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Interview: Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki talks shooting The Revenant and Bear Attacks

Picture the scene. It’s almost 5pm in Los Angeles, the sun is setting, the downtown skyline towers in the distance. There are no clouds in the sky, there’s no smog. The sky is a blanket of beautiful colors. Emmanuel Lubezki, known as Chivo, is standing on the balcony of the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, absorbing this moment on the balcony.
He is a genius, a master at work.

I walk into the room and he invites me out to observe this view.

Emmanuel Lubezki: Look at this view, it’s pretty amazing isn’t it?

Awards Daily: It really is. The colors are great.

EL: The colors are great. You see that little, blueish, cyan line under the magenta line, that is the shadow of the earth.

AD: I didn’t know that, that’s incredible.

EL: Isn’t it? Terrence Malick taught me that.

AD: I love the colors during sunset in L.A.

EL: Where are you from?

AD: London. We don’t get this at all in London.

EL: You get nice lights. I love the clouds.

AD: It’s truly an honor to be sitting down with you, even seeing the sunset with that perspective has me in awe.

EL: Thank you.

AD: OK, let’s talk about the movie. You’ve worked with Alejandro before on Birdman. I spoke to Stephen Mirrione earlier about editing, and he said he learned lessons whilst making that, and brought those lessons into The Revenant. What did you learn from Birdman?

EL: Even though the movies and language are very different, we learned the power of the pan continues. Those shots that are long and have no editing. When you immerse the audience in those shots, how different emotions come out of that, as opposed to cut, cut, cut. A good example of that in The Revenant is the bear attack. When you see that without cuts, it has an energy and a strength and a randomness, and an energy that otherwise it wouldn’t have.

We kind of learned that from Birdman and other movies, but also when we are creating very long shots made with different elements, we learned how to stitch them together and how to keep the flow and rhythm.

What I learned the most from doing Birdman was I learned how to communicate with Alejandro and to be a better collaborator.

The more time you spend with a director as a cinematographer, I think you’re able to do a better job when it comes to participating or contributing to the movie. I think that was the most important part. That and the friendship in working together on back-to-back movies.

AD: Now you brought it up, let’s talk about the bear scene. What can you tell me about that?

EL: Well that was the most difficult scene in the movie because technically it was very challenging. Even just getting there and figuring out how we wanted to do it, how we wanted to block the scene, what we wanted to say about the attack. It was such an important plot point in the movie, and it’s a tremendous tragedy that he found himself between the cubs and the mother, which at the same time echoes the relationship between him and his son, and how he’d do anything to protect him.

First, we had to find the location with Jack Fisk, to figure out the topography, the atmosphere and the mood of the place. Then we had a proxy location at a sound stage so we could work with the stunt guys. Doug was the main stunt guy helped us choreograph the scene. We then brought in cameras and worked with stunt men trying to figure it all out.

Then we got lucky, we found this video on the internet of a real bear attack. That bear attack was shot in a zoo by someone who was looking at someone that fell into the pit. He got attacked by the bear. There was something really random and horrible about the attack. If you’re not an expert in bear behavior, it’s hard to understand what’s going on.  The bear goes in and attacks, then goes away, looks around, and the tempo changes and becomes very slow. All the while this guy is dying, then the bear goes again and attacks and bites, and goes away. All this made it horrific and very real, it’s stuff you can’t write. Reality is always more complex and magical than when you do storyboards. So, the thing that stuck me was the person shooting, just kept the camera rolling so you could actually see the changes in the rhythm and all the pauses.

It’s like a weird song that is intense and then calms down. When we saw that video we were sure our hypothesis about doing this in one shot was the right thing. Then we had to come up with our secrets that I’m not going to reveal. [Laughs].

I can’t reveal, it’s like a magician revealing his tricks just before the movie comes out. It’ll remain a secret.

What I can tell you, is to get there was very hard, but once you figure it out, the answers are simple and elegant. Very hard for Leo physically because when the bear is shaking him, it’s really shaking him at the maximum level you can shake a human body before the spine breaks. It made me realize how strong Leo was.

