Robert Richardson Embraced His Fears While Shooting ‘Emancipation’

We chat with the legendary cinematographer about finding a unique, almost black-and-white image for Antoine Fuqua's new film. Why did it scare the hell out of him?
Emancipation Robert Richardson Cinematography

Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the industry’s most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with cinematographer Robert Richardson about Emancipation and why he’s not philosophically strict about his formats.

There were numerous reasons why Robert Richardson did not want to shoot Emancipation for Antoine Fuqua. The swamps intimidated the hell out of him. Immediately, he could imagine the nightmare the heat would force upon the cameras. Richardson already feared creepy crawly things, and he knew the swamps were littered with alligators, snakes, and spiders. And as a white man, he didn’t think he was the right person to help tell the story of Peter (Will Smith), the enslaved American whose photograph emboldened the abolitionist movement.

Additionally, Covid restrictions made early shoots impossible. Morning testing pushed the start time beyond eleven A.M. Richardson didn’t want to mess with top light, that dreaded noonday sun hanging over everything. His anxieties pushed him away, but they also kinda made the movie impossible to ignore.

“Initially,” explains Richardson, “I said, ‘I don’t want to do the movie.’ I said, ‘Fuck you, Antoine. I don’t want to deal with snakes and alligators, and I’m just not going to do it.’ Also, there’s a fear of shooting nighttime scenes in places you know are absolutely impossible to shoot in. How do you get equipment to places that are extraordinarily remote? On a physical level, as a cinematographer, I had a fear of that element.”

Most of all, Richardson fretted over his privilege. Certainly, Fuqua would prefer an African American director of photography, and he didn’t want to stand in the way of another filmmaker.

“The primary reason I didn’t want to do it was because I’m white,” he continues. “I’m a white male, and I felt I’m responsible for so much of what took place. Would it not be a better choice to choose a cinematographer of color? I joke about alligators and snakes. Yeah, I’m terribly afraid of them. But what held me back most was my issue of being a white male.”

Fuqua, however, refused Richardson’s “No.” He encouraged the cinematographer to join the production, talking him through his worries and insisting his eye was necessary for the shoot. He could solve all those issues that scared him away from Emancipation in the first place. Eventually, Richardson relinquished, inspired by the material and the challenge it presented. Fear being the best motivator to move the DP to “Yes.”

“I was helped over it by Antoine,” says Richardson. “He said he basically wanted this film to be colorless. These issues are for all of us and not something to hold onto. That a white male or a white female and any person of any color could shoot it absolutely, but he wanted to work with me. Because this story is universal, and it’s not a story that’s just about slavery. It’s a story about what we’re going through everywhere right now – what’s going on between Russia and Ukraine. I don’t really need to go deeper into it because it’s obvious.”

Originally, the producers wanted Emancipation to look like most other movies. In color. Fuqua disagreed, and he fought for black and white. Richardson thought along similar lines, but during early production, the two landed on a unique look that’s not quite color or black-and-white. The cinematography is muted, appearing nearly monochromatic. Emancipation‘s look depends on the scene’s emotion, allowing color to seep in occasionally.

“Antoine and I felt that the photograph of Peter was instrumental in deciding our path,” he says. “The film would be best served if it didn’t have color. We’re shooting digitally, so we’re shooting in color, and Apple wanted a color film at the time we started, as did all the producers. But Antoine and I wanted to focus more on the performances. We didn’t want the background to overwhelm. In order to make the best performances, to isolate the actors and reduce the number of stimuli. You’re able to focus more upon what the camera is putting directly in front of you, rather than what’s over here and what’s over there.”

During an early edit of the film, Fuqua found the look a touch stark. Maybe it lacked some poetry. As other elements were inserted into Emancipation, the director evolved his color concept.

