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Emmanuel Lubezki: The Greatest Cinematographer

After falling in love with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film, The Revenant (2015), I realized that while I was squirming in my chair, I was completely devoted not to look away from the equally striking imagery. A number of films show unflinchingly graphic material well, but there are few that do it attractively. I have noticed that there is a collection of films that do this while having something special in common. That special something is Emmanuel Lubezki. This fantastic cinematographer is secretly a painter, and his tools are light and motion put onto film.


Lubezki and Iñárritu develop some beautiful work as a team. The Revenant is their second film together and with the Oscar buzzes abound, the duo is meant to be. Their previous film together, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), is something to admire from the writing and acting alone but it is Lubezki who brings scenes to life using a one-shot feel. In Birdman, Lubezki used selective lighting to shape scenes much like dark backgrounds carve figures out of a Caravaggio painting. Drama and focus are the main goals behind that technique. The Revenant, however, uses natural lighting in the dead of winter; bright, harsh light is used to grab an audience’s eye around everything in frame. You could not look away if you wanted to.


Light is only half of what Lubezki uses in his work. Motion, as with any moving picture, is the heart of the artistic medium. But what Lubezki does with motion is what makes his work prolific. The voyeuristic approach to motion makes for a more intimate and intense viewing experience for the audience. Panning down to characters, moving alongside them, and darting around a space is what makes Lubezki’s use of motion so impressive. Children of Men (2006) is one of my favorite films even with such heavy subject matter. It has one of the most beautiful long shots during a car ride of five of the characters. Despite the blood, fire, and broken glass throughout the scene, the cinematography makes you stay. Lubezki takes you throughout the tiny car from character to character as well as around the car’s viewing angles. Lubezki uses a similar technique of motion in Gravity (2013) but rather than a small space capturing an audience’s focal points, he uses something as wide as celestial space itself to engross a viewer. Crashes and thrown characters don’t stop Lubezki from capturing every detail. This is all with the clever use of ranges of motion.


Not to say that he has not taken hints from other greats like Vittorio Storaro and Roger Deakins. You cannot study cinematography without taking heavy notes from others. But with films like BirdmanGravity, and Children of Men, Emmanuel Lubezki has earned his title as one of the greatest cinematographers of the decade. He has combined and perfected different techniques of continuous shots; smooth, focused motions; and natural, stark lighting to make the perfect images for The Revenant. While there are undeniably hard to watch scenes in the film, Lubezki makes it impossible for me to turn away because of the way he captures an event. This is the mark of a truly great cinematographer. 

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