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KODAK: Emmanuel Lubezki ASC, AMC OnFilm Interview

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OnFilm Interviews

"I was part of the audience before I studied film. My parents took me to movies when I was a boy. I remember watching American movies and films from all around the world without reading the subtitles. I can look back now and understand that the cinematography affected how I felt about the characters and stories even if that wasn't something I knew on a conscious level. I have always found it easier to communicate with images than with words. Maybe it has something to do with the way my brain works. I have watched Japanese movies with no subtitles and been transported into that world by the images. There is definitely a universal visual language that audiences everywhere understand, but you have to approach every movie differently, because every director and script have different possibilities. You have to keep experimenting and trying different things, and everyone has to work together. That's what makes it so interesting." Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC has earned Oscar nominations for A Little Princess, Sleepy Hollow, The New World and Children of Men, which won ASC and BAFTA Awards for cinematography. He garnered Silver Ariel Awards in Mexico for Like Chocolate for Water, Miraslava and Ambar. His credits include Great Expectations, Y Tu Mam Tambin, Ali, and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.
[All these films were shot on Kodak motion picture film.]

Emmanuel Lubezki,ASC, AMC Photo by D. Kirkland

A Conversation with Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC by Bob Fisher


QUESTION: Let's begin by talking about your roots. Where were you born and raised? LUBEZKI: I was born and raised in Mexico City. QUESTION: Did your family have any connection to filmmaking or photography? LUBEZKI: My grandmother, my father's mother, was born in Russia. Her family escaped to China during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. She lived in a small community of Russian expatriates in Shanghai for a while, but wanted a career as an actress in Hollywood, and convinced her family to move there. They had to stop in Mexico, because the quota restriction for immigrants in the U.S. was closed. She lived in Mexico City where she met and married my grandfather. They were part of a troupe of stage actors in Yiddish theater plays. QUESTION: How and why did you get interested in cinematography? LUBEZKI: Maybe it has something to do with the way my brain works. I have always found it easier to communicate with images than with words.

KODAK: Emmanuel Lubezki ASC, AMC OnFilm Interview

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My parents took me to see movies when I was a boy. I remember watching Italian movies and films from America without reading the subtitles. I was always interested in watching the images even if I didn't understand the words. The first adult movie that I remember seeing was Soylent Green. I went with my friends. That imagery has stayed with me forever. It is ironic, because Children of Men is also about the end of the world. It's funny that I ended up doing my own version of Soylent Green. QUESTION: It sounds like you got to see films from around the world as a youth? LUBEZKI: During that time they were showing a lot of movies from around the world, films made by Fellini and Pasolini, Scorsese and Coppola - a lot of Italian filmmakers. I didn't have to read the subtitles. I also saw rock n roll films with Bob Dylan and The Beatles. I couldn't understand the lyrics, but the images captivated me. QUESTION: Did you take still pictures when you were young? LUBEZKI: I took a lot of black-and-white pictures and processed the negative myself. QUESTION: What were you interested in photographing? LUBEZKI: I took pictures of everything from my family to rusted pieces of abandoned trains and railroad tracks and buildings in the city. QUESTION: When did you shoot your first movie? LUBEZKI: I was in high school. All the people in one class spent a full year working together on the production of a documentary that dealt with everything from social classes to natural science. We went to the state of Vera Cruz and made a documentary about workers in the sugarcane fields. Other people were interested in doing the research and journalism. For me, the magic moment happened when I was looking through the viewfinder on a Super 8 camera and shooting the film. QUESTION: Did you go to film school? LUBEZKI: I started out studying history at the University of Mexico. There was a still photography department at the Mexican School of Cinema at the university. I started shooting short films and abandoned studying history. There were maybe three kids at the school who wanted to be cinematographers. We shot most of the films for different directors. I met Alfonso Cuarn, a director who I still work with, Xavier Grobet, Rodrigo Prieto (ASC, AMC), Luis Estrada, who directed my first couple of movies, and other friends. QUESTION: What was your first professional movie? LUBEZKI: At that time, it was practically impossible for a young person to find work on movies. The industry was very small and the unions were completely closed to new people. There was a rule that only allowed seven cinematographers in the union, so you had to wait for somebody to die or retire before you became an operator, and then you waited for another cinematographer to die or retire. A group of maybe 10 friends decided that if we wanted to be professionals, we would have to make our own movies. We put all our money together and produced our first feature film. I think it was something like $7,000. I was one of the producers. Guillermo Navarro (ASC) let us use his clair camera for free. Our idea was to make a movie for the Hispanic speaking market in the United States. The picture was called Camino largo a Tijuana. We were going to distribute it in VHS video and use the money to make more films. We didn't have big aspirations. We just wanted to make movies. We were lucky that the director and one of the other producers were friends with some famous Mexican actors who knew how to make movies. We sold that movie to the Mexican Institute of Cinematography. QUESTION: That was around 1990 or 1991. What happened next?

