Why Emmanuel Lubezki ASC is One of the Best Cinematographers of All Time
Emmanuel Lubezki ASC was awarded his third Oscar in a row on February 28, 2016 for Best Cinematography for his work on the film The Revenant, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio.
What makes this achievement even more impressive is that Emmanuel Lubezki (he sometimes goes by the nickname Chivo, which means “goat” in Spanish) , won the Academy Award in 2015 in the same category for the film Birdman, and in the previous year, he took home an Oscar for Gravity. Emmanuel Lubezki has been nominated eight times, and he is the first cinematographer ever to win three consecutive Oscars.
He is now firmly established as one of the most acclaimed cinematographers of our time.
Lubezki has worked his magic on films with many celebrated directors, including Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols, Ethan and Joel Coen, Michael Mann and has frequently collaborated with Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Terrance Malick.
Emmanuel Lubezki started his career in the late 1980s working on Mexican television productions and films. The 1993 film Twenty Bucks, was his first international production, a small independent film with a storyline about the journey of a particular twenty-dollar bill.
Lubezki frequently collaborates with Alfonso Cuarón, a fellow Mexican. The two first became friends as teenagers and went to the same film school, part of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. They have worked on a total of six motion pictures together, which include A Little Princes, Y Tu Mamá También, Great Expectations, Sólo Con Tu Pareja, Gravity, and Children of Men.
His work on the 2006 film Children of Men with Cuarón received overwhelming acclaim. A number of new techniques and innovative technologies were utilized in filming the movie. Doggicam Systems invented a very unique camera rig for shooting the “roadside ambush” scene all in one very extended take.
The special camera rig was developed from Doggicam’s Power Slide system, using a modified vehicle that allowed the car seats to tilt to lower the actors out of camera range. The car’s windshield was designed so it could move out of the way, allowing the camera to move in and out of the front windscreen. A crew of four that included Lubezki was riding on the roof. The film also features an amazing 7½-minute battle sequence created from five seamless edits.
Aside from all the environmental challenges, Emmanuel Lubezki spoke about the process he went through to capture the different moods of tranquility and intensity in The Revenant, including a scene that got cut involving a monster, describing this as “the most difficult film” he’s ever worked on.
Emmanuel Lubezki has made his reputation on creating highly immersive experiences that evolve organically to draw audiences into the story. He achieves this effect by utilizing wide-angle lenses, filming lengthy continuous shots. His incredible work leads audiences through various sensory experiences, which tend to evoke strong emotional reactions, a sense of freedom and exploration, beauty, magic, authenticity and sometimes he even makes audience members feel uncomfortable.
In his 30-year cinematography career, Chivo has certainly captured some amazing feats on film. However, he is still just 50 years old, which means we are sure to witness a whole lot more in all the years to come.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s Remarkable Filmography:
Children of Men – The Cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki
A closer look at Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera work in Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children of Men. Excellent flick.
Birdman Interview – Alejandro G. Iñárritu & Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki
Director Alejandro and cinematographer Chivo discuss “Birdman,” the motivation behind the film, and their past projects. Interview conducted by Elvis Mitchell from KCRW at Landmark Theaters in Los Angeles.
If you liked Emmanuel Lubezki: Why He’s One of the Best Cinematographers of All Time take a listen to:
Alejandro Inarritu: From Indie Filmmaker to Oscar Winner
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Title: The ‘Revenant’ cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki talks finding the natural light.
Speaker #1: Emmanuel Lubezki or Chivo as you know, it amazes me to think that you and Inarritu went from shooting Birdman to shooting the Revenant. He was shooting while you’re winning Oscars for Birdman, keep trying or jumping one to the next.
