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How ‘The Revenant’ Changed Emmanuel Lubezki’s Life

How 'The Revenant' Changed Emmanuel Lubezki's Life

Editor’s Note: “The Revenant” is now available to own on Digital HD. The movie will hit 4K Ultra HD Disc, Blu-ray and DVD starting April 19

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.

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“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 (with 12mm or 24mm lenses), 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 [54.12mm 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.”

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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.

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“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.” 

However, there was one part of the battle that took longer to figure out: when you see the body of a man that has arrived naked and they pull him into safety. The camera circles around and you see arrows whirring from the sky. As written, it had a different rhythm, but Iñárritu decided to stretch it out by creating more tension and confusion. 

Speaking of stretching, Lubezki got to play more with the elasticity of shots using both hand-held and Steadicam, depending on the mood. “They are not only long but can go from being very objective to swinging around so you’re seeing from the eyes of the character and then objective back again and subjective. You are confused, you are immersed, you are engaged.

“When they start crossing the river toward the boat, it was very, very hard. There were moments I had to run with them in the river with my camera up to my chest and the water is close to 32 degrees. When you are that deep in the water, it’s hard not to fall.”
For the bear mauling (aided by ILM’s CG Judy, nominated for an ASIFA-Hollywood Annie Award), they were inspired by online video footage of a real bear attack at a zoo. “So analyzing that shot, we noticed that the camera is continually shooting with no cuts and it’s almost banal. What happens is the bear attacks him and then goes away and looks around. What I love about the scene is that it has that randomness that we found in the real attack. It’s a tragedy because the bear is only trying to protect its cubs.”

Lubezki insisted on using only natural light, and because the movie takes place in 1823, before the invention of kerosene lamps, they were also limited to fire, torches and candles. (He recalled a party scene that featured a couple of lamps that probably used whale oil.)

But in terms of shooting strictly during “magic hour,” Lubezki made a slight clarification. “The reality is that not all of it was shot in magic hour. We’re in the northern latitude and the sun’s traveling very low and it goes behind the mountains a couple of times a day and so you have very short openings of light. And a lot of times because the light is not direct: it’s kind of dark and it’s very mysterious. It’s almost like you had full days of magic hour.

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“When we started making the movie, we experimented with film because you can see highlights and shadows. And it just didn’t work for this movie because the sensitivity of film was not enough for us to capture these moments in this very dark light and in this magic hour and at night. And it was getting very grainy.”

One of the cinematographer’s favorite shots occurs inside the ice cave: it’s past dusk and Glass writes “Fitzgerald killed my son,” and there’s a wide shot with a couple of stars, the reflection of the water on the melting ice and Glass by a fire. “So you see yellow and cyan that are completely opposite colors and it happened by luck.”

There was usually one hour of light remaining after they finished shooting every day, and Lubezki pushed for them to use this rapturous opportunity. “And Leo in a second with one prop would start to create a scene, where he’s starting to light fire or when he’s trying to make a hole in the ground. You would believe you are watching a trapper in the 1800s.”

But the metaphysical aspects of “The Revenant” were most important to Iñárritu and Lubezki. They consist of dreamlike states that function as flashbacks (when Glass recalls memories of his late wife and the attack on their village) or atmospheric moments that express beauty (the ice cave) or the destruction of the environment (when you see a pile of buffalo skeletons). “There were all of these layers that were important for Alejandro to get in the movie, and it was more about that than revenge.”

Lubezki conceded that “The Revenant” had a major impact on him. “I’m just hopeful that I work with a director with a strong vision and a sense of poetry. We have all of these tools and it’s like using oil or acrylics or watercolors. If we had shot on film, it would be a very different movie. For one, we’d be still shooting and we never could’ve shot at the times that we shot. But if film goes away, it’ll be a big loss.”

At the same time, he looks forward to improvements in the Alexa 65: “It’s very important that they improve the dynamic range, being able to see more into the highlights. I think we’re like 3 stops short. That’s a must. And then the other thing that is very exciting is the combination of this technology with Dolby laser projection. The DCP for Dolby laser is the first time in the history of film that directors and cinematographers can project pitch black. I like IMAX laser projection too. I find it immersive but a bit more assaultive on the senses.”

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