How The Revenant Changed Lubezki

Emmanuel (Chivo) Lubezki could make Oscar history as the first cinematographer to win three consecutive Academy Awards. What’s more, Gravity, Birdman and The Revenant comprise his very own personal survival trilogy, and the first two movies prepared him for the more harrowing adventure in the frozen wilderness with director Alejandro González Iñárritu and Leonardo DiCaprio portraying 19th century trapper Hugh Glass.

“By being on a journey that’s similar to the characters, you’re very much in tune with their experiences and that transpires into the movie,” Lubezki acknowledged. ”In Gravity, Sandra [Bullock] was locked in that box and it felt like she was in some sort of spacecraft and we were the control center, chatting with microphones. I think that really helped Sandra get a sense of claustrophobia. And the same now with Leo. Instead of shooting on a stage, we go to all of these rivers and when you see him getting out, he’s really shaking and frozen and it’s kind of wonderful.

“We knew the journey was going to inform us and change us and make the movie what it is. And we are different people. For example, when we are talking about climate change and you are in an office in Los Angeles and they say the temperature might change two degrees, you think, well, I’ll just take my sweater off. But when you are there and you realize that half a degree is the difference between liquid and ice, and that you are not going to get snow and your set is going to disappear because it’s too warm, suddenly you start thinking very differently. So from that to just the endurance of everyday complexity, it changes you.”

Lubezki described The Revenant as the most immersive project he’s ever shot, combining brutality and beauty, in which you are literally inches away from Glass, whipping around him during his ordeal and taking in all of panoramic detail of the stunning landscape.

But Lubezki couldn’t have accomplished it without using the Alexa 65, the first large-format digital camera that he’s liked. It had never been tested before and performed well in the freezing Canadian Rockies and the tip of Argentina for the finale. “Somehow this camera truly translated what I was living and feeling in that place into images. Usually you look up into the landscape and it’s never there— you’re shooting fragments. But this one, because of the size of the chip [54.12 x 25.58 mm] and the quality of the image [6560 x 3102 resolution] and how clean it is, it does feel like a window into that place. That was the other reason to shoot digital instead of film. I didn’t want to have grain, I didn’t want it to feel like a representation of the experience of Glass. I wanted to feel as if you are walking with him. I wanted it to be visceral, I wanted you to feel his breath and see his sweat, the tears coming out of his eyes. Usually we don’t do this outside—we use longer lenses trying to make everything beautiful.”

Iñárritu and Lubezki had two different methodologies: on-location rehearsal and pure improvisation. The intense opening attack and even more intense bear mauling fall under the first category while the dreamlike or abstract moments encompass the second.

“We brought actors and horses and extras to the real location and rehearsed and choreographed with a camera. Alejandro didn’t want to do any storyboarding. Originally, we wanted to do the battle in one shot but we realized that it didn’t need to be a continuous shot. And after all the rehearsals and testing, Alejandro was able to see if the atmosphere was right. And something essential for me was every time we shoot violence in film, somehow it gets slightly glamorized. It’s very hard to shoot violence and make it feel awful and something we should not engage in.

“It was something very similar to Birdman where we did probably five shots and they are all stitched in different ways. And we’ve learned to be more sophisticated since Birdman. The stitches happen in moments that you would never imagine, much more complex than using the ends. Sometimes the frames are divided right/left, north/south. But here we only did a stitch where there’s a big change in atmosphere and feeling, so Alejandro could reset the entire world that we were portraying. If you really pay attention to the scene, it’s not told in real-time. It’s a series of different moods: fear, tension, horror. These were separated and shot very much like a ballet.”

Read the rest at TOH/Indiewire.

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Cinematography, Movies, Oscar, Tech, Trailers, VFX, Virtual Production

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