Speaker #2: The funny thing is that we started Revenant before Birdman. We started reading the scripts and preparing this movie, I think a year or a year and a half before we do Birdman. We started discussing on how to do it and where to do it and all of that. Of course we wanted to start in the fall and then shooting into the winter and what happened was it was already too late to prepare them and shoot that year. So the movie fell apart; and with the movie fell apart, I think Alejandro went and resurrected Birdman also. And one afternoon he called and said, “You know, I never told you about this script that I have, would you like to read it”? And he said Birdman and it was diametrically different. I was so excited to do a movie in the wild, to do a movie in the outdoors. It’s like an adventure movie, it’s something that I never done before, I always loved the idea of doing it. So when I received Birdman, it was like a shock, and a movie indoor leads, a movie that probably takes place in a stage which is we’re not going to find a theatre that means is what do we want. And I am going to have to go into a stage and it’s a movie that shows business that is probably the least interesting thing evolve for me right now. I read it and I loved the script, and one thing I did not tell you, I don’t know if you felt it in the script but it wants to be shot in one shot which you read it in the script is pretty clear but I was not sure if he was that insane. And then big surprise he wants to watch it and that moment, truly, honestly I felt I hope this movie falls apart, I don’t want. Then we had a meeting and he is just extraordinary, he talked to me about the movie and how the movie was important for him and how he related to the characters and to the environment a lot. I was incredibly happy and honored to be invited to do the movie. So we shot that film and when we’re finishing it, he called back and said, “There is a chance that Revenant will come back and what do you think”? Can we do it? Are we ready to go? And so we started almost immediately prepare Birdman.
Speaker #1: So you jump into this new project outdoors, natural lighting, most of it shot during magic hour.
Emmanuel Lubezki: That’s not true. What happens is that it sometimes does look like magic hour; it’s so late, it’s so dark when you’re shooting in the winter in northern latitude; the Sun is very low. And the place that we’re shooting we had many hours of days behind mountain because we’re surrounded by the Rockies. So there is no chance in those places. It looks like magic hour but it’s not. We truly tried to use as much light as we could because of its work so short. For any other industry it would be a normal day of shooting, for the movie industry it’s a short base. As we were preparing, as we were location scouting and so on; we knew that the days were going to be very complicated because of how short they were. But not all scenes were shot off light. We’d really truly use magic hour for very specific reasons and for some moments. And when you see it, a magic hour has very mysterious already in those other scenes only.
Speaker #1: what was the thinking behind using magic hour for specific scenes?
Emmanuel Lubezki: Different times of the day express different emotions and depending on the location; some of the location make you feel sad, some of them make you feel lonely, some of them make you joyful, and all this is obviously subjective but when Alejandro and I started to feel the same way, we at least on those consensus and he’s feeling we’ve to go for it. And because this journey, the characters are taken is very much related to the environment than to the nature and Alejandro was trying to create these atmospheres and moods that express the inner life of this character. We just have to concentrate and try to shoot in the right place at the right time depending on what he was trying to express. It sounds easy but it’s not; in the sense that you have to do a lot of prepping, 10000 miles of car travelling around the US and Canada and narrowing it down and start walking for hours and hours and then finding the places and seeing the places at different times of the day to try to figure out the points you want to shoot and what kind of feeling you’re getting from each place. You know sometimes you’re right to place; after six hours of walking and it looks like a park. When you’re working in eco-park and you wonder why I am here and it’s not until you wait, a couple of hours the place looks like primordial and unexplored and mysterious and it definitely changes with the light and with the weather and so we’ve to prep for all these condition. So when we say where we shot with natural light; it’s not that simple. Because we’ve to do a lot of homework together and be very specific about how we wanted to shoot it and what time and you’ve to be incredibly flexible to meet these. Sometimes we’ve seen these locations from noon to 4 pm it’s working wonderful and the day you arrived there’s a big snowstorm and this will be different. Sometimes we’ve to be options, sometimes you’ve to be flexible and find the scene in with the conditions that are at that moment.
Speaker #1: Then add that, add the fact that you’re doing these long, elaborate shots that are going all around the place.
Emmanuel Lubezki: So for those shots, the workable or methodologies we used to shoot the film; one was the extensive rehearsal and we probably rehearsing one for more than a month, a lot of the scenes, especially at the beginning to the middle of the movie, and during those rehearsals, when we find the land of the film and blocking and during those rehearsals we learned also what kind of gear we want to use in which lands and really beautiful stuff came out of that.
Speaker #1: I think as I watched the movie, I watch a lot of your movies you got two senses. You got the sense of wow that’s amazing shot, how do they do that but also it adds and added sense of reality to what you’re watching. I think it really helps to put you there in the action.
