“All of the films I've ever shot digital have all been (Arri’s) Alexa. So Alexa was a very natural choice for this. We shot Alexa LF. We shot 4K. That was an easy choice actually. I love the Alexa sensor and I know it really well. It really made sense for me on a project of this scale to not change one of the big elements of what I know — not be learning some new sensor. And then in terms of lenses, we went with the Panavision Ultra Panatar, which are 1.3 times anamorphic. And that came about in that we explored spherical. We explored anamorphic. I guess the thing that was the first pointer in one direction or another, which was that we wanted to shoot wide-screen, and that came about from shot listing.

“We initially had drawn a bit more 1.85 storyboards, but we just found as we were drawing, we were just drawing off the sides. We couldn't keep in the box anymore. And actually, when we realized there's a lot of imagery, which has that long length to it, like the mountain range, the rope, a group sitting around a long table, even a long line of cattle on a ridge, this stretched image, stretched long rectangle shape really felt natural to us for framing. Knowing that, I started looking into these lenses. They're a beautiful lens, the Ultra Panatar. It also allowed us to use a huge amount of the sensor and still have a little bit of racking room. It's a bit of a geek kind of thing…every DP wants to use a lot of the sensor. I'm no different.”
Did the lighting impact your choices?

“Light is a huge part of this story, really. Even from a very deep story level, the light on the hills plays a huge narrative plot role. The natural light falling on the environment on the hills and the mountains in this valley, where the stories takes place, is a really big thing for us, obviously. And then coming inside, we really wanted a contrast of that bright, exposed, big space into something that felt a lot more claustrophobic and menacing. What I love about dark photography is that you can really harness the power of where you can direct the viewer's eye. So if you have a very dark frame and then a bright patch within that, then it's a very easy frame to look at, because you are naturally drawn to the glimpse of light.
“So, making sure that a character always had eye light and that it was dark enough to feel menacing and moody, but that we're seeing just enough to see their emotion as well. Darkness and light (are) a big thing for us. Silhouette's also huge...Phil himself has this amazing silhouette, just the shape of his body, these wooly legs and the hat and this buttoned-up thing with his costumes…like a monster, a silhouette, half animal, half man, moving around. Very early on, we see him in silhouette, going up the stairs; some great silhouettes of him and Peter, when he is on the saddle; Silhouettes that present themselves in the barn, by the barn door apertures; silhouette against the mountains. That's one of my favorite things to do in cinematography — great silhouette, which is really black and white, light and shade, working together.”

Talk about the camera movement. 
“We wanted a photographic style, which was, I guess, nonjudgmental in that it didn't lead you to a certain opinion or not as a viewer. That it would sit quite still and allow you to put your own judgments onto what you were seeing and not tell you how to feel about what you were seeing with anything manipulative, like a big push in or focus pull. That was a big, guiding principle. But what happens when you keep the camera quite still, then any movement feels really memorable. So we had a few times where we did want to move.
“Obviously, when characters are moving, we follow them. But that, I guess, doesn't feel so much like movement because you're keeping a frame. But things like these bookends of seeing Phil through the windows in the kitchen to track along with him there, or there's an important scene in the barn [later] in the film when Peter and Phil are in there together, and the camera swirls around them in a whirlpool, where there's a lot of very strong emotions going on for both of them, and it's all bit confusing, and the background swell behind them in a way you haven't seen before, and have them have one of their faces replaced by the other. It's got an intertwining, whirlpool confusion type of energy to it. And more importantly, it's a move you haven't seen before. It feels different, but you don't know why. 

“And then the other times, when Rose is playing the piano and Phil's mocking her with his banjo, to have the camera be in-sync with her so…the camera would be moving when she's playing, and then there's little stops when she stops because of Phil’s interruptions. You're going through this little moment of a journey with her, her being unsure of what's happening, regaining confidence, and then getting afraid again. 

