Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki Talks Digital, from ‘Ali’ to ‘The Revenant’

He could be in line to win a third-straight Oscar.

Oscar-winning 'Revenant' Cinematographer Talks Bear Mauling,
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has won two Oscars in a row, for “Gravity” and “Birdman,” and he could be in line to win a record-breaking third for “The Revenant.” Shot on the large-format Alexa 65 digital camera, it’s an interesting note in his career, given that his work in digital photography stretches back to Michael Mann’s “Ali” in 2001. Few have been a part of the gradual progression of this technology like he has.


How are you feeling?

I’m tired!

I bet! You’ve got to tell Alejandro to stop trying to kill you, man.

Alejandro was trying to kill me. For sure.

You’re going to take a vacation, I hope.

I’m leaving to Hawaii for a couple days.

Great. Well deserved.

Thank you.

You should take some longer time off. As much as I want to see your work again I think you should just take a year, soak it up.

Oh my God, I wish I could. I would need to become a hedge fund manager or something.

Well your work on “The Revenant” was storied before anyone even saw it. Capturing everything in natural light, shooting in sequence, chasing snow. I remember you telling me at the Oscars last year about freezing numerous cameras up there in the elements. But I want to start by talking about a scene that has everyone talking, the bear mauling, which you captured in one five-minute take. I know you guys are reticent to talk too in-depth about this sequence but what can you tell me?

I can tell you a lot about this shot until you stop me and you find it boring. I think in this shot you can see most of the ideas of how we shot the movie, in the sense that we wanted to have a movie that was very immersive, very visceral, and to have a certain naturalistic base, a foundation that is naturalism, even if some of the scenes have different degrees of reality. So we didn’t use artificial light for that same reason and we used very, very wide lenses for that same reason, to be able to immerse the audience and to be able to tell the intimate together with the environment, to be able to capture the close-ups and the surroundings at the same time and allow the audience to be immersed and to pick what they want to see within the frame. And we used a lot of moving cameras, either handheld or Steadicam cranes, but the camera is constantly moving. We did a lot of these shots that we call the elastic shots where we go from a very objective view from the audience’s point of view, to a very subjective point of view that is the point of view of the character, because we wanted to feel what he’s feeling but also see it as he would be if you were standing close to the action.

So this scene has all those elements. And it took a long, long time to figure out how to do this scene. It took a long time to find the right location. In fact, it’s one of the few locations that are not in Calgary area, in Alberta, but this location is in B.C. in the rain forest and it’s one of the only places that we could find that has these enormous trees that remind you of the primordial forest where you can see this human being in what is almost like a Cathedral, where he’s so tiny in this place and you can see that nature towers above him. So he’s walking in there and then there’s a moment where he hears and then he sees the cubs going by. He turns his face and the camera describes the geography. It shows you how he’s trapped between the mother and the cub that in a way is an echo of the story of Glass, that is the story of parenthood, that is the story of a father that is protecting his kid. And this is a tragic moment where he’s between the mother and the cubs and the mother feels threatened and attacks him. So we knew we wanted to start like that but we didn’t know after that what happens.

Right, I’ve heard about this internet video that inspired you on the actual sequence of events during the attack.

Obviously there is no book or instruction manual to tell you how to do a bear attack. Most of the animal attacks that you’ve seen in other movies have multiple cuts and that’s because they are using puppets or pieces of an animal or stuff like that and they feel very stylized, in a way. So we wanted to find how to get to this immersive world and this visceral world. As we were rehearsing with the stunt guys, who started working with Alejandro in trying to figure out this dance, I stumbled upon a little piece on the Internet of this man that falls in a zoo pit where they have the bears and there’s this tourist that’s shooting it — probably a tourist, is my guess. You see this man falls and the bear comes close and suddenly attacks him. It’s very, very impressive. But what makes it very visceral and very touching and very dramatic and what was, to me, the most effective thing about this video, besides that it was absolutely real, was that there were no cuts. So you could feel the randomness of life and the randomness of this attack. And obviously if you’re not a bear expert, it’s very hard to understand the behavior of the bear. It’s definitely hard to predict, which makes it even more terrifying, and the tempo of the attack is very strange. It feels random. I’m sure it’s not random but it does feel random. It’s the bear approaching slowly and then it shakes the guy and attacks him and then moves very slowly, moves away, looking around and breathing. You don’t know what the bear is thinking or what the bear is doing. And then it goes again and shakes him and grabs his leg and the guy is screaming. And then the bear goes away and the guy is in pain and you see the people trying to figure out if they are going to get in the pit to save him or not. It’s almost banal. It’s almost like there is something incredibly non-poetic about it. It feels very visceral. And it’s the fact that there are no cuts, that you can see it in real time, that makes it even more terrifying.

So when we saw that we knew that our hypothesis of not having cuts was a good one, that it was going to make it more powerful. And then little by little we started working on the tempo and on the behavior of the bear and the actions of Leo. Once we found the location we rehearsed a little bit in the location and then we created a proxy set on the stage and started rehearsing with Leo to find the methodology on how to do it. It became very hard to go to that location because it was raining so hard the river just took away the road, the access to this location. It washed it away. So we had to reschedule. Some of our trucks were trapped on the other side of the river. And we could not find any other location like that one. So we had to wait a little bit. The weather gave us a surprise, one of the million surprises we got in the movie. And then we got access to the place and we shot it. And obviously I cannot tell you how we did it because it would be like a magician telling you before the trick.