KODAK: Emmanuel Lubezki ASC, AMC OnFilm Interview

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LUBEZKI: We used that money to produce our second film, Bandidos. That was the first film I shot. It's a story about three children who are searching for their parents during the Mexican revolution. Luis Estrada was the director. We got a lot of energy out of everybody working together, including the writers, cast and crew; everyone. We didn't make our money back, but Bandidos was relatively successful. Afterwards, I started getting calls. Everybody who worked on that movie works in the film industry now. The union also realized that they had to give new people a chance. Once new people came into the industry, it started to change the way movies were made in Mexico. QUESTION: What types of calls were you getting? LUBEZKI: I had a chance to work with a commercial director who taught me a lot. We worked together for about two years shooting car commercials. There were very precise rules about how to light the cars and other things. It was the best workshop for me. We worked all over Mexico. I learned to do things with tools that we couldn't afford when we were shooting our little movies. I learned to underexpose and overexpose, push and pull process the film, and how to time it with the colorist and play with colors. QUESTION: Your next film was Slo con tu pareja. It was directed by Alfonso Cuarn, who you met in film school. You earned your first Silver Ariel Award nomination for that effort. The Arial Award is the equivalent of an Oscar in Mexico. Next, you made a very successful film, Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate). Can you share some memories about that experience? LUBEZKI: What happened was Alfonso Arau, who was already a famous director in Mexico, wanted a cinematographer from Europe to shoot that film, but that person wanted more money than he was willing to pay. I had met Alfonso Arau during the filming of Camino largo a Tijuana (in 1991). He was one of our actors. He called and asked me to shoot second unit for Como agua para chocolate. I was an admirer of his work, so it was a big compliment for me. Time went by and when he couldn't get the European cinematographer he wanted, he asked, why don't you do it? I remember saying that I wasn't prepared to do the first unit photography, and gave him a list of cinematographers who I wanted to be around so I could watch them light. QUESTION: But, he had you shoot it. What memories can you share about that film? LUBEZKI: We shot it in a tiny town on the border of the United States. In fact, from the location, you could see the river on the border with people crossing back and forth. It was almost a million-dollar budget, which was a lot of money. It was a period film with beautiful actresses and an incredible wardrobe. The furniture and all the dressings for the film didn't arrive on time, because somebody didn't pay for the trucks that were coming to deliver props from Hollywood. Arau couldn't push the movie any more. He said he wanted to start shooting, and asked if I could find a way to use photography to hide what was missing from the sets. I asked them to paint all the walls almost black, and I lit the beautiful women, so you don't see the sets. That set the style of the movie. The big thing that I remember is that we had an incredible amount of fun. I have a good feeling about those early movies, because they were all experimental. QUESTION: You won your first Ariel Award, and had another nomination that same year for Slo con tu pareja (Love in the Time of Hysteria). Did that award and those nominations change anything for you? Were you a star? LUBEZKI: No, it didn't change anything. I didn't even know I was nominated until someone told me, and then my brother went to the ceremony to pick up the award. What changed things for me was the fact that my friends who were directing, Luis Mandoki and Alfonso Cuarn, were calling me to work with them.