“When you don't move the camera much, the times that you do become very powerful, very memorable. And that was our hope there. There’s something iconic and memorable, for instance, the scene in which Phil walks by and you see him through the windows, because the camera moves with him.
“We did use a lot of long lenses to do long lens storytelling that Jane really loves, and now I also have taken on a love for — to have someone in foreground and then someone beyond and someone beyond that or by things or people. There's a moment when Phil's inviting Peter into the barn for the first time and Rose gets to see it. So you see her in the foreground, you see Peter in the mid-ground, and beyond that is Phil. And you get to see Peter deciding who to go with, or within one frame, rather than having to cut, cut, cut. 

“We wanted to make a film where there's as few shots and as few cuts as possible. It's visual simplicity and clarity of information. Also, if you know a shot's going to hold for a good amount of time, you don't have to be as tight, because your eye naturally moves around and makes its own close ups really, versus a shot that's probably not going to be on-screen for very long, where you have to get all the information in one on the first frame. And knowing that it won't last for very long, it has to be clear. So different kinds of shots that are designed for different lengths of time, based on what the information is.”

How difficult or challenging was the shoot?

“Every shoot is challenging because, as creative people, we're always drawn to things we haven't done before. For me anyway, that excites me, to do something new, and every script has a new challenge. But for me, I think of challenges in different categories as technical or practical or logistical things, like getting everyone up to a mountain or finding a particular piece of gear that can do a particular shot. But the real challenge actually is, I guess, doing justice to a script and how to create a journey for an audience. That's the real challenge, because the possibilities are infinite and there's no correct way. 

“Also, you won't really know until you've seen the film, whether it worked or not? That requires some planning. But the solution is quite obvious to the problem. That's the way I look at challenges. And yeah, this one, you get a great script like this and the challenge is, how am I going to shoot a film that's as good as this script reads?” 

What did you learn in that year you spent with Jane in pre-production?
“I think I really learned a different level of filmmaking is really unlocked when you have enough time or you have a good amount of time, because you're not just shooting your first draft idea, but you are really of considering all the options. And you're also seeing what other creative people, Grant (Major, production designer) or Kirsty (Cameron, costume) or Noriko (Watanabe, make-up and hair) can do with time. You get to see all the beautiful work of everyone. And for me, as well, knowing a kind of filmmaking that's not rushed is such a treat, and it really unlocks something really special, to be able to work with a designer to create a house that's based on shots that you've got in mind or look at every option of location and go through all the drama that it can sometimes take to get permissions, which can take months.

“I think the level of filmmaking elevates as well, because no one's working off their first draft. Everyone's in their seventh, eighth, 10th idea. You can also crosscheck everything with everyone. I'm planning a shot and I can check that. I can let Kirsty, the costume designer, know, ‘Hey, this is what we're thinking. How does that affect what you are doing with your thing?’”
Can you point to a specific hurdle?

“Probably a big, challenging scene was one of the early ones, where we see George and Phil on horseback, talking. Two people talking on horseback is a real tricky one for camera to work, because you're not only dealing with a lot of moving elements, animals, actors riding while acting, and how to help that situation. This had an added element of a couple hundred cattle involved in a really remote location. So again, start with the concept of how to shoot the shots we wanted and then get into all the logistics. A guiding touchstone for that was…George is a bit like a freight train. He just putts along in a straight line and is unaffected by Phil. And Phil is like a little puppy, just trying to get George's attention.

“Phil bolts up from behind and goes on one side, and that's not having the effect he wants. Then he comes around the back and tries the other side, and tries to get George excited about what he's talking about. And George has no interest whatsoever, so then Phil just rides off. So deciding that blocking and then, working with the grips to find a suitable tracking vehicle that could work on that road. We found a remote air strip up there that could be a flat piece to run the tracking vehicle along, find a crane that would be the right length and a stabilized head, plan the time of day to shoot, which direction to shoot at what time of day, worked with the cattle team to know just how much time they would need.
“I've never worked with cattle before. I didn’t know how long it took to move 200 cattle from up there to down there or to reset them all? Again, it was a big collaboration, working with the horse guys about figuring out what lenses are right, what's the longest lens that can go on the stabilized head, how safely the horses can come to the camera, knowing that in the script, one horse has to bolt off. And all within that has to feel effortless, like there's no camera there at all. And taking into account what the sound team needs! Again, lots of planning, lots of versions. I love that scene!”