‘Revenant’ Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki Used Only Natural Light

Emmanuel Lubezki The Revenant Cinematography
Courtesy of Kimberley French/20th Century Fox

There would not seem to be many challenges left for cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki to conquer. He won his first Academy Award in 2014 for helping to create the illusion of Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone on her journey through space in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.” And he returned to the podium this year for his breathtaking work on Alejandro G. Inarritu’s “Birdman,” a film that appeared to be shot in a single take.

But the Mexican d.p. may have taken on his biggest challenge yet, reteaming with Inarritu for “The Revenant,” which was shot in freezing conditions, and used only natural light.

Based on the true story of 1800s frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who was left for dead in a harsh winter, the film had a notoriously long and difficult shoot in snowy Canada and Argentina. But the conditions were necessary, says Lubezki, to communicate the experience. “We wanted to make a movie that was immersive and visceral,” he notes. “The idea of using natural light came because we wanted the audience to feel, I hope, that this stuff is really happening.”

“We wanted the audience to feel that this stuff is really happening.”
Emmanuel Lubezki

Lubezki has shot under such lighting conditions before, saying that “Y tu mama tambien” was probably “90% natural light,” and many of his collaborations with Terrence Malick also used the strategy, but this was the first time there were no scenes with outside lighting. Well, except for one: a campfire sequence at night where the wind was causing the fire to pulse in a distracting way. “We had to lay a bunch of light bulbs around the fire to create a cushion of light,” Lubezki admits. “That’s all the light we used.”

Originally, Lubezki had planned to shoot the picture on film, but after some tests, he soon realized the format wasn’t up to the task. “It didn’t have the sensitivity to capture the scenes we were trying to shoot, especially the things we shot at dawn and dusk,” he says. Instead, the d.p. used the Arri Alexa 65 digital camera with lenses from 12mm to 21mm.

“It also allowed us to (work) without any noise or grain between the audience and the actor,” Lubezki explains. “It’s a little like watching everything through a window; it’s clean, and there’s no texture between you and the character. I felt this was my divorce from film — finally.”

Though “The Revenant” was a long and arduous shoot, Lubezki says it wasn’t his hardest; that would probably be “The New World,” which was filmed in Virginia during the wettest summer in history, and the d.p. was sent to the hospital after getting sick from a tick bite. Still, the cold on “The Revenant” was a huge challenge. “You have to learn how to manage your energy, because you want to use it to shoot the movie,” he says. Meanwhile, “your body is starting to say, ‘Go back to the hotel! … Go back to the hotel!’ ”

In the end, it was all worth it. “The journey really shows when you watch the movie,” he says. He points to a scene where DiCaprio comes out of a freezing river, and his lips are purple and his breath visible. “We would never have gotten anything like that,” he says. “And while natural light is very complex because it’s constantly changing — which can be a problem for continuity — it’s beautiful.

“And that constant transformation of nature is a theme of the movie.”

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  1. Doapsique says:

    I’m an aspiring filmmaker and I’ve always been torn between the film vs digital debate. Mainly because I’m a huge Tarantino fan (who only uses film)
    Well, after watching the Revenant for about twenty minutes, I had finally made up my mind because I knew right away that this movie could never have been made on film! To be able to see virtually everything the human eye can see is infinitely valuable.
    Mr. Tarantino. With all due respect; it’s time to let go of the past.

  2. Raul Santos says:

    I saw the movie yesterday, and I was interested in the lens angle used. Thanks for explain! The work was wondeful!

  3. Paco says:

    For difficult shooting with natural light better go back in time and review Barry Lyndon from Kubrick, that was insane.

  4. eldhose George says:

    nice work and all are good

  5. John Zur says:

    Can anyone explain why when the objective was to make everything seem as real as possible, there are scenes where you see the actor’s breath fog the camera lens or see light reflecting off the lens and someone also mentioned some of the under water scenes. This had to be done on purpose (or it would have been cut).

    • Doapsique says:

      It’s very possible (but don’t quote me on this) that they never intended on the breath fogging the lens but that was simply the best take and the same goes for the lens flare.
      The lens flare was a little jarring in that beautiful shot where Glass is looking over that huge vista but I think it’s just one of those necessary evils the camera company’s are still trying to fix.

  6. Sal U. Lloyd says:

    A great cinematographer.

  7. Rusalen says:

    Yesterday I watched “The revenant”.
    Frankly, I expected much more, especially after “Birdman”.