KODAK: Emmanuel Lubezki ASC, AMC OnFilm Interview

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QUESTION: What motivated your move to the United States? LUBEZKI: It wasn't something I planned. What happened was that after I finished shooting a little movie called The Harvest, both Love in the Time of Hysteria and Like Water for Chocolate were invited to screen at the Toronto Film Festival. After that, agents started calling me. I didn't even know you needed an agent, and I could barely speak English, but I came to Los Angeles to meet some agents and started getting scripts. QUESTION: What was your first U.S. film? LUBEZKI: Jeanne Tripplehorn saw and liked Like Water for Chocolate. She was going to perform in a little movie called Reality Bites that was directed by Ben Stiller. She recommended me to him. At that point, my English wasn't good enough to understand the script or the humor, but I liked Ben and Jeanne, and he wanted me to do the movie. QUESTION: How was working on Hollywood films different? LUBEZKI: It was completely different. I guess I was naive. I believed too much in film as a form of art. In Mexico, every project was a labor of love. I remember scouting in Los Angeles for a movie called Twenty Bucks. I didn't tell the location manager about the need to close down a street. I just assumed you could do it, because that wouldn't have been a problem in Mexico. I could do anything I wanted, including asking my crew to tent an entire block with all the neighbors helping us. QUESTION: What else did you find different? LUBEZKI: There were different culture shocks. In Mexico the actors are there with you when you are talking about the movie, planning the next shot and even talking about your next project. It's more like you are a family that is making a movie together. QUESTION: Did you decide to stay in Los Angles or was it picture by picture? LUBEZKI: Around the time that I started shooting films in Los Angeles, the money from the government for producing movies in Mexico was drying up. I moved to San Francisco for 3 1/2 years, but during that time, I only shot one two day commercial there. I spent a lot of days flying to and from Los Angeles. When an airline stewardess recognized me, I decided that it was time to move back to Los Angeles. QUESTION: Did you keep shooting commercials in-between movies? LUBEZKI: I still shoot commercials in-between movies. I find that that's the best workshop to keep you from rusting, and for trying new equipment and experimenting. QUESTION: You won your second and third consecutive Silver Ariel Awards in Mexico for Miraslava and mbar in 1993 and 1994. The following year you earned your first Oscar nomination for A Little Princess with Alfonso Cuarn in Los Angeles and India. LUBEZKI: A Little Princess was my first big, studio movie. We were nervous, but we had very specific ideas. I planned to use really big sources with very soft, directional light. We shot a lot of tests and planned how we were going to use contrast and a very specific color palette. There were gigantic sets on stages and scenes calling for layers of light. We also shot scenes from the little girl's point of view with a wide angle lens on the camera which was at a low angle looking up. It was a challenging movie at that moment in my career, but I truly loved it. I think everything worked together to create a special world, including the actors, music and the cinematography. You can have wonderful performances, but if the music, camera movement, choice of lenses and lighting isn't right, the movie doesn't work. Everything and everyone has to work together. QUESTION: How does that synergy happen on that film? LUBEZKI: It started with Alfonso Cuarn who knew what he wanted, but he

