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Alfonso Cuarón Details ‘Roma’ Cinematography With ‘Gravity’ DP Emmanuel Lubezki

As part of an overall push to bring Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” to awards season voters, Netflix’s “‘Roma’ Experience'” played host to guild and Academy members Sunday in Hollywood. The all-day event featured panels focused on the film’s crafts and an audio-visual installation akin to the streamer’s FYSee initiative for Emmy contenders, featuring costumes and art department elements as well as a surround-sound immersion into the movie’s soundscape.

The final panel was the day’s hottest ticket: a conversation between Cuarón and his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Cuarón had in fact designed “Roma” to be shot by Lubezki and put in a lot of early prep work with the three-time Oscar winner. With the financial success of “Gravity,” Cuarón was able to make his next movie precisely the way he wanted to. For him, the most valuable resource when working is time, so he plotted out plenty of it. Indeed, at 108 days, “Roma” would become his longest shoot short of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” However, that freedom ultimately meant Lubezki could not complete the project.

“My work is informed by Chivo,” Cuarón said. “I wrote this thinking of Chivo. I would say, ‘Chivo is going to ask for more time in DI [digital intermediate]. Chivo would like this. Chivo would like that.’ The problem is that precisely what we were calling for was the reason why he couldn’t do it. I said let’s scout for longer. Let’s prep for longer. Let’s add days to the schedule. And there was a point where he started saying, ‘Alfonso, this is straining me too much. I already have commitments. I can’t do it.'”

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When Lubezki — the only other person who had read the script — took his leave, Cuarón set about shooting the film himself. The early groundwork continued to echo throughout the project. As a small example, the director originally wanted to shoot the film in the Academy ratio (1.37:1), but Lubezki convinced him to go with wide-format. Regardless, it was still a radical visual language Cuarón was developing. Lubezki noted that in “Gravity,” Cuarón explored the idea of elasticity, where shots would move from objective to subjective viewpoints and back. With “Roma,” he marveled at the director’s blocking techniques and how he used camera movement to make it an objective experience.

“The blocking of the scenes is very perpendicular to the lens,” Lubezki said. “You laid the track and the actors are moving parallel to the camera. Usually, if I was there, I would say, ‘Alfonso, that’s very flat. What are we doing? We should compose in Z axis, not in X axis.’ But the camera becomes almost like a consciousness that is revisiting the story, like the camera knows something that the actors don’t. I don’t even want to try to describe it but it’s very powerful.”

Countered Cuarón: “I would say it’s the ghost of the present that is visiting the past, without getting involved, just observing, not trying to make a judgment or commentary. Everything there would be the commentary itself.”

Lubezki was particularly awed by the lighting in the film. It’s very naturalistic and “moody,” he said, and there’s a lot of depth. “That combination is not simple,” Lubezki said. “It requires you not to have a very deep f-stop, and that means you need a lot of light.”

One sequence shot in a movie theater stood out in this regard. The camera is aimed toward the cinema screen, behind Cuarón’s actors, as a classic film is being projected. The lighting challenge was considerable.

“I wanted the screen to be lighting everything in sync with the projection,” Cuarón said. “The problem is if you project 35mm, you’re not going to get any light. And even if you could get some light, in 65, you cannot afford it; you don’t have a big f-stop because you lose the depth of field. So you need power.”

The solution was to tap into the LED lighting techniques Lubezki employed on “Gravity.” Cuarón used LED lights on the screen to generate the right amount of illumination for the space, then he and his visual effects team replaced that element of the shot in post-production with the movie being projected. To reach his actors in the foreground of the shot, there was another layer of LED lights with a lesser intensity that was in sync with the projection.

Overall, the project was a gargantuan undertaking for Cuarón. But Lubezki called it the director’s most successful film. “It’s one of my favorite movies of all time,” he said. “It’s everything you’ve learned.”

For Cuarón, the epiphany was a little different.

“I realized that you have all the fun,” he told Lubezki.

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