A Master Class in 5 Scenes From Gravity Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki
By Kyle Buchanan
The best cinematographers often form a long-lasting, creatively fruitful relationship with an A-list filmmaker — think of how Steven Spielberg uses Janusz Kaminski, for example, or how many iconic shots Roger Deakins has set up for the Coen brothers — but few are as fortunate as Emmanuel Lubezki, the 49-year-old Mexican director of photography who can count both Alfonso Cuarón and Terrence Malick among his closest collaborators. Oscar nominated five times, the gifted Lubezki (nicknamed "Chivo" by his friends) has strung together some stunning, impossible shots for his buddy Cuarón, including the wowser of a scene that opens their new space epic, Gravity. At the same time, he has a talent for making those technically difficult shots look natural and tossed-off, a trick he puts to good use in his gorgeously filmed projects with Malick. How does he do it? Let Lubezki himself explain, by way of five superb sequences he's shot for both directors.
Y Tu Mamá También
Before Lubezki worked on Cuarón's breakthrough film, Y Tu Mamá También, the two men collaborated on Cuarón's initial Spanish-language projects and his first two studio movies: the family film A Little Princess and a remake of Great Expectations starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. "I knew Cuarón since before film school, and I'd worked with him at least a dozen times," Lubezki told Vulture. "Many times, we went to the movies together, and we'd talk about film, music, girls … everything!"
Y Tu Mamá was borne from those youthful conversations, and its documentary-like look ran counter to the work Lubezki had done for Cuarón on Great Expectations. "Y Tu Mamá También was a little bit of a reaction to our previous film, which had been incredibly planned and overstylized," Lubezki admitted. "The experience had been not great and the final product wasn't as satisfying as we wanted it to be. I remember in those first few movies, we were very, very precise about the color palette we wanted to use: It was narrowed down to just greens and a few other colors. [With Y Tu Mamá,] we wanted to do something else that would get rid of this dogmatic sense of our work."
You could hardly find a less dogmatic moment than one in this virtuoso third-act sequence: After a very long, drunken conversation at the bar between the two lead boys (Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna) and their older companion (Maribel Verdú), Verdú heads to the jukebox, then dances flirtatiously with the omniscient camera on her way back to the table. (The long sequence is shot in a single take, a soon-to-be-hallmark of Lubezki's work with Cuarón.) "When we were rehearsing, I remember Maribel looked at the lens for one second, and I just felt this energy of Maribel connecting with the audience," Lubezki explained. "It was a very powerful feeling where she's almost aware of this consciousness looking at her, so we just shot it like that."
The sequence is followed by the movie's famous ménage à trois, another single-take scene that few crew members were present for besides Cuarón, Lubezki, and his actors. Lubezki says the threesome, one of the last scenes filmed for the movie, was warm, intimate, and the complete antithesis of the chillier sex scenes he'd shot between Hawke and Paltrow on his previous film. "You know, I met Diego Luna when he was born, and Gael when he was a little kid," he said. "What I can say is that it's a relationship you don't usually have here in America on what I call 'Burbank movies.' You don't get that close with the actors or the crew when you're shooting here on a big studio movie. Again, it was a little bit of a reaction to some rough times that we had trying to shoot sensual or erotic sex scenes for Great Expectations, where the actors are uncomfortable and the set is cold."
The Tree of Life
Lubezki's second film with Terrence Malick is filled with so many stunning, beautifully lit images that it's hard to believe how many of them were captured on the fly, as in this sequence, where Lubezki's camera chases Jessica Chastain's young sons as they run around their house. "I was able to shoot a movie like Tree of Life because I had done Y Tu Mamá También," said Lubezki. "The camera needed to capture that sense of freedom and joy and life you have when you're young. But it was very, very difficult, and it required a great camera operator and an incredible focus-puller and another person helping me expose as I moved through the rooms."
It also meant that Lubezki had to keep following the children if they decided to run out the front door. Though most cinematographers would require a few hours to reset their equipment for an outdoor shoot, Lubezki simply kept filming in long, continuous takes. "If I hadn't done Y Tu Mamá, I would have been terrified about the difference in exposure between interior and exterior, about the direction of the lighting at certain moments, the overexposure from the windows," said Lubezki. "It took me a long time to get to that point where I could accept that. I had to be a more mature cinematographer so I could be less mature in my work."
That freedom, Lubezki said, was something he and Malick had started to explore on The New World, their previous film. "Terry came to me and said, 'I would love to try this, and if we fail, I will never use it. I would never put anything in the movie that would humiliate you or makes you feel uncomfortable, but let's just try to go to the edge of the abyss, because that's where the best images are.' Once he said that and allowed me that freedom to fail, I was free of all those rules and regulations that were imposed by going to film school and reading all those manuals."