Emmanuel Lubezki: Thank you so much. I mean that’s what we’re trying to do. In a way when we do a long shot with no car to attain the bear attack, when you’re working in the edge of a cliff in the sense that you want to achieve these what is kind of complex, that you’ve not seen in other movie. We then do it because you’ve not seen in another movie because we feel it’s the right language for that specific scene. And then the problem is that you don’t want the audience to notice it, so when somebody says, “Oh, that shot is incredible”. You then come; you wonder if you fail because the people were at one point so aware of the technique that we use to do the shot. So it’s always a big robe but it’s very much scary. Of course the people like you’re specialist in films are going to notice, they just call the general audience just gets in there and gets even worse and goes into the journey made for those.
Speaker #1: Talk more about the shoots. I mean you’re on these locations and it’s cold, wet and harsh.
Emmanuel Lubezki: Everything was very hard but we wanted the experience of the shoot to trickle into the spirit of the movie and I think it does. Let’s say ‘Children of Men’ when the guys are stalking the gun, they are really stuck in the car; emotion you get from that is really different from that you do in the stage even though the actors are wonderful, they can act induce a layer that doesn’t feel as real as if you’re in the real location shooting. The same as Sandra stock in the light box for months and months and being lonely there, cluster for leak. I think what we said the same as the actors go all around, they have to live in the jungles for months, the movie has a level of naturalism that you don’t often see, and we did that for this movie. We knew that it’s something that has a tremendous payoff.
Speaker #1: It translates in the film, I mean you look at these amazing landscapes that you guys shot at, stuff that you never seen on film before. I mean it almost makes it worthy of trek from base camp. I noticed; I want to ask you technical thing, I noticed a lot of wide angle lenses especially even in close-ups not just in the landscapes which you’d expect.
Emmanuel Lubezki: I think it’s the same idea of getting the audiences immerse in the movie. The wide angle lenses allow you to have a lot of that and to connect the characters to the environment. Even though sometimes you’re really tired, you still feel the environment, you still feel the light changes, you still be in the wind, in the cold and the surroundings. That relationship was very much important for the movie to constantly make the audiences feel that they are looking for a clean, known and something that he lost to do is this, the elastic shots will tell them where you go from objective to subjective and even then back to objective and I think that makes the audience feel that they are plunged in this world. At least we hope so, there’s no move that says three minutes without car. I wish there’re something like that. So it’s all speculation, all hypothesis and all guide by Alejandro a homeless instinct; that’s what I love, I think he has something, it’s very hard to tell a story without dialogue and take the audience through this journey and to be able to communicate so much without feeling and taking that chance and I think achieving it is just talks about how brilliant this Mr. Alejandro really is.
Speaker #1: I mean you guys, not just the 2 of you but the films you’ve done with Alfonzo Karen and Terrance Malick, there’s really a sense of the boundaries of what you can do.
Emmanuel Lubezki: Obviously it doesn’t come from me and by any means trying to push the line or language or anything; you’re trying to do just to find the language that is right for each movie and I think they are incredible artists and they do want to find a very unique and specific language or way of talking to the audience with each film they do and I don’t think they want to keep themselves unless the film requires to use something you find in another one. But it’s finding the right language for each specific project that makes them so incredible.
Speaker #1: I want to go back and talk some more about the use natural light because I don’t think people understand how difficult that is to do in a movie especially when you’re shooting at night.
Emmanuel Lubezki: It’s very hard and it’s hard if you don’t have the support of the studio, the producers and the actors and more than anything the director. This can only happen because the directors convince that this is an elemental part of the story. The light is almost done; it’s almost like a fabric that is underneath the whole movie that contains several that gives the move. It’s like broth that contains the soup and then you’re saying it’s the most important thing; everything is also important. But it deals determining the mood, the atmosphere of our scene more than anything and so many directors and so many filmmakers use this to be able to see without giving it out. The importance that it has dramatically and Alejandro believes that light is an important element in the drama, in the creation of this world.
Speaker #1: I think I read something that you said once and the famous quotes you have, I apologize about how the more films you shot, and it’s not about how many lights are used or how few lights I can use.