KODAK: Emmanuel Lubezki ASC, AMC OnFilm Interview

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listened to everyone, and embraced their ideas. He is a very collaborative director. QUESTION: This was a big movie with big scenes on big stages. What did you learn? LUBEZKI: I learned that the best thing you can do in preparation is to create a frame of reference with the director, production and wardrobe designers and actors, so everybody is in synch. Preproduction was important and then we all watched dailies together. QUESTION: A few years later, you shot Meet Joe Black, a different type of film. LUBEZKI: Meet Joe Black was another big movie with a lot of big sets. We wanted Brad Pitt to play the angel of death. We wanted a specific look that was right for his character. We wanted it to look as if the light was emanating from him rather than from lamps or the sources in the house. It was the opposite with Anthony Hopkins, who was lit with sources, including lamps, other practicals in the house, and sunlight outside. There are dark places in this film and a distinct color palette. I think we achieved some of what we wanted, but every picture is different, so you have to keep experimenting. QUESTION: You give the audience credit for being visually literate and recognizing, at least on a subliminal level, differences in the way you light characters. LUBEZKI: I believe that is true, because I was part of the audience before I studied film. I can look back now and understand that the photography affected how I felt about characters even if it wasn't something I knew on a conscious level. QUESTION: Can you give us an example of finding the right look on another film? LUBEZKI: Michael Mann helped me a lot when I worked with him on Ali. He pushed me to try new things. We shot scenes with cameras inside a little hotel room. Many scenes were recreations of famous boxing matches and other events that millions of people had seen on television, but we didn't want the film to feel nostalgic. We wanted the audience to feel the excitement and energy of the moment. Ninety-nine percent of Ali was either handheld or shot with a Steadicam, because we wanted that tactile energy. QUESTION: You are creating a diverse body of work. What about The Cat in the Hat? LUBEZKI: It's my daughter's favorite movie of everything that I have done. Bo Welch, the director and I are friends. He was the production designer of A Little Princess. I kind of felt that he needed a friend on the set when he told me that he was going to direct this movie. I also had some ideas for trying some things differently than we did on A Little Princess. It's also the only movie I've done where the sets and colors are pristine. We can talk about the techniques, but the point is that you have to approach every movie differently. Every director has different ideas and every script has different possibilities and limitations. That's what makes it so interesting. You have to try to create a different world on each film when you make a movie. QUESTION: You got your second Oscar nomination for Sleepy Hollow in 1999. LUBEZKI: Sleepy Hollow was directed by Tim Burton. We shot it mainly on stages; even big exterior sets were built on stages in England. It is a classic fable, but the idea was to make the audience temporarily forget they were watching a fable. QUESTION: You earned your third Oscar nomination in 2006 for The New

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World. You and the director, Terry Malick, did something interesting with 65 mm film. LUBEZKI: There are about a half a dozen 65 mm scenes where we wanted deep depth of field, so the audience feels as though they are in the new world. There is more definition, resolution that the eye sees and mind absorbs on 65 mm film. It is a universal visual language that audiences everywhere understand emotionally on a subliminal level. QUESTION: You earned your fourth Oscar nomination for Children of Men. It's your sixth collaboration with Alfonso Cuarn. When did he first talk about his intentions for this story, and what do you recall about your initial impressions? LUBEZKI: He called me and told me that he had a very early version of the script about three years before we started working on the film. We started talking about the movie, but we were never sure that it was going to happen, because it was not the type of film that Hollywood was making, and at that point, there was no real financial support. But, we still began talking about the visual style that would be right for the movie. I think we had about five conversations for a couple of hours each time during those three years. QUESTION: Where did he get the idea for making this movie? LUBEZKI: It's loosely based on a book, but the moment he sent me the script, I decided not to read the book. I try not to read books that scripts are based on, because sometimes there is not even a close resemblance to the film that you are going to shoot. QUESTION: What was the main gist of your conversations? LUBEZKI: It came down to two ideas. We would either shoot it like a Stanley Kubrick film with very well designed framing, coverage and precise lighting, or we would do the complete opposite. In the end, we decided to approach the movie as if we were the five o'clock news team. We would follow the actors and capture reality as it was happening. It was a bit like we were making a documentary, but we also created a style. QUESTION: Did you discuss or look at other movies as visual references? LUBEZKI: The only movie that we talked about was The Battle of Algiers, but more for the energy that movie generated than for the style of the visuals. We also spoke about photographs taken by press photographers that we saw in newspapers in Latin America during the 1970s when the military coups in Chile and Argentina were happening. QUESTION: Did you do research or were you talking from memories of pictures? LUBEZKI: Most of it was things that I'd seen before, but there were also happenings as we were shooting the movie. The bombing in the London subway and in mosques are examples. I think those two events happened only a few weeks before we started shooting. QUESTION: How much time did you have in preproduction? LUBEZKI: I had a lot of time, about 12 weeks, which is unusual today. It was time that was well spent. We scouted locations for the entire movie and shot a lot of tests. We also had time for Doggicam Systems to design and build the special rig that we used to shoot that long scene inside the car. I think it was about a seven-minute shot. QUESTION: Was Children of Men filmed on location, on stages or both? LUBEZKI: We wanted to do everything on location, but the days were too short, because we were shooting in winter in England, so we had to stretch rain covers over some locations to stretch the days to more than four hours. We also built some sets that matched what we saw when we were scouting locations.