Children of Men
And here we come to Lubezki's most famous work, a virtuoso take from Cuarón's dystopian classic Children of Men, where a car containing Clive Owen and Julianne Moore is attacked, the entire siege taking place in one single shot. "On Y Tu Mamá También, we started exploring shots that are longer, where the camera is moving around the actors and there are no cuts and you feel like you're there," said Lubezki. "When Alfonso started talking to me about the scene in Children of Men, he said, 'I would love to do it in one shot, and I have an idea: Why don't we put the car on a stage and surround it with a green screen?' Basically, to shoot it as a visual effect. For probably a week, I was thinking that way, until I realized it was absolutely the wrong way to do it. The rest of the movie was going to have a very naturalistic, almost documentary-like feel to it, and maybe the best way to shoot it was to really be in the car with the actors."
In order to pull off the scene, then, Cuarón and Lubezki jerry-rigged the car so that some of the seats would rotate in and out, seamlessly allowing the camera (operated from the roof of the vehicle) to go wherever it needed to. But make no mistake, that car was really moving, and the shoot was dangerous and unprecedented. "It was very, very scary," admitted Lubezki. "At that time, we didn't have much support for doing those very long scenes, because the other people around us were used to cutting and doing these scenes in a very Burbank way. They'd say, 'Why bother? What a waste of effort.'"
Any little screw-up could scuttle the whole four-minute take, so how did the actors feel once they'd nailed it? "Oh my God!" laughed Lubezki, remembering. "In reality, we could not shoot it more than two or three times, because the scene is so long and the choreography is so complex that it takes hours to reset between takes. So we did our first attempt, and when we said 'Cut,' we had achieved it on the first take, and the actors were screaming. They couldn't believe it! I've never seen something like that, where they were shouting like little kids, 'Yeah, we did it!' The guy who was operating the crane? He was crying. It was that release of tension."
To the Wonder
For Malick's most recent film, a poetic look at a Midwestern man (Ben Affleck) and his two loves (Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams), Lubezki shot most of the movie in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where Malick grew up. And yes, To the Wonder boasts plenty of Malick's trademark magic-hour shots of people frolicking in tall grass, as in this sequence, where Affleck and McAdams have a romantic idyll in nature. "Maybe for some people it doesn't feel honest, because he's shot tall grass before, but it's a very honest thing," insisted Lubezki. "It's not forced, it's not that he's trying to make it pretty — it's his backyard! It's like Woody Allen shooting in New York; why do you see these tall buildings over and over in his movies? This is a place he knows well."
This is the only sequence that Lubezki shot using the 65mm format, "And there was an interesting reason for that," he said. "There's a moment where you fall in love where light feels enhanced, where things look bigger than what they are. You experience life in a much more powerful way. And we felt like capturing this moment with a bigger negative, with more resolution, was going to help you feel a little bit of what he's going through in that moment."
Nearly all of Affleck's dialogue was subtracted from the film in postproduction, an experience that left the actor scratching his head. "Terry uses actors in a different way," Affleck told GQ last year, adding, "He'll [have the camera] on you and then tilt up and go up to a tree, so you think, 'Who's more important in this — me or the tree?'" When asked, Lubezki laughed off the remark. "I think everybody knows that the shoot is just another part of Terry's experimentation and search, and everyone on the set is very open to his suggestions," he said. "Everyone's fishing for this thing, that moment where it can feel like a found moment. So yes, the camera sometimes pans away from the actor, but Ben and Olga and Rachel never complained. At least, I don't know if they did — maybe they went to their agents later on and said, 'What the fuck am I doing?'"
Yes, Lubezki's previous single-take shots with Cuarón have been stunning, but they're dwarfed by the mammoth opening to Gravity, a twelve-minute single take in outer space that begins with a satellite repair mission gone wrong and ends with Sandra Bullock's astronaut cast terrifyingly into the void. "I have to say something about that: Cuarón tried to make the shot much longer!" said Lubezki. "I felt a little bit like the Inquisition, coming in and saying, 'Cuarón, this is too long.' It felt contrived, like we were pushing it. I don't like it when a movie becomes a series of 'tour de force' shots, and in a way, I was disappointed that with Children of Men, people noticed that the car scene was one shot with no cuts. If people notice that, it's like they're noticing my trick, you know what I mean? I'm doing it so people will get immersed in the movie, not to show off."
Though Lubezki has gone on to lens a few other films since Gravity wrapped principal production, he admitted, "I just finished working on this shot a couple weeks ago! It took many, many years." During production, Cuarón and Lubezki shot Bullock suspsneded in a nine-foot cube surrounded with LED lights; they then worked to composite those images of the actress with the outer-space setting during postproduction. "It's basically lighting the movie with computers, not unlike lighting a Pixar film," said Lubezki. "I did it from my house while most of the CG gaffers were in London."
So why the single take? "Cuarón told me, 'I want to it be the most immersive movie we've ever done,'" explained Lubezki. "It was incredibly difficult to make. We wanted this movie to feel as naturalistic as possible, and that's really hard to do in CG." With their shots growing ever grander, should we expect the next movie Lubezki shoots for Cuarón to consist only of one unbroken two-hour take? The cinematographer laughed at the notion. "If the audience starts to sense your trick, it's good to stop the trick at some point and start again," he said. "It's like erasing your tracks, so that the people cannot trace and follow you."