“The hints of color that came in occurred to Antoine when working with the composer,” says Richardson. “As he cut the film with Conrad [Buff IV], he would see that something was missing, and a tap of color would go in, such as the warmth of the fires, a little yellow. And sometimes a blue tonality, almost going back to when films were shot silently in black and white. They would tone a film. One tone would represent day. One tone would represent night. So, there was a little bit of that history, which for me, expanded out of working with Marty [Scorsese] on The Aviator, where we worked with two-color, three-color, technicolor, and went into tinting aspects and concepts.”

Another trick Richardson has learned over the years is to have a colorist on set at all times. On Emancipation, while they were still problem-solving the film’s aesthetic, Richardson established a little corner where he could go and work out the color kinks. Ultimately, he found this extra process to be a massive timesaver.

“I grade on the set,” he says. “There’s a trailer with a man with a Resolve. It’s a very simple setup. Resolve, a computer and a monitor. I mean, that’s it. It’s like a small digital intermediate suite. We can shift this; we can do that. It’s fundamental. I was able to alter the look as we went, and then Antoine would come in, we’d work together, or he’d see the dailies and say, ‘Can you do this?’ Or the editor would see this, go, ‘Can you change that?’ We would change those sequences so that when they started editing, they’d find a sweet spot with the pacing, and then we added to that by altering the tonalities.”

Having an extra person on set helping with the film’s color grade is a little uncommon. Normally, the process is handled exclusively in post. Richardson, however, hates to waste weeks fixing things after the fact. He’d rather see the problems as he goes and play with solutions while shooting.

“I have to have that discussion [with the producers] every time I try to do this,” says Richardson, “because it is money to bring in somebody. But I’m not sitting in Company 3 or whatever facility for weeks. I go in, because the film is basically already graded, and Stefan Sonnenfeld, who graded this movie, took the bases of where we were and improved upon it. Of course, when you grade in large batches, you can’t get the same level when you’re cutting shot to shot. He was instrumental in altering and refining, but it does reduce the amount of time when you’re in Company 3 or any facility for grading.”

Richardson loves the flexibility shooting digital affords him. He’ll never give up on film, but he’s not a zealot like some of the directors he’s worked with throughout his career. As with all cinematic decisions, he selects what’s best for the movie, understanding that all formats come with their benefits and detractions.

“I am not philosophically strict,” he says. “I’m not locked down. I think that film is an unbelievably beautiful medium. The way it captures skin tones. When we shot 70mm on Hateful [Eight], it was the most sublime experience I’d ever had in terms of the reproduction of the skin. Although it’s complex and large, it was just outstanding, and it’s very hard to get that look. And Quentin [Tarantino] was all chemical in the first release. I shoot only film with Quentin. And I’m in love with film. So, if the director wants film, no problem.”

Shooting on film requires tremendous skill and a specific education set. With digital, you can almost learn as you go. There are very few shortcuts or post-production miracles allowed with film. If you don’t get it on the day, you don’t get it.

“For directors of photography,” says Richardson, “they have to be a higher caliber to shoot film because it’s not so simple. You can’t just look at a monitor and go, ‘Okay, I’m going to change this.’ Well, now you can shoot on film, but you still have to have your exposure correct. All film goes to the DI [digital intermediate]. That means all film is digital. Quentin’s the last person I know that released chemical to chemical. I’m sure there are others. Paul Thomas Anderson, I think, did as well on The Master. I’m not entirely certain. There are a number of people that do, but it’s rare because you have to go digital in order to project now. All theaters have shifted to digital, and it makes it easier. It’s easier, anyway. Just easier for photography to shoot digitally now than it was when you had to shoot film.”

Robert Richardson recognizes movies as progressive technology. He can dig his heels in, but if he does that, the work tightens up. He’d rather grab hold of the now or the new. When he watches Emancipation, he marvels at what they accomplished, a saturated, almost black-and-white image that found its final form through constant digital tinkering. And they arrived on these frames a lot faster than they would have in the past.

Emancipation is now streaming on Apple TV.

Brad Gullickson: Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)