Two-time Academy Award winning cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki will go to any length to capture an image, so it’s clear why he gets along well with fellow Mexican filmmaker Alejandro G. Inarritu, the audacious director of last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Birdman. On their new film, the Leonardo DiCaprio-starrer The Revenant, which bows this Christmas in limited release, Lubezki took on the challenges of frigid Canadian winters and beautifully-tailored action sequences that took weeks to rehearse. Suffice to say, there was never an easy day on the set of this project. Here, Lubezki weighs in on his most challenging projects to date, his desire to shoot an adventure flick, and his goal of improving as a craftsman.
At a screening of Birdman earlier this year you had commented that you were wary of joining Inarritu on The Revenant. What was it about the project that won you over?
I always wanted to do an adventure movie and to do something like this with Alejandro was a dream come true. But I was also worried about whether we were going to have enough strength to go through it. 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.” So we jumped to it and we survived it. We always thought the journey of making the movie was very important. It was important to do it in the wild and it was important to do it without lighting. It was important to really see the actors and the crew in these environments.
You’ve taken on ambitious and physically demanding projects in the past, most notably, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, for which you won your first Oscar. Where does The Revenant rank in the body of your work?
I’ve never been very good in the cold, so that made it very hard. You have to be smart in how you use your energy because you want to be using as much of it as possible in making the movie the best it can be and not in thinking, “I’ve got to go back to the hotel. I need to get to warmth.” That was hard, and you never get used to it. But 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. I fell in a frozen river once and Ray Garcia, the key grip, pulled me out of it. When you’re shooting and holding the camera, you want to get the best possible shot and (falls) did happen a couple of times, for sure. I don’t know if it was the hardest movie for me, because when I shot The New World with Terry Malick that was rough, too. It was the opposite: very hot and humid and mosquito-infested. But The Revenant has to be up there for sure.
How would you describe your process in working with Inarritu and the crew during an average day on set?
There was never a simple day on set. It was incredibly difficult. And we have multiple methodologies. I would say that two procedures that were the most frequently used in the movie were, Number 1: The very intense rehearsal process. For example, with the first attack scene it took weeks of rehearsal to figure it out. We had experts. We had courses. We had crew. And instead of doing storyboards we figured it out with a few of the real elements—not unlike Birdman. Alejandro wanted to solve those very complicated scenes that way. So we rehearsed. And Number 2 were the other scenes where we’re working only with Leo (DiCaprio) or just two actors. And for a lot of those scenes we knew exactly where we wanted to shoot but not exactly how we wanted to shoot them. Many times Alejandro likes to improvise things. 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 that Alejandro improvises. The camera is improvising. The actors are improvising. Those tiny moments feel very natural, very real, very realistic and there’s a lot of that in the film as well. Sometimes even to walk with a handheld camera near Leo, it was nearly impossible because of frozen rock surfaces or we would be crossing semi-frozen rivers. So it got very tough, but I think it was worth it.
What challenges did the environment present for you?
We were shooting in a very high latitude and the day became very short. The sun travels very low to the horizon and sometimes we were in valleys or in places where the sun just hides even before sunset. The days could get very, very short compared to a normal day in Burbank. A normal day of working in Burbank is 14 hours, sometimes more. On The Revenant sometimes it was eight hours, but we were shooting only five. So they were short days but they were very strenuous because of the weather. And it was very dark. That was one of the reasons to shoot with this digital camera that allows you to shoot in those lighting conditions. The other thing is, we’re seeing expanses of land that are so big it would have been ridiculous to try to light them or light the faces of the actor but not light the background. It would have looked terrible. So the idea of shooting with natural light was, I think, hopefully perfect for the methodology of shooting the movie, but also for the look of the movie.
