Eye on the Oscars: The Cinematographer

Sixteen years ago, Mark Johnson called me to tell me about a terrific young cinematographer who was photographing “The Little Princess,” a movie Mark was producing. The cinematographer was Emmanuel Lubezki, aka “Chivo.” Mark was right. The film went on to earn Chivo a well-deserved Academy Award nomination, but was just the beginning of an extraordinary career.

He followed “The Little Princess” with a body of work that is breathtaking in its expressiveness, experimentation and beauty. The films have ranged from the grand scale to the intimate — always surprising and inventive but with powerful imagery supportive of the story.

Chivo continues this remarkable work in Terry Malick’s “Tree of Life.” The film is a masterpiece of filmmaking, elevated, in no small part, by its cinematography. It is a work that can only exist as a movie, where performance and images and sound and music are all woven together to create an experience unique to cinema.

There are times when you are so close to the performance you almost feel connected to the emotion of the characters through some kind of visual umbilical cord.

The film has an ephemeral quality that makes it seem like your own experience. I was left with a melancholy of something as close to living it myself as any movie I’ve seen; there are moments that felt almost drawn from my own memory.

Now there is no denying the sheer beauty of the images. But I would argue the real beauty of this film comes from the way the movie so closely records the events and performances of the wonderful actors, young and old — performances that are so good, and at times so heartbreaking and other times so joyful, they just seem to leap into your psyche.

Most people think of cinematographers as choosing subjects of an epic nature to show off what they do — big, sweeping images of war or pageantry.

In “Tree of Life” the cinematography records a small story, a celebration of the courage of everyday life. But it does it so up close and so effortlessly that it has the effect of elevating the intimacy of the story to a grand scale.

You could argue anyone could use the technique to the same effect. But to achieve this intimacy with the camera requires trust. The great photographers of life — like Diane Arbus and Walker Evans and Robert Frank — all must have had some special quality: a personality of nurturing and non-judgment that frees the subjects to reveal their most intimate reality. It really is what makes a great photographer, every bit as much as understanding composition and lighting.

There is no question that great performances come from a similar, welcoming environment. Even great actors shine brighter in the right atmosphere. I suspect both Terry and Chivo have this quality and that Chivo surrounds himself with a crew that shares his demeanor to allow the magic to happen in such a close setting. This movie feels as if it was filmed by “the invisible man” with an invisible camera. The filming seems: well, “invisible” — so that this story of heartbreak, of loss, the joys of childhood, the struggles of life, the damage done has an impact of something much bigger.

Like a beautiful and complex mosaic, the many small, intimate, often brief moments of this movie add up to a monumental picture of human experience that lives with you long after you see it.

Caleb Deschanel, a five-time Oscar nominee, won the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. His recent work includes “Killer Joe” and “Dream House.”

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