AD: Wow! Did you all know what you were getting into when you signed on coming into this?

EL: From the beginning, when we read the script and started talking about doing this movie, our main our was to go into the wild, and we knew it was going to be hard. We knew that the hardship would trickle into the feeling of the movie, and that was really important for us.

That the experience of the shoot would make the movie what it is and inform the movie somehow. There’s no other way of coming out of the river covered in ice, you see the steam, his frozen hands, his hair’s starting to freeze, you can’t do that on a sound stage.

AD: Talk to me about some of those shots, for you filming, running in water.

EL: That shot is a shot you can’t do many times. You can only do it once because you don’t want to put Leo at risk and in that pain. All the crew had to be in tune, intense and focused so nothing goes wrong so we could capture what we needed in one take, so we didn’t have to submit Leo to horrible torture.

Leo was also sure that he wanted to do it because that’s the only way to get the real impression of naturalism of this guy being influenced by the elements. When you do that you get a lot of great miracles that happen, like the steam coming out, the mustache starting to freeze, it was a very good way of making the audience feel cold.

 Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. THE REVENANT Motion Picture Copyright © 2015 Regency Entertainment (USA), Inc. and Monarchy Enterprises S.a.r.l. All rights reserved.Not for sale or duplication.

AD: I think I shivered a few times.

EL: Good, good.

AD: What about lighting the scenes? I know you worked with natural lighting for this, how did you work with that?

EL: We only used natural light. It meant we didn’t just arrive there and shoot what we wanted. The movie was very controlled and planned. We had to scout a lot. I think we travelled 10,000 miles by car, and spent a month walking around. Jack Fisk and his team found amazing locations. We’d go there and visit them at different times of the day to get an impression of how expressive they were. What was the mood? The feeling the image plays? We brought some actors or stand-ins and some props and started rehearsing. When you do that, you start learning what’s the best time to shoot in certain locations, or if I need more equipment to create more contrast where to put it. It requires more preparation and much more concentration in a way.

 Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. THE REVENANT Motion Picture Copyright © 2015 Regency Entertainment (USA), Inc. and Monarchy Enterprises S.a.r.l. All rights reserved.Not for sale or duplication.

AD: What cameras did you use?

EL: We used a digital camera. [Arri Alexa 65, Arri Alexa XT] These cameras allow you to shoot in very low light levels, much more than film. They don’t have grain, so the image is very clean. It’s almost like looking through a newly cleaned window as opposed to a window that has texture. I didn’t want to have any grain between the audience and the actors.

I think the digital cameras were just the right tool to do that. I hope, because we’ve already shot it.

AD: When did you finish it?

EL: Yesterday. I finished yesterday, no joke.

AD: The final, final lock?

EL: The final final version. We did a version for normal theatres, a version for IMAX, a version for IMAX Laser, a version for Dolby and it took a couple of weeks. So yesterday, just before the premiere.

So, the premiere was the final IMAX Laser version.

AD: I’m going to have to see it again now aren’t I?

EL: Yes, you should see it. It’s very different between a normal theatre and a giant laser IMAX. It’s very immersive and powerful. Then there’s the Dolby Laser widescreen laser version that’s very clean. It’s so cool to see it in all these different environments.

AD: There are so many shots I like in the movie, when you go from long shots to close-up point of view.

EL: We experimented with that in Birdman a bit, we call it the elastic shot. Where you go from objective to subjective and back to objective. It’s a way to get the audience immersed in the world and we did a bunch of those in the movie.

AD: You do take us right in.

EL: Great!

AD: I felt like I was back in 1823. Thank you!

EL: Thank you.

AD: Look at how the sky has changed.

EL: You can maybe shoot with film, but with digital you know you can. You can see the reflections of the sunset that is happening in the west in the buildings. You see the orange reflections? That’s amazing.

AD: It’s gorgeous. Thank you for a great lesson.

The Revenant opens December 25