Iconic Cinematography: Our 5 Favorite Shots from Emmanuel Lubezki
Let’s explore the films of Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Diving deep into his body of work and those he collaborated with.
Emmanuel Lubezki is one of the most talented cinematographers working in Hollywood. Often working with acclaimed directors such as Michael Mann, Joel and Ethan Coen, and Tim Burton, and has repeatedly collaborated with Terrence Malick and, of course, Alfonso Cuarón. While his work definitely speaks for itself, Lubezki is the only cinematographer to have won the Oscar for Best Cinematography three years in a row (Gravity, Birdman, The Revenant).
On a personal note, Lubezki is easily my favorite cinematographer. He’s helped craft films that push the bounds of visual storytelling and has been a part of cinematic history. For a more social and representation reason, having a Mexican filmmaker at the top of the field is influential to someone like me. As a Latino myself, it’s empowering to see someone who shares my culture be the best in their craft. It’s inspiring to see someone like Lubezki tell beautiful stories in Hollywood, where only a few decades prior it may not have been possible. He has influenced a generation of filmmakers and steered modern filmmaking. Seeing someone I can relate to and feel represented by helps keep my passion for filmmaking and storytelling alive.
I want to highlight what I think is the greatest strength of Emmanuel Lubezki—his ability to collaborate with multiple distinguished directors and tell their stories through his lens. Instead of simply highlighting my favorite shots throughout his career, I’ll focus on my favorite shot within a specific collaboration and discuss why each shot is uniquely my favorite within his vast array of work.
The Coen Brothers: Burn After Reading (2008)
2008’s Burn After Reading was the first film Joel and Ethan Coen did not utilize Roger Deakins as DP for a full-length feature. Instead, they went with Lubezki and it was the only time they’ve worked together (so far).
While Burn After Reading isn’t noted as a cinematic masterpiece or touted for it’s visual work, it deserves a spot on my list for Lubezki’s ability to turn his talents where they’re needed. Burn After Reading doesn’t make use of grand outdoor locations, amazing set pieces, long takes, or big visual shots, but it’s still solid work that fits the narrative voice the Coen Brothers are known for. It shows how Lubezki can fit the role and craft his work to fit the narrative, rather than rely solely on spectacle or grand one-takes.
My favorite shot within the film has to be Brad Pitt‘s stuck in the closet scene. His character hides in the closet as George Clooney‘s character goes about his showering routine. Instead of focusing the shot on a close-up of Pitt, I really enjoyed the storytelling of Pitt’s point of view. Told through a tiny slit in the closet blinds, we see Pitt gather visual clues about Clooney throughout the room. As he scans and reacts, we get hilarious reactions and story clues. Finally, Pitt makes eye contact with an empty holster, and we immediately know what’s about to go down.
I enjoy this POV shot for a few reasons. Mainly, the comedic timing and hilarious storytelling comes through the lens as visual jokes, rather than funny lines. Secondly, we still receive that stylistic Coen Brothers‘ voice through the lens of Lubezki. This may be the only project that the Coens and Lubezki have collaborated on, but I hope in the future Deakins is busy with another film and they tap Lubezki again. I’d love to see Lubezki’s voice come through on a more dramatic film of the Coens’, similar to No Country for Old Men or an epic like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, that makes use of large outdoor scenes.
Michael Mann: Ali (2001)
While Michael Mann may not be in the directing chair like he used to, he was responsible for a ton of classics released in the 90s and early 2000s. 2001’s Ali is no exception and was the only collaboration effort with Lubezki behind the camera. Ali was the largest film Lubezki had worked on until that point, and was establishing himself within Hollywood rather than art-house or indie films.
Ali is another film in Lubezki’s catalog that isn’t exactly known for its visuals, but I think it’s underrated in that sense. It could be argued it’s a “by the numbers” flick in terms of shots. However, it’s quite clever in how it handles a lot of scenes, especially the fight scenes. You can’t have a boxing movie without thrilling fight scenes, and Lubezki shows off his excellent camera work in the final scene between Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman.
What I love most about the work here is the use of the camera, as if it’s actually located within the scene. It’s dirty, frantic, and does its best to follow the action without being unreadable. Lubezki shoots a lot of this scene from a low angle, like the audience is a part of the ring-side press, frantically trying to get a view of the fight of the century.
When the fight is over and Ali has won, we stay on Ali from a low angle, presenting him as a towering figure who no one can defeat. In this shot alone, we see just how powerful Ali is. As a film, Ali had its troubles and underperformed at the box office, but it proved to be a stepping stone for Lubezki in Hollywood. When you compare Ali to Lubezki’s latest works, there’s a reason why it often doesn’t rank among his best.
Alfonso Cuarón: Children of Men
Alfonso Cuarón and Lubezki have been collaborators for decades now. They have been friends since being classmates and have the most films together as a duo than any other director on this list. It’s safe to say either filmmaker wouldn’t be where they are today without the other. These creatives have heavily influenced each other’s individual styles. The iconic one-rs and the lingering, omnipresent camera associated with Cuarón’s style were initially crafted through Lubezki’s camera work.
Gravity definitely holds a spot as a modern marvel in cinematic storytelling and technology coming together. It’s one of the few films I think require a 3D and IMAX viewing. Lubezki rightfully deserved the Oscar for Best Cinematography that year for Gravity, but my favorite camera work that has both Cuarón and Lubezki worked on has to be found in Children of Men.
