Cinema experienced in real-time submerges an audience in their environment with unrelenting urgency only achievable in an audio-visual wormhole known as the long shot. In Gravity, legendary cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki pushed the tracking shot beyond modern convention, exploring what director Alfonso Cuarón described as the composition’s “ultimate consequence.”
Only a year later, Lubezki has again exceeded expectations with what is likely to become his second consecutive Oscar win for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. In Birdman, Lubezki guides our eye through the labyrinthine backstage inner workings of New York’s St. James Theater, immersing us in the tortured delusions of fading film star Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a man desperate to find relevance in a world that has moved on without him.
The film was shot in a series of ten and fifteen minute long takes in a combination of handheld and Stedicam work and is seamlessly woven together with visual effects and DI (digital intermediate) to appear as though the entire film is composed in a single take. The effect is mesmerizing and without question, some of the best work of Lubezki’s illustrious career. In fact, it's so impressive that many would be surprised to know that Lubezki initially didn’t want to do Birdman: “I was very worried because the tone of the movie and the script,” says Lubezki. “I wasn’t sure you could tell that story that way.”
For Lubezki and Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel), the central motivation for employing the illusion of a long continuous take was expressing the emotional state of Riggan Thompson while immersing the audience in his point of view. “I knew that it was going to be incredibly hard,” says Lubezki. “And it takes and absolutely insane person like Alejandro to take a whole crew [and do something] so naive and irresponsible […] but that’s what makes an artist an artist.”
Iñárritu explains: “The moment that I knew that it was about the ego and some voice torturing a poor creature, I knew that it had to be told [subjectively].” The job of the camera was “not observing the character [Riggan Thompson], but living through his mind.”
For Lubezki, who is also Terence Malick's go-to guy, there is something powerful in the ambiguity of visual poetry: “I just love these images that are an almost poetic approach to the storytelling that don’t really explain but make you feel. They create emotions and I think that’s almost more important than explaining and being too literal about certain things.”
Lubezki is honored to have the opportunity to work with filmmakers like Iñárritu who are not afraid to challenge conventional visual grammar: “Within this factory you can still find a language that is slightly different and that gets the audience pulling through the movie in a different way. And telling a story in that way – that’s very rewarding.” But Iñárritu believes that collaborating with Lubezki was the opportunity of a lifetime: “If there’s an artist of our generation, it’s Chivo.”
Iñárritu and Lubezki are currently filming their second film together, The Revenant starring Leonardo DiCaprio, due out later this year.
Excerpts of this article are quoted from a Q&A presented by KCRW and hosted by Elvis Mitchell at The Landmark Theater in Los Angeles on Saturday February 7th 2015.