In Focus: The Cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki

Nick Chen

Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki won a long-deserved Oscar (after seven nominations) last week for his groundbreaking cinematography work on Gravity. The Mexican director of photography is the go-to guy for Alfonso Cuarón and Terrence Malick, and has been used by the likes of Tim Burton, Michael Mann, Mike Nichols and the Coen brothers. Why do his mates call him Chivo? I don’t know. Why is he in such high demand? Well, because his résumé boasts delicate Mexican dramas, fantastical Hollywood epics, innovative dystopian visions... plus, he has an absurdly impressive Instagram account.

Born in 1964, Lubezki met Cuarón at film school (The Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) before, funnily enough, they were both expelled. After a brief spell in TV, he was the cinematographer for films such as Cuarón’s 1991 comedy Sólo Con Tu Pareja (alternatively titled Love in the Time of Hysteria), Alfonso Arau’s 1992 food-related fantasy Like Water for Chocolate, and Keva Roseneld’s truly bizarre 1993 saga Twenty Bucks (starring a $20 note).

His first big break came through Ben Stiller’s era-defining Reality Bites (1994). “I read the script. And I have to be honest, I barely understood the humour in the script,” he admits. “I didn’t find it that funny.” He adds, “I didn’t know who Ben was.” However, he still demonstrated great confidence in his craft. “This modern thing of just lighting comedies like shit is not right.” Just one year later he was Oscar-nominated for A Little Princess (1995).

'A Little Princess'. (Image via)

A Little Princess was directed by Cuarón – yep, the director used him on all of his films apart from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – and was a box office disaster. That didn’t stop recognition for the vivid imagery of a fairy tale about magic coming to life. When asked about the fantasy’s distinct palette, Lubezki confirmed, “Green is the only colour in the spectrum that can be lit in either warm or cold tones. That kind of flexibility gives us a range of emotion to work with on every set.” 

More high-profile gigs continued with 1995's A Walk in the Clouds, The Birdcage (1996), Meet Joe Black (1998), and Cuarón’s take on Great Expectations (1998), which, like A Little Princess, featured a distinctly green-hued colour palette. The following year he was nominated for another cinematography Oscar with Sleepy Hollow – more blue than green – which was followed by Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her (2000) and Ali (2001). (For Ali, Lubezki studied photographs of the boxer’s life – “every lamp, every piece of furniture, and every window.”) However, in the same year he hit an even bigger high.

'Y Tu Mama También' (Image via)

Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama También (2001) requires multiple viewings to unravel the nebulous images of death and loneliness in the background. The comical love triangle and sex talk dominates the foreground, but the frame is angled to emphasise the emptiness of the road – and then the trio speed past beggars and impoverished strangers. Deploying mostly hand-held camerawork, the landscape is both beautiful and melancholic, while several unbroken shots capture the characters’ chemistry as it evolves.

"Yeah, this film is completely different from anything else I've done with Alfonso,” recalls Lubezki. “All our other films were more stylised, less natural and less realistic. This film has a more natural feel to it.” He adds, “I believe that a lot of it has to do with the fact that we have worked together before.” With that loose touch, Lubezki’s cinematography finds intimacy in a sweaty vehicle, motel rooms, and the cathartic paradise of Boca del Cielo.

His highly prolific work rate continued with hit/miss projects – the “hit” is the cinematography, the “miss” is everything else. There’s the unintentional horror of The Cat in the Hat (2003), a naturalistic biopic in The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004), the cartoonish Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), and the first of many Terrence Malick partnerships with The New World (2005) – which just so happened to bag him another Oscar nomination. Fully established as one of the best in the game (if for argument’s sake we call cinematography a game), he found another career highlight when his old pal wondered what would happen if the human race became infertile.

'Children of Men' (Image via)

Cuarón’s dystopian Children of Men (2006) features so many impressive single take shots, it’s practically showing off. One in particular is the mind-blowing car scene, which uses a real moving vehicle that’s ambushed by explosions, soldiers and shattered glass. (The ping pong ball manoeuvre at the start looks tricky enough.) It was initially set to be shot with green screen, until Lubezki intervened and decided “the best way to shoot it was to really be in the car with the actors.”

“It was very, very scary,” he goes on to say. He and Cuarón recalibrated the car so that the windscreen and seats tilted, allowing space for the camera above – crew members perched on the roof. When the take was finished, it was an unsurprisingly joyous moment. “The guy who was operating the crane? He was crying. It was that release of tension.”

'Burn After Reading' (Image via)

After that (and the obligatory Oscar nod), the Coen brothers needed a stand-in for their regular DP, Roger Deakins. It’s unfortunate for Lubezki that it was Burn After Reading (2008). It then took three years – the biggest gap so far – until he had another film come out. Why? Because he had the mammoth task of cinematographing The Tree of Life (2011) and To the Wonder (2012).

'To the Wonder' (Images via)

Malick is a notorious perfectionist, and rehiring Lubezki is an enormous compliment. Even Malick detractors can’t fault the visuals (at least not the bits like a laptop screensaver), which relies on minute details to convey religious and philosophical undertones. Lubezki describes his approach to The Tree of Life as a cinematic form of Cubism, whereby a single emotion is shot from several perspectives. “Photography is not used to illustrate dialogue or a performance,” he insists. “We’re using it to capture emotion... it’s meant to trigger tons of memories, like a scent or a perfume.”

A year later, Lubezki’s contribution outweighs Ben Affleck’s lead role in To the Wonder. “Terry doesn’t tell the audience where to look in the frame,” he notes. “If they want to look at the actors, they can. Or if they prefer, they can look behind them at the trees. We want complete depth and clarity in order for that to happen.”

Now and into the future
After a sixth Oscar nomination for The Tree of Life, the Academy waited until this year to finally hand Lubezki the trophy. The award was for Gravity – directed by Cuarón and proving their relationship is also a centripetal force. Shot with an ARRI Alexa camera, Gravity was Lubezki’s first film entirely in digital. For extra innovation, he (with Cuarón) invented an LED Box that he describes as “this very large LED monitor that is folded into a cube” meaning “space itself is moving around the actors”. He adds, “To be able to shoot inside the box, we had to build a special rig that holds the camera and moves with motion control.” Basically, there’s a reason why Gravity looked like nothing else.

In another interview, Lubezki is asked about that opening 12-minute unbroken shot. “The first scene is incredibly challenging,” he admits, “because the light is constantly changing from one frame to the other — the earth is moving, the ISS is moving, the sun is changing position — and that was incredibly exciting. It took many months to design it and years to shoot it.” When you see the Earth’s reflection in Sandra Bullock’s eyes, you’re witnessing something special.

Lubezki has already finished working on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (due later this year), in addition to Malick’s forthcoming Knight of Cups and another untitled project (both due at some point in the next two decades). The director of photography’s next step involves five weeks digitally shooting Rodrigo García’s Last Days in the Desert, and then there’s probably whatever Cuarón has next. When you realise how many years you’ve spent immersed by his cinematography, you too will feel comfortable enough to call him Chivo.

Follow Nick at: @halfacanyon

Main image via

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