Emmanuel Lubezki: I think you’re right, I think the most important thing is to think of the uses of different unique course and try to find what it is needed for that specific project and specially it has to come from what is the vision of the director, what he wants to express, what is he attempting and that collaborator is you have to get in the mind of director and try to help them translated and doing just like this.
Speaker #1: Since you have won the award for cinematography two years in a row and you can very well in this year, which would make you the only person to do that. What does that kind of recognition mean to you?
Emmanuel Lubezki: When you’re experimenting without language and experimenting with all these ideas that we just talked about, it’s very gratifying to know that your peers in a way like telling you, you’re right. The scenes we’re right and we like what you did and that senses is very gratifying, and that senses of the honor. But it’s very clear to me that we are not making movies for that reason. The movies are much bigger than that and the movies are to transport millions of people in this world. When I was growing up I never thought about arts or box office or I was going to the movies to be transported and touch [indistinct 17:55]. So that’s what I am trying to do when I make a movie.
Speaker #1: So thanks a lot and congratulation.
Emmanuel Lubezki: Thank you so much.
Birdman Interview – Alejandro G. Inarritu & Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki
Speaker #1: Came as we were shooting because I always said that you plan for years, you made an idea and I think you can come much more sensitive and attract more ideas when you’re doing accurately, solely that thing, that concept or emotional things, when it become to that shape and exist as it own thing, it began to attract different things that you’re not expected and that was one of the thing that I knew, that it needs something that imply something what I know is one of those unconscious things that is not a rational but it’s kind of like a thought without in mind. I saw some comments in some views and some images and I began to understand something that I was feeling but I was not being able to articulate in words of these groups or something that it was attached in the most [indistinct 1:13] when I saw that, I sorted that comment was basically a way to say without say it. The state of mind of this guy; he wasn’t fired, he was inspired, he was flying as super-heroes in stars, but the most important thing for me when I discovered the Jellyfish part, that Jellyfish, that’s exactly who this guy is. He is a guy who one hour, he feels like comments on fire and very usually you feel that jellyfish and that’s his life.
Speaker #2: I just want to know this because given how much takes place inside a man made structure as first few shots were taken into nature. You know between the comment and seashore [indistinct 2:08] you’re starting at the outside and going inside.
Speaker #1: Something that Chivo and I discussed and I think that sends you and me, we got very close in concept or anything. That’s why I think you should work when you understand conceptually then you find yourself with your new explore what is that concept. We spent a lot of time on all of that to not be only radically, dictatorship, Taliban in one shot.
Speaker #3: That’s right. I mean I remember when Alejandro found this image of the comet, he could not really articulate it meant, particularly with words but definitely he could express that he finally have found this image that represent a character and the emotions of the character and so on. We’re trying to wonder how we integrate these into movie. Is it valid to suddenly cut and chop the movie if we’re trying to do this one shot and we got to the conclusion that we actually was better to have these cuts and not try to do an Olympic one shall be able to show up or anything like that. These shots also could be part of the memory of this guy, internal state also. So we didn’t want to cop orate them in the one shot but have them appear as cuts and they do appear later when he blow his nose and you think he might be dead. This might be what he’s thinking and he’s dying or something like that. I love Alejandro work there and unite all these images and it’s so funny because in marriage, a lot of people get almost upset like what is it, why is it something that is not explained [indistinct 4:30] what does the ending mean, I can’t tell you how many people approach me and say, can you explain is he dead? Is he not dead? And I just love these images that are almost poetic approach to the story telling that don’t really explain but make you feel something. They create emotions and I think that’s more important than explaining certain things. I love that piece of work.
