Shooting the beach scene that director Ashley Avis first envisioned when she was developing the Black Beauty screenplay presented a logistical puzzle. Given the tight production schedule, both predawn and sunset shoots would have to happen the same day.
“The day we decided to shoot the beach at dawn and dusk required two units, but we only had one horse team,” Avis says. “The opening of the film is Beauty running on the beach. In my mind, I wanted it to be before the sun rose. It’s light enough to have some ambience, but before the sun crests.”
Avis left for the set at 3 a.m.; horse trainer Cody Rawson-Harris and the horse team had gotten there an hour earlier. “I remember the southwest wind coming off the Atlantic Ocean,” Rawson-Harris says. “We had to get out on the beach and start doing the runs. We already had it set up with the horse running and the drone when Ashley arrived.”
The day’s agenda also included a sunset scene. “I really wanted to get Mackenzie [Foy] with her arms outstretched as if she could fly [riding Black Beauty] with the sun as that molten ball,” Avis says. “South African sunsets are so spectacular. At the same time, I wanted to capture the big drone shots. You can’t shoot that all at once. What we did in sunset, in theory, we should have done at the beginning of the day too.”
There were two portions of the beach — one public, one private — roughly 20 minutes apart due to the terrain. “The private beach had more curvature to it and was really picturesque,” Avis says. “It was very sequestered. You can feel the ancient energy of it. We had one unit there at sunset with the drone. We had our stunt-double actress, Cheyenne de Beer, who was brilliant, riding Spirit.”
Meanwhile, on the other beach, Foy was spirited along the water’s edge aboard Indiana — a veteran movie-horse gelding, who rose to the occasion just as Rawson-Harris had predicted he would at some point. “Cody was right,” Avis says. “Indiana did end up saving the day when we needed the safest horse for the actress. Thanks to having Indiana, Mackenzie did her own stunt down the beach. She only did it once, but when she takes her arms off the reins, galloping as if she could fly, we were behind the monitor and we shot it as the sun was going down. We had a tracking vehicle with the camera essentially on a crane following her. We were tight on her and had this beautiful wide. When you watch the close-up, you can see the nervousness, but the pure joy that comes across her face is 100 percent real, because that’s what she was experiencing on Indiana.
“For about 45 minutes we did a few runs, and we got the sweeping epic wides where it’s Cheyenne on Spirit, and we got the close-up coverage and some beautiful wides of Mackenzie on Indiana. We had two units going at the exact same time to be able to achieve that logistically. For safety’s sake, the runs were limited and the time was limited, but the sunset was perfect.”
Photography: Images courtesy Ashley Avis
From our November/December 2020 issue.