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Independent Filmmakers Discuss How Panavision Supports their Creative Vision: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which earned seven Oscar® nominations, reunites director Martin McDonagh and cinematographer Ben Davis, BSC. The two previously collaborated on Seven Psychopaths.

Three Billboards is a dark dramedy focused on Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) several months after her daughter’s murder. No suspect has been found, so Mildred paints three billboards leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the town's revered chief of police. When his second-in-command Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) gets involved, the battle between Mildred and Ebbing's law enforcement is only exacerbated.

McDonagh describes the look of the movie as “something beautiful but not overly modern, overly stylized or overly saturated.” He adds, “Ben and I are both fans of American ‘70s films so we wanted that feel.”

Davis notes, “My approach was to not let the cinematography and camera work get in way of the storytelling – everything we did was in service to the script and putting the camera in the right place to capture the characters’ performances.”

The majority of the shoot took place on locations in Asheville, North Carolina, and other towns close by, which stood in for Ebbing. “I spent a lot of time at the film’s locations, absorbing the terrain and geography. For me, it’s all about camera angles and time of day, so I do a lot of prep. … We’d go out and sit at the locations and I’d take a lot of photographs to find the best ways to capture that environment. I became especially interested in the idea of one-drag towns and how they’re photographed – and a lot of it was about choosing the right time of day.”

That meant wrestling with shooting schedules. “I wanted to shoot a lot of the film in early light or at dusk, in the magic hour, but dusk of course is a brief period and we had so much dialogue in the film it was a real challenge. Martin and the cast would rehearse and rehearse, and then bang, we’d shoot it fast, hoping to get the performances -- and thankfully we did.”

Davis relied on Panavision Woodland Hills for the movie’s camera package, and chose Panavision C Series and E Series anamorphics for his aesthetic.

“Indie films always require assistance – it’s a commitment for a facility to get involved,” Davis says. “Panavision has looked after me for years throughout my career. They provided a much-desired lens set – some very old anamorphics that were carefully selected because each lens has its own language and characteristics. They possess beautiful qualities. In my opinion, the camera is just an elaborate computer, so the look is completely dependent on the lens.”