This year, Hollywood’s most respected cinematographers went to extreme lengths to bring to audiences some stunning imagery. When it comes to this work, for several D.P.s the Oscar is an afterthought, it’s all about the craft. Shooting on any set is challenging, more so when you’re in the extreme heat of Mexico or Africa, or the frigid winds of Alberta. In the development of Beasts of No Nation, Cary Fukunaga took on the duties of cinematographer, as well as director, and contracted malaria in the process. On The Revenant, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki circled the globe and endured extreme cold to bring to audiences something that’s never before been seen. And on Sicario, the iconic Roger Deakins took on highly choreographed action sequences and New Mexico’s monsoon season.
Welcome to the Jungle
Beasts of No Nation
Rising to fame for directing the much-acclaimed first season of HBO’s True Detective, Cary Fukunaga first became interested in the subject of African child soldiers while studying political science and history in college. His interest would lead, 10 years later, to the making of the Netflix film Beasts of No Nation. Fukunaga actually began his research on the topic in 1999, eventually traveling to Sierra Leone in 2003, and finding Uzodinma Iweala’s novel—on which the film is based—in 2005. Fukunaga adapted the book for the screen.
Always ambitious, the director knew going into the project that he also would take on the role of cinematographer. “I started out doing cinematography at film school at NYU, and so it was just something that was part of my filmmaking process,” he says. Beasts, which stars Idris Elba and newcomer Abraham Attah, was shot in Ghana in 35 days on Panavised ARRI Alexa cameras with anamorphic C-series lenses—older lenses that gave the film its 1970s patina.
For reasons artistic rather than practical, Fukunaga elected to shoot primarily with one camera. “We tried for single-camera coverage as much as possible, because you had to think about the kind of shot and the quality of the shot rather than when you have the luxury of using multiple cameras,” he says. There was one backup, but it died mid-production while the crew was filming a sandpit scene. “It was hot with high humidity,” Fukunaga says. “It was like being in a sauna and trying to think straight, and do your work and organize an army.”
Suffice to say, there was never a dull day on this set. Rainstorms occasionally delayed filming for hours at a time, the choreography involving a large cast was challenging, and both the director and one of the film’s actors came down with malaria at different points in production. “It was tough being out in the elements, trying to coordinate hundreds of extras, filming epic scenes, the jungle,” Fukunaga says. “Just organizing the shots was difficult because it would be sunny and light, then stormy.”
Hitting the Mark
Even for a master cinematographer like Roger Deakins, Sicario was tricky to pull off—a logistical puzzle with many moving pieces, including aerial and night-vision footage and highly choreographed action sequences. For the most part, the 12-time Oscar-nominated D.P. weathered the demanding shoot by being extremely methodical, as is his nature. Collaborating with director Denis Villeneuve for a second time after 2013’s Prisoners, he and the French-Canadian director had developed a shorthand that facilitated this process.
Sicario—about the dark underworld of Mexican drug cartels—is a film defined by its persistent, feverish state of tension, the execution of which is probably the clearest testament to the filmmaking duo’s precision. Though Johann Johannsson’s pulsating score is a major contributor in this department, Deakins also held his shots significantly longer than usual. “You’re just watching the shot and you’re wondering what’s going to happen now, it’s that kind of thing,” he says. And for an intense shootout scene at the U.S.-Mexico border, Deakins says, “we prepped the hell out of it and we storyboarded exactly what we wanted.”
Anyone familiar with Deakins’ work knows story trumps style for him every time. “I didn’t want anything to be a pretty sunset for the sake of a pretty sunset,” he says. However, while shooting in Albuquerque, NM it became evident the crew was in the midst of monsoon season as amazing cloud formations unexpectedly began to present themselves. “We didn’t visualize it like that, we thought it would be a bold blue sky, but we decided to embrace it,” Deakins says. “I worried that it was going to be too much, but then we wanted the landscape to be a character (in the film).”
There’s also an intimate scene between Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro at the end of the film that gets at the heart of why Deakins loves his work. “I operate the camera all the time, and partly why I love operation is because I’m the first person to see (a scene),” he says. “I’m the first person to see what the audience is going to. I’ve always loved that.”
Two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki will go to any length to capture a gorgeous image, including traveling to the far, frigid reaches of winter in Canada and Argentina to shoot Alejandro G. Inarritu’s The Revenant. Initially reluctant to shoot the project, the D.P. was won over by the chance to make an adventure movie with Inarritu. “It’s funny, because I talked to Alejandro about that, and we said, ‘We have to do it right now. We’re middle-aged, and this could be the last time we can do something like this,’ ” Lubezki says. “So we jumped to it and we survived it.”
Like Inarritu, Lubezki is something of a purist, and the pair elected to make the process as rewarding as possible by shooting deep in the wilderness, off the grid. It’s shocking to note this isn’t even Lubezki’s most challenging shoot—off-hand, he mentions Terrence Malick’s humid, mosquito-infested one for The New World as his hardest work—but it’s certainly up there. Cables and monitors routinely would freeze, Lubezki fell through a frozen riverbed and was rescued by a key grip, and the days were so short and the latitude so high the crew often only had five hours a day to film. “As you’re shooting there, with these extraordinary actors and this incredible director, you’re getting very energized and excited, and that definitely kept me alive,” Lubezki says.
Unlike such cinematographers as Deakins, who storyboards extensively, Lubezki had a more freewheeling process with Inarritu, involving figuring things out in the elements. “We’d have little improvisations and we’d shoot them, and a lot of the very beautiful stuff on the movie comes out of those little moments,” he says, adding that there also were many extended action sequences that demanded months of rehearsal.
To capture the vast expanse of the wilderness, Lubezki elected to shoot with ultra-wide lenses and the previously untested ARRI Alexa 65mm camera, which had more resolution than any other digital camera on the market, low light sensitivity, and “translated what we were feeling in the locations to the screen in the best possible way,” he says.
After exhausting himself working on the film, Lubezki certainly is due for a break. “I’m going to take a three-week nap,” he says. “I’m going to go into hibernation like the bear.”