    1. Very good acting of Leonardo Dicaprio
    2. very good post production
    Finally, at last position, I put the set of lenses and the way of shooting.
    I think Deakins would not choose these lenses.

    I ignored two things:
    – I don’t see with such a big post-production why shooting didn’t continue after the chase and they could have made a horse fall down with DiCaprio showing it without transition fallen to the ground.
    This is his style, right?

    – these graphic spots that appear on the camera screen after drowning into the water and the fight with the blood stain weren’t very photorealistic.

    • Doapsique says:

      Because the horse, during the fall, and the bear were CG they used a lot of tricks to hide that fact. For instance the bear’s (almost) always either in the corner of the frame or slightly out of focus. As a result: I feel like this is one of maybe three films where I totally believe the CG elements are real. So, I’m positive, if they would have held the shot of the falling horse for another spilt second the audience would have noticed it was CG and the immersion is destroyed.
      You could hand this scene to a hundred different directors and they would shoot it in a hundred different ways but I think it was handled perfectly.

    • Sal U. Lloyd says:

      John Huston’s MAN IN THE WILDERNESS (1971) with Richard Harris as a man left for dead in the wilderness who goes on to seek revenge comes to mind. The novel is not so original.

      • Doapsique says:

        Nothing ever is. If you look hard enough every story you thought was totally original is similar to another story. Even stories from ancient times are based on stories from more ancient times.

    • oscarstegland says:

      Deakins has never shot on this camera system and this is the only complete set of lenses avaliable for it. Nonetheless, they are world class optics made by Hasselblad, who let Zeiss make a lot of their glass throughout the years. Deakins shoots basically everything these days on Zeiss Master Primes.

      Regarding the use of wide angle, Deakins probably wouldn’t have taken it to the same extreme, but extreme wide angles are also kind of a signature for Lubezki who is a world class dp in his own right.

      • Greggan says:

        I think “Rusalen” was referring the (very wide) focal length of the lenses used for the picture. It’s my understanding and my observation from seeing the movie that much (but not all) of the movie was shot with only two focal lengths. Deakins is also a proponent of wider-than-normal lenses, so writing that he’d never use “those lenses” is very presumptuous. If Deakins were shooting the picture and he shared the vision of the director, he might use exactly the same focal lengths. We’ll never know.

  8. I don’t believe you have the correct mm for the lenses used. The 12-21mm range would be a SUPER wide angle on that camera as a “normal lens” on the 65mm film camera was the 120mm and is 150mm on the Alexa 65.

    • Greggan says:

      The 12-21 lens range is definitely wrong in the article. The widest lens available for the ALEXA 65 is a 24mm.

      • Nick says:

        To get a 12mm equivalent in 65, you’d need a 24mm lens, so the article is correct if speaking in 35mm relative terms.

  9. Eric says:

    As a DP I love natural light. But while manipulating natural light is a skill that takes years to master being a able to recreate and mimic natural light accurately and seemlessly is far harder, and in many ways shows far more skill.

    I’m sure that not having a bunch of generators making noise helps an actor’s performance and not having lighting in the way allows for wider shots naturally and without CG, but when you consider going over time and over budget I have to question how worthwhile it is.

    • Drazen says:

      The absence of artificial lighting greatly enhances the immersive effect. Using only wide angle lenses gives you the effect not of “looking through a window” but rather being there and seeing things through your own eyes. Also, there’s a lot of action-packed sweeping 360 degree shots, that basically make you feel like you’re turning your head around, seeing first hand what’s going on around. I don’t think there’s a single medium or telephoto frame in the whole movie. Everything is framed by bringing the camera closer, or moving further away. And also, you can definitively feel they went with a light rig whenever it was possible, because the camera moves around effortlessly. There are a lot of low angle shots over uneven terrain and I especially loved the shot where the horse rider seemingly picks up the stationary camera and then falls off the horse with the camera following him and than moving on. It was really clever editing – I loved it.

    • Neil S says:

      “not having a bunch of generators making noise helps an actor’s performance” — I think that’s precisely the benefit we will see in this particular film. A natural immersion for each actor, allowing them to really become their character. Many of the greatest epic films of all time ran over schedule and far over budget, but it’s worth it all in the end. There’s a gathering hope from fans that this will finally be the film for which DiCaprio wins the coveted Oscar for Best Actor, and an epic non-fiction is exactly the type of film that wins awards.

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