Speaker #2: [indistinct 5:10]
Speaker #1: I think that making emotional character [indistinct 5:30] the form here of being inside or being without, I don’t say that honestly anything, that position of time and space is an inventor. So it’s an invention actually. Honestly now we’re trapped in a continuous time. So time is actually different from space of the three dimensions. Here we go up-down, left-right. Time is one dimensional, its one direction that where you get it all. We die and we can go back with you to visit 2000 years before it’s going to be one dimensional. And I think fiction related to a film it’s very hard to concept in a way to get out of a world. And only dimensional existence is time. And that’s why we love it. [Indistinct 6:37] so we’re imagining things from different reality that we can’t escape ours and in this case I think the fact that sold once in this continuous shot living with this guy breathing and not blinking, not buried and not supposed to rise. I think it has an emotional effect differently and you get the experience closer to what out real lives are. And I thought that was an interesting thing. I mean it could have been terrified, being wrong in every sense because when we are so used to be in a way comfortably taking to different place and then we understand that and that’s what makes us feel comfortable. We know that we’re not leaving, we can see water and people dying while we’re on our seats and say “that’s not real, we’re separated from fiction by that”. But in the moment you’re there I think you live things much more. I think that was something to make a movie on these and I also think it’s interesting.
Speaker #2: Are you attracted by these challenges Chivo, doing these?
Speaker #3: Honestly no, I was not; I was very worried because the tone of the movie scripts, its comedy and the rhythm of the movie in script, I was not sure if you could tell that started that way. I understood the importance of doing it, this way in terms of how to express the emotion of the character and get the audience immerse into movies. I thought it was important but I didn’t want to go through it. I knew that it was going to be incredibly hard and it takes an absolutely insane person like Alejandro to take a whole crew. [Indistinct 8:45] that’s what makes an artist an artist and that’s why I am an engineer and he is an artist and director. I would have never gone through this and many days I’d say, “Alejandro please, let’s just call it one more time, make it worthy to release” and you need somebody with the courage and strength to know where we’re going to go and to take all the crew and all the production and all the studio and all the actors that way. It’s very courageous and very irresponsible and Alejandro successfully did that.
Speaker #1: In a way I think many times when it was on solo not only technical, I think again it was in a way we forgot I think generally the cinema has been relying comfortably in a very artificial way that we ever accommodate events to make everybody understandably connected. We have to stop exploring possibilities [indistinct 10:34] he used to touch every note and he fail many time, he really. It was just an amazing discovery of a guy who has shown those musicians, he’s discovering new nodes or new harmonies but uses the same chords. And there’s a novel [indistinct 10:57] wrote in really short notes. And it was amazing; it was basically with no comments. And I wonder how the hell this guy did that. All the Latin Americans raise most of them we play a lot we do that. [Indistinct 11:21] I think we come from that cultural pulse, we play with a form that at the end become common, or the pattern become common. I think that’s something we’ve been lost.
Speaker #2: Why do you think this is lost?
Speaker #1: Because nobody is paying attention. I think everything is about the story or who they need to commodity. It’s like even such a thing, you see 99% we use when you see a review of some pretty talking what [indistinct 11:56] they don’t know even what is that, what means to do soft grades. So what I am saying is nobody talks about that. And I think everything about Cinema can be teached. I think that to make a film is easy; to make a great film is miracle. You don’t have anything to do without it. But I have to say that it has to do with the fact or things that you never do. Or things you find in a way that miracle and it has to do not with okay, everybody can understand how to make a film. It’s very easy technically but you cannot. The thing that nobody can teach you is doing things like that point of view if you put the camera here or hear and that thing changes it all. Nobody can teach you that, there’s no school.
Speaker #3: What I was going to say is also feel this industry and it has to produce a lot to keep moving and stop. It’s easier to make everything in the pattern and move it faster and do it in essential way. Again I am sorry to keep ruining that. It needs people like Alejandro to redeem industry and redeem all the stuff to go to the site and try to manufacture something like this is very hard and I am very lucky to meet people like him. Within these entire factories you can steal or try to find the language that is slightly different that takes the audience pulling to the movie in a different way or tell the story in a different way.
Speaker #2: What you’re talking about is, it’s about somebody who is not in the present and your movie is on people at the past, people at future not in the present. Where do you catch actually that kind of people?
Speaker #1: Because I think it’s very hard, I have been authoring all my life. Sometimes I have read, I’d be a liar I spent much more time in the past and future than in the present personally. I think all of us do this, we always thinking or interested in something that has to go to the next moment, when you’re in the next moment you’re thinking okay, what’s next? I think we’ve been teached like that. Like what I want to do as a kid, what I want to become when I grow adult and what I said to this film well, you think everybody knows what they’re, they’ve written the first stage short film or whatever. You are already a film maker. You don’t become a film-maker, you’re. This is the only thing that’ll exist always, this present. So you don’t become; you already are. And I have been learning that, what I think it’s very difficult thing to be present in a time or in a world we’re because we’re not teached to think like that.