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QUESTION: What were you looking for in the tests you shot? LUBEZKI: We approached this film as if we didn't know anything and had to learn everything from scratch. I shot tests with different types of films, lenses and lighting at different times of day. I showed the tests to the crew and we discussed our ideas. QUESTION: Did you also get film dailies while you were actually shooting? LUBEZKI: To me, looking at dailies in high-definition video doesn't make sense, because it is completely different color space. You can't judge focus, contrast and what the light really looks like. It wasn't a big fight to get film dailies. We just had to convince the production company that we needed to print dailies and have everyone see them every night. It was just a tiny fraction of our budget that was well spent. Everyone saw dailies together, projected on a big screen, so we could see all the details. The movie is packed with details that are hard to see if you're not looking at the film on a big screen. QUESTION: What were some of the decisions that were made about the visual style? LUBEZKI: There are no tight close-ups. The close-ups are shot from the waist up like the old David Lean movies. There are also layers of information in every shot about the state of the world at that point of time. Everything around the actors is deteriorating. QUESTION: Is the camera objective or subjective. In other words, did you want the audience to experience this story as witnesses or as though they are participants? LUBEZKI: I think this is a very objective movie, because the audience never goes into the subjective world of the actor. They never see anything through the character's eyes. The camera is following them, and many times it pans away to show the audience the deteriorating condition of everything around them. QUESTION: When and why was a format chosen for producing Children of Men? LUBEZKI: Alfonso (Cuarn) was very clear from the beginning that he saw this film in 1.85:1 format. He felt that was the right frame for this story. It took me a while to find the right lenses while we were testing. We wanted some hint of flare and rich black tones. I decided on the ARRI/ Zeiss Master Prime lenses. I also decided to shoot the entire movie on (Kodak Vision 2 Expression) 5229 (500T) film. It's a low-contrast stock with very subtle mid-tones that looked and felt right during the tests. I knew that we were going to do a DI, because we had hundreds of visual effects for explosions and things. That meant I could make the blacks richer in DI and blend in explosions and other visual effects. QUESTION: Did you also shoot make-up and wardrobe tests with the actors? LUBEZKI: We did a lot of tests with Clive (Owen) who plays Theo. He had this idea that his character should be wearing very big eye glasses, but we couldn't see into his eyes where secrets and feelings are revealed. He understood when he saw the film tests. QUESTION: What did you decide about a color palette for this film? LUBEZKI: We knew that we wanted this world to be desaturated and monochromatic as though nobody had painted their walls for years and cars were getting rusty. The one exception is the house where Michael Caine's character lives. It is in a remote location in the woods, and there is still a little bit of color. QUESTION: Was there a discussion about shooting with single or multiple cameras? LUBEZKI: We shot everything with a single camera, because every shot

