Cinematographers Deploy New Tools to Tell Stories

As cameras evolve and the industry goes digital, DP's find new ways to express the director's vision

Birdman Cinematography

The cross-pollination between filmmaking tools and the ways they are put to use by cinematographers, as old as cinema itself, is evident in this year’s crop of buzz-worthy awards contenders, which includes a wide range of poetic imagery and impressive technical feats — often in the same film.

Emmanuel Lubezki pushed the boundaries of what’s possible with “Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” pictured here, where his searching, sensitive camera makes a live-wire connection between the audience and a pathos- and humor-filled performance by Michael Keaton. Director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s long, single-take approach invites comparisons to Hitchcock’s “Rope,” but pushes the concept further.

Lubezki, who won an Oscar last year for “Gravity,” has five other previous nominations. “Birdman” has already brought him an IFP Spirit Award nomination. He says he was initially reluctant to take the “Birdman” assignment because very long shots often mean that lighting must be less specific.

“But once I read the script with that approach in mind, it made complete sense,” he says. “It’s great to work with directors who don’t want to cover everything like TV. They’re not just illustrating dialogue. Shots can have meaning, just as the words or the expressions of the actors have meaning. For ‘Birdman,’ we were trying to tell the story with very long shots that make you feel as though you are in there with the actors. And the equipment helped make it possible, because the shots are insanely long — much longer than what a film magazine could do.”

Digital cameras and related technologies have roiled the cinematography world, but tools and techniques are becoming more standardized — a development welcomed by many. Michael Seresin kept technology at arm’s length on “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which he filmed for director Matt Reeves in native 3D. That meant using a dual-camera rig and a complex workflow on massive, silk-covered outdoor sets mounted in Vancouver and New Orleans. “Dawn” was Seresin’s first full feature using digital cameras, and his first native 3D production, and he called it “a baptism by fire.”

“But the technical aspects, for the most part, I was unaware of,” Seresin says. “And that was brilliant and absolutely seamless. I don’t want the technical stuff to get in the way. I just want it to work. All I care about, frankly, is telling a story with light, camera movement, composition and a lens. We decided to shoot the 3D images with a 2D aesthetic — for the most part, as shallow as possible. And the lighting was based on my experience with smaller dramatic films — we kept it dark and remembered that less is more. And the technology just worked.”

On “Noah,” with longtime collaborator Darren Aronofsky, Matthew Libatique also worked with elaborate exterior sets built on a grand scale. Libatique, an Oscar nominee for “Black Swan,” says so much stylization was built into the production design that his photography best served the story and characters through restrained naturalism.

“There was so much going in the locations, and in the hair, makeup and wardrobe that I felt I didn’t need to go the extra mile by putting a patina on top of that,” Libatique says. “So I shot it straight, with the palette mainly controlled in the production design.

“Unlike our previous projects, Darren and I didn’t use many visual references,” he says. “Our references were more written and scholarly in nature, with an eye toward the screenplay. The scale was big, but the jumping-off point for the story was the internal family struggle.”