NAB: ‘Gravity’s’ Emmanuel Lubezki on the New World of Filmmaking – ‘Same Job, Different Tools’

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“The danger now is that a director could choose not to have a cinematographer,” the Oscar-winner tells TheWrap

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki made his name shooting on film and helping create the look of movies like “A Little Princess,” “Sleepy Hollow” and “The Tree of Life,” all of which won him Oscar nominations.

But his collaboration with director Alfonso Cuaron on “Gravity” has put Lubezki – or “Chivo,” as everyone calls him – in the forefront of the new style of digital filmmaking, in which cinematographers don’t light a physical set so much as they help design virtual spaces that as often as not don’t ever have an actual camera pointed at them.

A month after winning the Oscar (his first after six nominations) for “Gravity,” Lubezki spoke to an audience at the NAB conference this week about this new style of filmmaking. Afterwards, he talked to TheWrap about the threat of cinematographer-less movies, how he would have preferred to shoot “Gravity” in space and whether his new films might be bound for Cannes.

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With digital, effects-driven movies like “Gravity,” “Life of Pi” and “Avatar,” it seems that the role of the cinematographer is changing dramatically. How has your  job changed, and how has it stayed the same?
I can only speak about my experience in “Gravity.” But there, my job as a cinematographer was strangely the same, in the sense that I’m helping the director translate his ideas onto the screen. What is changing is the technology we use, and the fact that a lot of the images are not captured with a camera but are made in CG.

But the frames still need to be composed and the shots designed and the colors picked, and the contrasts decided on and the faces of the actors lit. Exactly the same job, but different tools.

See video: Watch a Super-Duper ‘Deleted Scene’ From ‘Gravity’

The danger now is that a director could choose not to have a cinematographer and to have the special effects team do that work. It’s up to people like Alfonso Cuaron and other directors to work with collaborators to help them enhance their work.

What were the biggest new tools you had to learn to use on “Gravity?”
This movie was filled with things that we didn’t know, and we couldn’t find anybody that had done it before. We had to discover it and invent it. That was obviously the fun part of the movie, and also the scary part. Because sometimes we didn’t know if these ideas would work until they were right there in front of us.

It’s not like you could watch the dailies and know right away if it’s working.
No, we didn’t have any idea. Until we started really seeing the images that were finished, we didn’t know if the movie was going to work or not. That’s obviously very scary.

But to me the most interesting part, even more than the technology, is the idea of how you tell a story. That’s what I think is interesting about “Gravity.” How do you tell a story? How do you show why the movie’s 3D? The object was to immerse the audience in this world in a way that had never been done, and to express emotion with stuff that you haven’t really seen before.

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You’ve shot movies that use special effects before. Were those very different?
I’ve done many movies and a million commercials that had effects, from “Sleepy Hollow” to “Children of Men.” But those movies were done in a more conventional way, in that the effects were there to enhance the scene, and they were all based on the live-action shots. We used CG to take the head off the Headless Horseman. But in this movie, we had to do it the other way around – we first did the animation and the CG work, and then we had to do the live motion capture to fit.

Did you have moments when you began to see the finished product and you realized that the experiments were working?
Well, you know you are going to have a movie. You can’t call the studio and say, “Sorry, we’re going to fail. Thank you for spending the money.” But you don’t know what kind of realism you’re going to create. Is it going to be really convincing to the audience, or close to real but not there?

So when you watch “Gravity” now, do you see things you wish you could do better?
Yes. Hundreds of things that I wish we could have done better. But at the moment, with the technology, the budget, the cameras, even some of the ideas, we just couldn’t have done it better.

The truth is, if I had all the money and power in the world, the way I would have done the movie, I would have taken a crew of five people into space and shot it there. And that’ll happen one day. 20 years? 15 years?

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While the Academy has given Oscars to a number of digital effects movies in recent years, the American Society of Cinematographers hasn’t always agreed: They gave the award to “The White Ribbon,” for instance, instead of “Avatar.”  Is there a conflict in the field over what cinematography is?
I think there is a conflict. But again, I don’t think it’s about the CG and the visual effects and all that. It’s about the language of film and how you use it. If you use a million effects and you make a movie that doesn’t tell a story, I don’t think it should be nominated for anything.

I think Cuaron used the language of film in a really extraordinary way – and when I saw all the film students that came to NAB today, I realize this is something new, and something that is hopefully making an impact on how future filmmakers are going to make their movies.

What was the Oscars like for you? You finally won, which must have been a thrill – but at the same time, Roger Deakins lost for the 10th time, and you’ve told me that he’s the greatest of all of you.
I can’t speak for everybody, but he is a million times better cinematographer than I am. It was unfortunate that he didn’t win, but I’m happy. I don’t know how these things happen.

I can tell you that going to the Oscars is not as exciting as people think, at least for me. And the moment they called my name, the last thing I remember was hugging Roger and giving him all my admiration. And then I don’t remember anything until I was backstage. They told me I did OK, but for me it was tense and uncomfortable.

You’ve got Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s “Birdman” coming up, and a couple of Terrence Malick movies.
I’m very excited about all these movies, because I’m working on the color timing and the digital intermediates on two of them. I’m about to finish “Birdman.” And there’s a Malick movie I’m about to finish.

Which one? I know he’s got two in the works.
It’s called “Knight of Cups,” at least for now. It could change tomorrow.  And then there’s another Malick movie that I haven’t started the d.i. That will probably be next year.

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“Birdman” and “Knight of Cups” are two movies people are talking about as potential Cannes entries. If you’re finishing work on them now, they’ll be ready in time – will we see them there?
I have no idea. I don’t know if they are Cannes-like movies. Both directors are very welcome in Cannes, but I don’t know if those movies are the type of movies that they will take.

Any ambitions to direct your own features?
I’ve been directing a few commercials, and I would probably like to direct a feature one day. It’s not a priority – I’m not dying to do it. But what I realize is that every time I direct something, I learn how to be a better cinematographer. I learn much better how a director feels, the loneliness of a director, how you need to have a great crew.

I did sound for a number of years, so I know the pain of the sound mixer on a set where everybody was talking. So I would say that it would be great if everybody would do everything.