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has a meaning. He (Cuarn) storyboarded some scenes, because that process gave him ideas about coverage. But, he never totally follows the storyboards. When we got to the locations, he blocked the scenes with the actors and then we figured out how to cover them. He gave the actors a lot of room to improvise and then we followed them. QUESTION: Was there a discussion about camera movement? LUBEZKI: Alfonso wanted the camera handheld. We had a Steadicam the first day, and then we put it away and never used it again. The handheld shots feel more tactile, so you can feel the immediacy of the action and the emotions they create for the characters. QUESTION: Does he direct from the camera or a video village? LUBEZKI: He likes to be near the camera with a little handheld video assist for checking framing, so he can have eye contact with the actors. But, sometimes the camera was handheld, and the operator was running 20 miles per hour behind Clive, making 360 degrees moves. I think something is getting lost in making movies with directors watching the action on a little television screen. I think there are too many close-ups in some films, because directors are seeing the movie on a 10-inch wide screen. I like having the director near me instead of being in a video village while we are shooting. The energy of the actors and the crew changes when the director is right there with them. I remember when I was shooting The New World with Terry Malick directing. One day he asked if he could put the camera on his shoulder and look through the lens. I don't know how to explain it, but I could see something immediately happen with the actors. It was like he clicked a switch, and suddenly there was a million times more energy. When the director is by your side there is a completely different feeling on the set. QUESTION: What was your basic camera package on Children of Men? LUBEZKI: We had an ARRICAM Lite with Master Prime Lenses. We shot a lot with an 18 mm lens with no close-ups. The images are clean and sharp with just a bit of flare that I liked. We also used an ARRI 235 on the long car scene and in some other shots. QUESTION: We heard that you chose to use a special process on the film dailies. LUBEZKI: Deluxe Labs printed our dailies using their ACE silver-retention process, which desaturates colors and gives you true black tones. That was the look that we intended for the prints, so we wanted everyone to get use to seeing it. QUESTION: How did you shoot that six-minute car scene? That was revolutionary. You put the audience in that car on a breathtaking chase through London. LUBEZKI: It was a 12-page scene with the light outside the windows constantly changing as the car moved and turned around corners. Doggicam built this special rig with two dollies that allowed us to move the (ARRI 235) camera horizontally and vertically on a Sparrow Head mounted on top of a roofless car. We could shoot from any angle inside and outside the car and get shots of the actors in the front and back seats. QUESTION: There is another breathtaking foot chase scene at the end with Theo escorting a woman who is carrying a newborn baby through a refugee camp going in and out of buildings with things happening around them until they get to the waterfront. LUBEZKI: I give our camera operator George Richmond a lot of credit, and also Terry Needham (first AD) who set it up. We couldn't have done it without them. We were shooting with the ARRICAM Lite handheld running through the streets with explosions all around them. I used a wireless Tstop control. We were going from T-2 to T-8 to T-16 in seconds shooting in natural light. I don't think anyone notices. It looks natural. We did it in two

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takes. There were no marks and no second camera coverage. QUESTION: How about the last scene with the woman and her baby in the boat? LUBEZKI: We were originally going to shoot that on a real boat on the waterfront, but it was very cold and the ocean waves were dangerous, so we decided to use a tank at Pinewood Studio. We used a wave machine and smoke for atmosphere. QUESTION: You have extended your role as a cinematographer into digital intermediate timing on a number of films, including Children of Men. Do you think that it is inevitable that all films will be timed in DI? LUBEZKI: I cannot answer that question, because every film is different. We mainly did a DI on Children of Men because we had hundreds of digital effects shots. DI can be a powerful tool that should be used as needed to get the looks that directors want for their film. But, the truth is that I liked the look of the film dailies that I saw better than the DI. A 2K or 4K digital picture is not up to the looks that you can get on the original 35 mm negative film today. We now have the best film, cameras and lenses in history. QUESTION: What are your thoughts about film being a universal language? LUBEZKI: It has that possibility. Gabriel Figueroa, a famous Mexican cinematographer, created an image of Mexico that exists in the movies that he created that had absolutely nothing to do with reality. But, everybody outside of Mexico who saw his films believes that it is a place where there are always beautiful white clouds in the sky and all men wear sombreros. Even if you don't understand the language, the images are speaking to you about the meanings of films. I have watched Japanese movies with French subtitles and have been transported into that world by the images. QUESTION: When a director calls you to talk about a new film, or sends you a script, how do you decide whether you want to invest months of your life to that project? LUBEZKI: There is no easy answer to that question. It depends on the director and the script, and what else is happening in my life and with my family at that time. I don't have a dream film that I am waiting for someone to ask me to shoot. I want to feel good about the films I shoot. I don't want to shoot films that glamorize violence and war.