In Mexico, where Emmanuel Lubezki is from, he’s just known by a single moniker: Chivo.
Chivo, of course, means “goat” in Spanish – but in this case, it doesn’t stand for the friendly, two-horned animal; back home, Lubezki is referred to as G.O.A.T, quite simply, the greatest of all time.
Few would argue. The Oscar-winning cinematographer, known for his seminal applications of the Steadicam and single-take shots, already boasts of an unparalleled body of work. His influence on the art form —through films such as Gravity, The Revenant and Birdman — is iconic, serving as inspiration to technicians globally. Along with the other master, Roger Deakins, Lubezki’s name has come to signify the gold standard in modern camera work today, be it in feature films or otherwise.
The use of light and fire
Take for instance, his collaboration with Alejandro González Iñárritu on The Revenant, which was shot only with natural light. Braving the Canadian wilderness, Chivo manipulated the sunlight reflecting on the snowy mountains and the magnificent colours of the forest trees to an astonishing effect. Armed with an Arri Alexa 65 digital camera with lenses from 12mm to 21mm, the limited daylight hours didn’t deter him; the usage of fire in several scenes to enhance Leonardo DiCaprio’s silhouette and that of those around him proved to be an immersive experience, which ultimately won Lubezki his third Academy Award.
There was just one exception though, when the windy conditions caused the fire to jump around during a campfire sequence. “We had to lay a bunch of light bulbs around the fire to create a cushion of light,” he admits in a 2015 interview to Variety. “That’s all the light we ever used.”
Such conditions aren’t new to Chivo; one of his most popular earlier works — the coming-of-age road film Y tu mamá también, directed by his friend and confidant Alfonso Cuarón — was also shot using 90 percent natural light. It’s also highlighted in another of his most original projects, Terrence Malik’s Tree of Life. Speaking to A.S.C on the technique, he explains, “When you put someone in front of a window, you’re getting the reflection from the blue sky, the clouds and the sun bouncing on the grass and in the room. You’re getting all these colours and a different quality of light. It’s very hard to go back to artificial light in the same movie. It’s like you’re setting a tone, and artificial light feels weird and awkward [after that].”
Lubezki knows how to wait for a perfect shot, but he also likes the dramatic flourish and noticeable beauty that he can bring to scenes, utilising the spaces and lighting around him. By pushing the Alexa (his favourite) to an ISO of 1280 with the aperture open wide, he not only makes the camera more sensitive to light, but reduces the need for labour-intensive set-ups and edits.
Often compared to Deakins — who is considered the better “storyteller” as opposed to Lubezki’s showmanship — where Chivo’s legacy truly lies, is in his pioneering of the single-shot. While he dabbled with the technique in films like Children of Men, Gravity and The Tree of Life as well, it was truly sculpted to perfection in Birdman.
Combining several long shots — and hiding the transitions seamlessly —Lubezki and director Iñárritu achieved the seemingly-impossible. The entire film, about a fading movie actor (Michael Keaton) looking to reignite his career by appearing on the Broadway stage, appears to be a 119-minute single extended take.
But it wasn’t just a gimmicky illusion. Each one of these long shots (that ranged from ten to fifteen minutes) was a daunting task to organise practically; now, imagine shooting hundreds of them staged after painstaking rehearsals and proxies set to the film’s epic, drum-based background score. By using visual effects and lens flares on many of Birdman’s close-ups, Chivo also managed to add emotional heft to several of the more intense scenes in the film.
The hand-held shots were synchronised with the Steadicam ones, with the help of veteran Steadicam operator Chris Haarhoff, as the improvisational nature of the film — and even the performances of the actors —was captured with spellbinding efficacy. “Every time you see a shot, there were eight people moving with me. It was like a ballet — that’s what made it truly exciting,” he described the process in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
Art of film-making
The sleight of hand does help, but with Lubezki, it’s never just about the long take; it’s about the fluidity during the take, almost the way a painter uses a brush on his canvas. The cameras used in Birdman included the Arri Alexa and the Alexa plus, as Lubezki also experimented with a variety of wide lenses, such as the Zeiss Master Prime 12mm to bring about that quintessential claustrophobic effort, that ended up winning him an Oscar.
Currently working on his next project with David O. Russell — that stars a stunning ensemble cast including Christian Bale, Robert De Niro, Margot Robbie and Rami Malek — which is slated for release later this year, we eagerly await Chivo’s next great adventure. Odds are that he’d be the biggest star of them all.
Lubezki, an Oscar-winning cinematographer, is an inspiration to technicians worldwide due to his exceptional body of work. He now shares the same platform with Roger Deakins in terms of modern camera work today.
Lubezki knows how to wait for a perfect shot, but he also likes the dramatic flourish and noticeable beauty that he can bring to scenes, utilising the spaces and lighting around him.
He collaborated with Alejandro González Iñárritu for The Revenant and shot the movie only in natural light. The usage of fire in several scenes to enhance Leonardo DiCaprio’s silhouette and that of those around him ultimately won Lubezki his third Academy Award.