Speaker #2: Chivo you told that you’re attracted to the film makers who are living in the future and past, who can’t live in the moment they are in. You must like that too?
Speaker #3: Yes, I agree with Alejandro, thinking about the past and the future is incredibly hard.
Speaker #1: I think I have to be with my age. I turned 51 and my mother told me I was 50 which probably hit me tired of approaching things. I have to say that the only way you can do films like this, you have to do control violence, you can’t use sword all the time. I think reality is defined by the fact how we know the possibly to have two opposite ideas simultaneously and oblige at the same time and we’re like that, it doesn’t mean we’re happy person or sad person. I think we’re both at the same time. That’s what really the human complexity is and eventually I have both of these in extreme condition. When I am happy, I am supper happy; when I am sad I am super sad. But I have to say that the way I approach these endless, I think in a different way to survive not the facts which are common or close to me but in a way to waste of life. The way we observe like they’re all set down, can change the fact that we’re used to these techniques sometimes. But I can change the way I approach it, I see them and I think I changed them. Not the fact, not if I can define things in the present, it’s the way I approach the film.
Speaker #3: I think there’s another thing that is what I said before Alejandro is very curious, he’s almost like a little kid. I knew this was going to happen. In a way yes, because he’s been doing something because I knock him and he’s talking about all his interests in movies that attract him not only painting, normal and travels and family and you know that he’s exploring and he’s curious and he wants to try new things. So I kind of knew he’s going to try to do something different. And also during the movie I could see it in the process even though the movie was much planned and you know we’d a stage where we rehearsed and rehearsed. Everyday he’d come with new ideas, he was exploring the music, the images, the comments and we’d plan something and at 11 pm he’s like what if the camera goes this way. So its constant exploration and I think that also takes him to different travels and journeys. It’s something like that. The digital version that you see in the first take of the movie when he is floating and the camera behinds and goes to the computer we shot that element that part well then. The first few shot of the film was the one that Emmanuel’s told you the flowers, the computer. We shot it with the actor and Emmanuel was over it, that’s the first flower [indistinct 25:25] and then we wanted to shoot that floating scene; the scary part was the silicon couldn’t float. But the scariest thing Emmanuel can you remember, it was the first thing and it was a bit before that, and he was floating and then there was a knock-knock in the door. Then the camera angle changes, there was the floor manager coming in and did a joke, bad joke, fart joke and was a very cheesy one; the one that you’ll find in classy bad comments. We than started to move and looked back to it and I said, “Oh, my god, this is very bad”. It was cheap, so we put the film in these jokes and I said let me figure out how, because everything was planned so good, so I think the camera do that, Michael opened the front door and then we went like that. It was a different move; it was a completely different move. Instead of that way is now that he used to stand up and go and sit quite far from speaker and then he go back. It was a completely different blog human state. It was terrifying for me, I stopped and I said this is also important, so I have to retrieve it like I want this stage, how I am going to install this. Okay, the sounds, so we have to record that timing for Michael to react and we have to [indistinct 27:18] so all the guys of the lights and all the frames and everything was but it was to change there’s one little camera, it’s hugely because if it’s not rehearsed nobody will do this entirely.
Speaker #3: It’s like you getting rehearsing of a light, and you then wants this 300 by arenas to go and that’d flat and you don’t like light. Again I am going back to this thing that you need somebody like Alejandro to keep the crew going because at that moment everybody panics.
Speaker #1: After the first day of shooting I am completely relieved and this is all because if I keep feeling these and doing the whole shooting it will be lost because then everything collapse, we’ll never being able. [Indistinct 28:12] honestly I was never in life under panic attack about if the film will work or not when I was watching it I understand how I did it, I see everything that could have been wrong. It’s almost like a mirror. I feel that this is not something that I am saying is prevents you. No, it really as film maker and we talk about them; all that could have been wrong, it’s almost an infinite list of things. So when I see a thing that could have been wrong I feel still panicked as he said this duty is very responsible.