Cinematographer Matthew Libatique has collaborated with Darren Aronofsky on all of his features save “The Wrestler.” This includes “Black Swan,” for which Libatique earned an Oscar nomination, and Aronofsky’s latest, “Noah,” a fanciful take on the Old Testament patriarch who built the ark.
The d.p. has repeated projects with Spike Lee (“Inside Man,” “Miracle at St. Anna”), Jon Favreau (the first two “Iron Man” films, “Cowboys & Aliens) and Joel Schumacher (“Tigerland,” “Phone Booth”). We spoke with Libatique, who will be participating in a cinematography master class on April 26 at the Newport Beach Film Festival, about “Noah,” the process and director/d.p. dynamics. This is an edited version of the conversation.
The setting and look of “Noah” suggests both a pre-civilized and post-apocalyptic world. What was your aesthetic approach in achieving this?
It was a focus on naturalism. The film ultimately goes in a place where you’re basically telling the story of a myth. If we went too severe atmospherically, photographically, I think we would have lost the audience. Darren (Aronofsky) and I both had the same goals, keeping it as naturalistic as possible.
What is your theory on exterior lighting? Those Icelandic landscapes are so exotic that there’s already an otherworldly quality about them.
I don’t typically like to light my exteriors. I try to block accordingly to the situation and the time and the place and the natural position of the light. I mean, Iceland in the summer, I don’t know if you’ve been but Reykjavik is the northernmost capital of the world and the sun at 11 o’clock at night is just skirting through the horizon. So you have this beautiful low light. Of course it was challenging because (of) the weather.
Was this your most FX-laden film?
“Iron Man” and “Cowboys & Aliens” were big effects-wise. This one was big as well. But you know, we didn’t do very much green screen. A lot of it was working with plates. And all the visual effects with ILM were rooted in the live action, versus the other way around, which would be a virtual world.
What is your philosophy on creating invented worlds vs. real worlds?
The light has to be recognizable to me. Whether it’s a real world or a created one, I think it’s important that the light communicates an atmosphere that is familiar so that people don’t get disconnected to it. I have a problem with films in virtual worlds. I think they’ve done really well. “Avatar” was beautiful and “Life of Pi” was beautiful. But I think that if you go the route of, say, “300,” I get lost in that artificiality. It’s almost plastic. I’d rather it be wood.
Can you describe your relationship with Mr. Aronofsky?
Well obviously I’m very familiar with him. There’s a shorthand. We went to film school (AFI) together. He’s like a brother to me. They call me a cameraman, but in all honesty I share that tool with the director. In front of the camera at the point of exposure, we’re both putting the things that we’re responsible for — lighting and the atmosphere, the performances. This is our fifth film together and our relationship’s just evolved from being 20-year-old men to 40-year-old men.
How is this relationship different from other frequent collaborators, like Jon Favreau or Spike Lee?
Every director dictates that relationship, so with each of those people you just mentioned I try to have communion of sorts and I try to fit into their working style. I change myself and my working style to fit what’s comfortable for them.
What is different about Mr. Lee? Is there less shorthand and more specificity?
He is definitely specific, but he’s also improvisational. He’s very organized and he likes to get through a scene pretty quickly. He treats everybody the same way, whether it’s me or the actors. He has people that have been working with him since “Do the Right Thing,” since “She’s Gotta Have It.” So it’s like this family that you enter in.
Darren’s very specific as well, but in different ways. Darren’s all about a single camera and a subjectivity. Spike is more jazz-like and fluid. He can be very strict. He can be very playful. It’s just following the ebb and flow. I think about the music in “Mo’ Better Blues” — it’s like that.”