At this year’s Oscars, while everyone was fuming about the academy’s lack of diversity, few bothered to notice an incredible achievement: Mexican cameraman Emmanuel Lubezki, also known by his nickname “Chivo,” became the first person ever to win three Oscars in a row for Best Cinematography. (And one of only six people ever to three-peat.)
Lubezki was an Oscar nominee for Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow” way back in 2000, but it was probably the 2001 road movie “Y Tu Mama Tambien” — made with his film-school buddy, director Alfonso Cuaron, largely in reaction to the Hollywood ways of working that chafed against them in making “Great Expectations” — that he began to come into his own.
This year’s win for his work on “The Revenant” followed Oscars for “Birdman” and “Gravity,” and it’s startling when you consider just how different those three films are. “The Revenant” was shot in wide angle on remote locations in near Calgary in such bitter cold that you can see the actors’ breath condense on the lens; “Birdman” mostly on indoor sets depicting the very confined space of backstage dressing rooms; and “Gravity” in zero-gravity Earth orbit, where Lubezki supervised virtual shots with the special effects team. John Seale, who shot Oscar nominee “Mad Max: Fury Road,” has said of Lubezki, “He’s making each film an identity in itself.”
Fame as a director of photography (DoP) is mostly of the insider kind, but Lubezki has achieved a cult popularity with movie fans as well; witness the 300,000-plus followers on his Instagram account, @chivexp. Yet while many describe his work on films such as “The New World” and “The Revenant” as “beautiful” or “breathtaking,” what exactly is it that sets him apart?
Lubezki is nothing if not a master of the long take, a technique where the camera follows a scene at length without cutting away. Long takes are rare in cinema because they’re notoriously difficult to pull off, requiring impossibly precise choreography between cast and crew. The great ones are revered: Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” Antonioni’s “The Passenger,” Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” Altman’s “The Player,” and P.T. Anderson’s “Boogie Nights.”
Lubezki’s best known may be “Gravity,” with its bravura 12-minute single-take opening, but look back at 2006’s “Children of Men,” also directed by Cuaron. In that film’s most thrilling scene, Clive Owen and Julianne Moore are driving along an English country road when a burning vehicle suddenly blocks their way. An angry mob assaults their car, they frantically shift into reverse, Moore is shot, they’re chased by a motorcycle and finally stopped by the cops. For nearly four breathless minutes, without using CGI, the camera somehow manages to be inside this compact car with five other people, moving at high-speed, and shifting perspectives continuously. Give it a second view and all you can think is: Where the hell was the cameraman?
While some people deride long takes as show-offy, it’s undeniable that in a scene like that, they work a special kind of magic. Lubezki creates a spellbinding illusion of actually being in that car, of reacting to events as they happen. Just as blinking can confirm that you’re awake and not dreaming, cutting can pull you out of the dream too; Lubezki creates reveries.
He does it again with the ambush that kicks off “The Revenant.” The camera soars into a shadowy thicket, and weaves left and right as arrows fly, tomahawks hack and bodies drop, caught in the center of the chaos. It feels less like you’re watching it than running for cover. Lubezki has described weeks of rehearsal and training to pull this scene off, a process similar to “Birdman,” where one missed mark could derail an entire 10-minute sequence. Yet he’s also known for the unplanned improv of Terrence Malick films such as “The Tree of Life,” a quest for what Lubezki calls “ephemeral moments — that moment where it can feel like a found moment.”
The steady fluidity of Lubezki’s camera movements in these real-time scenes is remarkable, especially in an era enamored of shaky handheld crap, but there’s also the sheer audacity of some of these shots. Take the scene in “The Revenant” leading up to the notorious bear mauling. The camera is following Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass, as he scouts alone in the woods; there’s a rustle, and Glass warily shoulders his gun. The camera is poised at the business end of the musket, perched slightly to its left. In one movement, the camera swings left to take in Glass’ line of sight, scanning the foliage for threats, then it keeps turning left about 90 degrees until that gun barrel pokes back into the frame. But now, somehow, we’re on Glass’ right side!
It’s the equivalent of an M.C. Escher staircase, an impossible shot, yet you don’t notice why; it’s subliminally disorienting. And in that brief moment while the mind is trying to process it, boom — there we spot the grizzly lurking behind Glass.
Notable in this shot and throughout “The Revenant” is Lubezki’s depth of field; Lubezki can capture the grime on DiCaprio’s face in the foreground and the light flickering on leaves in the deep background with the same clarity. It’s some combination of his eye for natural light — “The Revenant” used no artificial light whatsoever — and his ability to digitally manipulate images in post-production to fully capture both shadow and highlights; together they produce the hyperreal effect that astonishes so many viewers when they see the film on the big screen. As cinema evolves from celluloid into a digital art form, Lubezki is leading the way.
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