Three times Oscar winners

Emmanuel Lubezki: 'Digital gave me something I could never have done on film'

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki films actor Forrest Goodluck in The Revenant, for which he won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Lubezki shot The Revenant entirely with natural light.

Photo: Kimberly French

On February 28 Emmanuel Lubezki won his third consecutive Oscar for Best Cinematography for The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. That’s an impressive feat, but even more so when you consider that he also took home the Oscar in the same category in 2015 (for Birdman) and in 2014 (for Gravity), and has been nominated a total of eight times, making him the first cinematographer to win three Academy Awards in a row and establishing his place as one of the preeminent cinematographers of our day.

Lubezki is known for creating immersive, organic experiences that draw viewers into the story, often embracing wide angle lenses and long continuous shots to achieve this effect. His work has variously led audiences through sensory experiences that have evoked strong emotion, a sense of exploration and freedom, magic, beauty, authenticity and, at times, even discomfort. Many will remember the twelve-minute opening scene in Gravity as well as the famous (and rather tense) uninterrupted four-minute car chase in Children of Men.

A few days before the Oscars, Lubezki, who also happens to be an enthusiastic photographer, joined DPReview editors Dale Baskin and Rishi Sanyal to share his thoughts on a variety of topics ranging from artistic to technical. Of particular interest to DPReview readers, he discusses the impact of digital technology on filmmaking, how he selects and tests his gear, and why he chose to shoot The Revenant entirely on digital cameras using only natural light. Additionally, he explains his excitement about InVisage QuantumFilm, a technology we’ve covered before, and why it excited him enough that in November of 2015 he joined InVisage’s Advisory Board to provide expert and artistic insight to help guide the company.


DPReview: Hi, Emmanuel. Thanks for taking some time to meet with us. Everyone here at DPReview is really excited about the chance to talk with you!

Emmanuel Lubezki: Sure! I know DPReview. Every time I’m going to buy a camera I check you guys out! I’m a photographer and I’ve been shooting movies for close to thirty years. I love shooting movies and taking still photos.

DPR: You're an inspiration to many of us because of your artistic vision and your use of technology to achieve it. How do you choose the technology you use for your projects?

EL: You know, one thing I can tell you is that I'm the worst geek in the world! Sometimes I don't even know how to turn on the camera. [Laughs, obviously joking] But from an instinctive, craftsman point of view, whenever I'm going to start a movie or buy a camera or start a project, I do a lot of tests. All these test help inform me of how I want to shoot the movie, which equipment I'm going to use, how I'm going to mix equipment and so on. Like how my Nikon D810 works. After testing it and comparing it to other cameras I know what that camera can do for me as opposed to other cameras.

DPR: You definitely picked the right camera with the D810. It has the most dynamic range of any camera we’ve tested.

EL: That's exactly why I picked it. One of the most important characteristics for any equipment that I'm going to use is how well it can capture high dynamic range. I’m an old cinematographer, so I was used to the high dynamic range of film. If you consider the high dynamic range of Kodak [negative] film, especially in the latest years, to be like the 88 keys of a piano, that was what I needed to go out and capture the highlights, the sky, the shadows in the subject's hair, and so on.

Then suddenly film started to collapse and disappear. It happened too early and it happened too fast. It was a result of the studios and the exhibitors going into digital exhibition, so suddenly there was no business for printing. That was the biggest businesses for the labs, so the labs started to close down. It became very hard to shoot film.

Unfortunately, the transition happened too early and the cameras weren't ready. The digital cameras that came out in the beginning (around 15 years ago) were not even close to the high dynamic range of film. I worked with a few directors, including Michael Mann, to do tests with digital video imaging. For certain things, we liked and used it, but it was primitive and it wasn’t ready to take over and become the main technology for capturing images.

I think now we're in a very good place where the digital cameras are allowing us to do many things we couldn't do with film. But it's still the dynamic range - the high dynamic range - where digital cameras, as amazing as they are at capturing shadows and not having any noise, don’t allow you to capture those 88 keys of the piano I was used to. And movies get hurt by that.

For example, the last movie I did [we were shooting] in the forest, and when looking at the sky I wasn't able to capture the little round ball of the sun and also capture the face of the actor. It's stressful for a cinematographer. So the idea of new sensor technology, like what InVisage has demonstrated in their QuantumFilm technology, that will allow us to go back to 88 keys of dynamic range or more is incredibly exciting.

Shooting The Revenant in all natural light pushed the limits of dynamic range on the digital cameras used for the production.

DPR: You’ve worked with InVisage, the company behind QuantumFilm, and seem very enthusiastic about what that technology can do for filmmakers and photographers. Why?

When InVisage approached me and showed me their sensor technology I got very, very excited. As people would say, it's music to my ears. Actually, it’s music to my eyes what they are doing! What they’re attempting to do is everything I've been looking for, and that's why I'm so excited to work with them.

The first thing I'm excited about is the high dynamic range of QuantumFilm, but the other thing that's important is a camera that has a global shutter as opposed to a rolling shutter. That's something that we suffered with a bit during Gravity. When you're doing a lot of digital effects and stitching things together, not having global shutter can become a big issue, as you guys know.

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