Children of Men is responsible for my love of cinema and filmmaking. Before seeing this film, I had a general love of movies, like most people, but this film single-handedly revealed to me how amazing cinema could really be. Every single shot, angle, blocking, and movement were meticulously crafted to show us the world the film lives in.
I remember Children of Men routinely playing on HBO in 2007. I saw that movie about twelve times in that year alone, and with each viewing learned something new about the world or the characters shown on screen. I couldn’t believe so much detail could be crammed into two hours. This is no more present than in the final climactic scene as Theo, Kee, and baby Dylan seek safety in London’s ghetto.
In classic Cuarón/Lubezki style, this entire sequence is told via a handheld one-take, mostly on a wide framing. As a viewer, it feels like the camera is an invisible character present in the action itself. I technically count this entire scene as a single shot, because we never cut to another angle. It may not be the longest one-take in cinematic history, but those six minutes are crammed full of cinematic language and details that makes pulling it off one of the most difficult shots to date. The iconic car scene in Children of Men may get the most recognition, but this scene covers more ground, elevation, and shows more detail than any other scene in the film.
What I enjoy most about this entire scene is the level of detail we see through the setting. Our main characters are obviously the important subjects, but Lubezki takes time to show auxiliary characters and subjects that give us a better understanding of the situation around Theo, Kee, and Dylan.
For a brief second, when our protagonist is apprehended and a firefight breaks out, we don’t immediately follow Theo as he escapes. Instead we follow the action of the rebel fighters, and then turn to Theo and Kee as they run away. It’s scenes and details like this that make the shot spectacular and a facet of cinematography often ignored. When incredible shots are discussed, it’s usually about how the shot looked, how well it was framed, or the specific lighting. Lubezki expertly shows that cinematography is a part of the storytelling.
While this would technically be a different shot, another example is when Theo and Kee make their way out of the apartment during the cease fire. As the soldiers realize a baby is present and are struck with awe, we stay with the reactions of the soldiers, rather than simply following the main characters out. We stay on the background characters and their reactions that are far more important to the scene than just seeing our characters make it out of harm’s way. The decision to stick on these characters to tell the story is what makes Lubezki’s work in Children of Men amazing.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu: The Revenant
If Lubezki is ever in need of another Oscar win, statistically, he should tap Alejandro G. Iñárritu for his next project. He has a 100% Oscar win rate when DP-ing for Iñárritu. Their most recent collaboration, The Revenant, also scored Mr. DiCaprio his first Oscar win.
The amount of dedication Lubezki showed to ensure each shot in The Revenant was exactly how he saw fit was astounding. During interviews about the production process, he revealed how he would scout for the perfect location for each scene, then track the sun’s location for exactly the right time of day for each scene. This meant that, as the sun shifted throughout the day, the crew was only be able to capture a shot within a small time frame. For this reason, the opening shot of The Revenant is my favorite shot from the Lubezki/Iñárritu combo.
The opening shot sets the tone of the film, creates a standard for what we’re to expect visually, and introduces our main characters. As the camera crawls up the stream, we see an almost hyper-realistic rendition of a forest and how the sun reflects on the water. The magic of the shot is that this is a real location The Revenant team found to match Lubezki’s idea of what he wanted, and the time of day was meticulously chosen for the exact atmosphere they wanted. Lubezki represents the wilderness as a character itself, as the real characters start to reveal themselves on screen.
Finally, a large elk is shown barely peeking out from a distinct ray of sunlight breaking through the trees. Lubezki slowly pans over to better show the elk, then back to DiCaprio as he steadies his gun. The omniscient camera is also moving slowly as to not startle the animal. The choice to shoot this scene (and, basically, the entire movie) on a wide-angle lens lends itself to the long takes Iñárritu and Lubezki decided to use. The wide-angle applies the feeling that the camera is in on the action with the characters’ journey—as a participant, rather than strictly a viewer—and can easily shift focus between subjects or action set pieces.
Terrence Malick: The Tree of Life
Malick has a definitive auteur style that’s present throughout his entire filmography. Lubezki’s collaboration with Malick on The Tree of Life is the best example of two filmmaking legends coming together to tell a visual story that’s both uniquely Terrence Malick and definitely has a Lubezki touch.
The scene that strikes me the most visually is the beach scene featuring Sean Penn‘s character reuniting with his family. Though I’d be lying if I said I understood the entire film, the visual storytelling by Lubezki in this scene alone made it clear where we were in the character’s timeline . . . the afterlife (right?).
Ten years later, it’s easy to see where Lubezki got his feet wet in landscape-esque and natural lighting shots. Jack (played by Sean Penn) walks through what seems like an endless beach that appears to be fantastical and hyper-realistic at the same time. The location was expertly chosen and the sun location is exactly where Lubezki wanted in order to achieve a surreal feeling. The Tree of Life is an excellent precursor to study to examine how he expanded on this type of shot for an entire movie in The Revenant.
Emmanuel Lubezki is quite the accomplished cinematographer and visual pioneer. He’s one of the few cinematographers today who has their unique style and voice present in their work, similar to how easily it is to recognize the work of an acclaimed director. Tentatively, Lubezki has an untitled collaboration with David O. Russell down the pipeline, but not much else on the docket. As previously stated, I’d love to see another shot at a grander-scale project under the direction of the Coen Brothers, and I can’t wait for his next work with either Iñárritu or Cuarón.
Cover image via IMDb.
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