We were lucky that ARRI was coming out with their new Alexa 65MM camera. They allowed us to use it during the movie and the great thing about the camera is that it has much more resolution than any other digital camera. It truly captured what I was feeling when I was there into the screen, and that was kind of wonderful. The digital cameras allow us to shoot in this very dark environment, but also to shoot in a way that looks more naturalistic—without grain or anything between the audience and the character. So it’s a little bit like a window into this world, and that’s what I like about the digital camera. The camera didn’t have any problem because digital cameras run warm, so they actually like the cold. But the monitor did freeze a couple of times, and cables froze, and the batteries would last a very short time compared to what they would last in other places. But it was not really a big issue with the gear. We had the best crew in the world, and they kept the gear running all the time.
The film is shot with very wide lenses. Would you say these lenses add an interesting psychological dimension to the film when you go into close-ups, in terms of the way they distort the human face?
Yeah, absolutely. I think the wide lenses allow you to make the movie very immersive and that was one of our main ideas: to engage the audience in a very immersive way. The movie wanted to be visceral, so it allows us to get very close to the actors but still see the environment surrounding them. They are always connected to the environment. The lens is so wide that I have to be very close to Leo, for example, when I’m shooting a close-up. And the beautiful thing about that is that you can see the breath coming out of his mouth. The breath sometimes even hangs into the lens and distorts the image, but I think in a very poetic way. It’s almost like feeling his life, and you can capture eye movement in a beautiful way because you’re so close. It creates a proximity with the characters that otherwise you don’t have. When you’re shooting with long lenses, even if you’re shooting a close-up, you feel the air, the distance between the camera and the subject. And here, you feel that there is no distance, that the camera is right there, so it adds a psychological dimension.
When you’re preparing for a project, do you use inspiration from photography or other films?
In this movie we didn’t use any reference because as we were talking about the movie we realized that we haven’t seen anything like this before. So maybe little moments in films, but not a full film that feels or looks like this one. We decided just to talk about the challenges we had in front of us and how to solve them with the equipment and the knowledge we have. We talk a lot about music. I love that about Alejandro. We made a lot of reference to music. There’s a composer I love, John Luther Adams. And sometimes I would put John Luther Adams in my phone and we would play it on the set to the actors, just to transport ourselves to get a feeling, to get a tone before we shot. I think like that. But we didn’t use any films or any still photography.
You’ve won two consecutive Oscars and are very likely to be nominated for a third. What else do you want to accomplish in your career?
I’m a craftsman. I don’t know if you’ve seen Jiro, the movie about the sushi chef… There’s a little bit of that feeling of, “Finally I’m starting to understand certain things.” I’m starting to understand how to use certain tools. And there’s tons of things that I need to learn and that I need to practice and that I need to experiment with. I think in that sense the Oscars don’t really mean much. It’s more that I’m trying to improve my craft.
You’ve become famous not only for your work but also for your Instagram account, where you catalogue stills taken during production. Do you still find as much enjoyment in taking photos just for pleasure?
I have two daughters and they grew up and wanted to get into Instagram and I didn’t know anything about social media. I started it to learn about what they were starting to do and how they communicate with their friends. I opened an account. Very fast, in a few hours, I realized that I actually liked it. Not so much as social media, but as a tool to watch for photography, especially from amateur photographers from all around the world. Finally, I was watching photographs from a beautiful photographer in Iran, of places that I’ve never seen, and all sorts of art from around the world.
I always love to take photos but I didn’t really have an outlet because my work is not professional, so I cannot put it in a gallery. So this became a little bit like my gallery and I could put any photo I wanted—it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. I said, “I have to put up a photo at least once a week, because that will push me into taking photographs,” and that’s what I’ve been trying to do. It’s very hard, especially when you’re post-producing a movie, but it’s something that I like very much. And it is calming for me even though it’s another form of visual storytelling. It’s not the same as film because I can do it by myself.
What are you working on next?
I’m going to take a three-week nap. I’m going to go into hibernation like the bear.
To see Lubezki’s work in a scene from The Revenant, click play below:
And to check out his Instagram feed, take this link.