Well just one question of methodology, and if this is part of the magic trick just say so, but I’m curious about Leo getting slammed around.

It’s very complicated. What I can tell you is that what Leo goes through when he’s shook around and stuff, it’s so powerful that if you’re not in very good shape and if you’re not very strong and if you’re not prepared for it, it will break your back. So it was very delicate and we had to rehearse it very carefully.

It’s definitely a moment where his performance shines through and the commitment is on full display.

It’s absolutely incredible what Leo goes through to make this shot. We could not do many takes. I think it was probably two takes because you cannot put Leo through that. It’s just like putting somebody in a washing machine at full speed or something like that.

I wanted to segue out of the movie a bit and address something broader, which is digital photography. I was with Michael Mann recently discussing his history with digital photography and being pretty far out in front on it, as far as populist filmmaking is concerned. And you were right there with him doing the digital stuff on “Ali.”

We did a lot of shots digitally. It was really the first movie I remember where we used digital. It was very primitive, the equipment, super primitive — like for a consumer camera. We did a few things with this consumer camera, for him running at the beginning of the movie and the police car kind of stops by and they say something to him. There’s the rooftop scene [after the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination] and there’s one or two other scenes. There’s one in a trolley in a bus in Chicago. And then we had another technology that was also digital, this tiny lipstick camera that was not even 1K. It was a piece of sh-t. I had this idea of using two and have the visual effects guys stitch it together to create almost 1K, but it was probably a 4-bit camera. They were terrible. I mean we are talking about a very, very early version of digital. We used that for a few shots in the fight.

Michael came from TV and he’s always trying to experiment and that’s something really amazing about Michael, that he’s trying to find the right language for each of his films. But I was doing the location scout and I had a little video camera. I don’t even remember which one but like a consumer, crappy camera. And I was able to see in this camera things that film could not give us, like seeing the night sky lit by the urban pollution, you know, the light pollution and the clouds. There was something beautiful about the dark skin of Will [Smith] separated against the dark sky, something you have never seen before because film cannot do it. I went to Michael and said, “Michael, how do we do this?” I think any other director would have said, “Oh, f-ck it. We cannot use these sh-tty cameras.” But he was like, “What the hell.” Well, he would never talk like that. He would say, “Well, this is great. Why don’t we use this camera and figure out how to transfer this to film?” We did a bunch of tests and that’s the way we shot it.

He and I have talked about the progression of this technology, and obviously it’s close to standardized at this point. I mean you’re working in large-format digital now, the Alexa 65. Leaps and bounds.

I think he jumped too early. I think Michael was very gutsy and jumped into the digital world years early when the cameras were very primitive. I mean they didn’t have any dynamic range and they were probably 8-bit cameras. So they don’t have the range and tonalities that you want from any camera. Basically it was kind of suicidal, what he did. But he was able to — for example, in “Collateral” I think it paid off.

The debate around “Public Enemies” has always been interesting. It was criticized very much but the issue there was more about distribution being photochemical and not digital. Distribution hadn’t caught up in a digital-standardized fashion yet.

I agree. If you put that on film and you even compress it more, it would get really screwed up. I agree. We’re living in what I call “the gap,” and it’s this moment where film has been amazing and it got so good. The last years of film were just incredible and the cameras worked better than ever. But suddenly these digital cameras come, film distribution collapses in the sense that film theaters collapse and suddenly you’re in a little gap where there’s no standard. Digital is not yet great. The dynamic range of the digital camera is pretty crappy compared to film, but now film is not great because the labs have closed. It’s going to hurt a lot of the movies that we did in this gap because I think they are going to look very old very soon.

It’s interesting to talk to someone like you about this, who has been a part of this longterm transition. I mean between “Ali” and what you’re using on “The Revenant”…

It’s the difference between a paper plane and a 747. The most important thing in imaging for me is the dynamic range. The dynamic range means the tones that you can capture from highlights to dark and the bits, the depth of color that you can capture. So if you have a camera that is four bits or eight bits, the difference between the tones, you know — there’s no gradation between the tones, so you see weird artifacts and it looks very video-y. But there’s nothing like that right now. I mean these new cameras, to my taste, exceed the quality of film by a lot. They exceeded the quality but not the dynamic range. Film still has more dynamic range.

So would you want to go shoot something on film again at some point?

If the movie requires it I would gladly do it. I would love if film doesn’t disappear, if we can have film forever so we would have all these brushes, all these possibilities available.

Have you seen “The Hateful Eight” yet?

No, I haven’t seen it. I’m dying to see it.

I’ll be curious what you think of that, particularly since it’s sort of the analog large-format answer to the digital large-format of your film this year.

I love film. The only thing is I would say it’s getting harder and harder to project and it’s harder to print. Though I don’t miss film projecting. I always hated it. The negative is great but the positive, the material that we printed on, was very bad. It doesn’t have the same dynamic range as the negative. That was not great. But the other problem if film disappears is that we won’t be able to watch “The Godfather” on film anymore. That would be incredibly sad. All the hundred and something years of history on film would never be able to be shown the way the filmmakers wanted to show this to the audience.