Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki has been recognized with Oscar nominations five times before for his work as cinematographer – from Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life and The New World to Tim Burton’s dark and edgy The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow — but it is this year’s nomination on Gravity that holds a special place for him. “All the movies are very hard, but the difference was that for this movie, we were challenged to do something that we had never done before,” he said. “There was no manual. We had to write our own manual day by day.” Gravity, Lubezki’s 10th film collaboration with director Alfonso Cuaron (the two have worked on many TV projects together), marked the first time in his long career that he was working with a CG world. Facing the unique challenge of lighting and framing a virtual world and integrating it seamlessly with live action, Lubezki realized that he would have to create his own tools and build his own equipment and gear. “You could not go to a place and just rent the equipment,” he said. “And then after you built it, you only had one of each piece of equipment, which made it very scary. It was all very delicate.”
After combing through 300 to 400 stills from NASA, which Lubezki called “his bible,” he began building. One of the tools they had to create was an LED light box. “It allowed us to keep the camera almost still and standing up inside the box so we could move the environment around the box instead of moving the actress (Sandra Bullock),” he said. “So we lit her inside this box.” There were two shots that Lubezki said were exceptionally hard to pull off: the first was the initial shot that hurls the audience into space and circles and loops around and around in that atmosphere. It was the establishing shot for the movie — a 12-minute, single-take opening scene. “It was quite long, and there was a complexity of movement and that’s where the lighting and framing began. But it worked because it helped transport the audience to a different world and immersed the audience into an emotional journey.” The second shot that tested Lubezki’s creative limits is when Bullock takes off her space suit and goes into the fetal position in the capsule. “That was incredibly hard,” he said. “We realized that we couldn’t do it in the box, so we had to create another environment.” So he began building again and came up with something they ended up calling a “washing machine,” a circular piece of equipment to give the illusion of zero gravity. “We used a bicycle seat,” he said. “She was set on a bicycle seat, and the entire set was moving with lights around her. It had to be synchronized to the environment to what we had previously done. And we were so lucky that Sandy was the one who did the movie because, well, not only is she the soul of the movie but she was so incredible in the physical movements.” This is Lubezki’s third Academy Award nomination on a Cuaron-directed film, following Children of Men and The Little Princess. (Top photo by Murray Close)
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