Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki could credibly claim to have put together some of the greatest shots in modern filmmaking. By the early aughts he’d already worked with a slew of great American directors, including Mike Nichols (The Birdcage, 1996), Martin Brest (Meet Joe Black, 1998) Tim Burton (Sleep Hollow, 1999), and Michael Mann (Ali, 2001), to say nothing of the generation defining 1994 film Reality Bites, directed by Ben Stiller. Yet it seems the director he clicked with most, and the one Lubezki has strung together some of the most stunning shots and sequences captured on film in this or any other era, is director Alfonso Cuáron. Their first two outings together, A Little Princess (1995, which earned him his first Oscar nom) and Great Expectations (1998), gave them the chance to hone their chops and create a vernacular for their specific styles and skills. After Great Expectations, Cuáron vowed to become more emotionally invested in his material, and he and Lubezki came together again to makeY Tú mamá también in 2001, a film about two teenage Mexican boys and their road trip with an older, beautiful woman. Audiences were floored by the natural, beautiful, and blissfully frank sexuality of the film. The lead performances made stars of Gabriel Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, to say nothing of Maribel Verdú’s graceful, gorgeous turn as the objection of the boys affection and desire. What audiences might not have realized as they watched these three performers circle each other was they were being seduced not just by sensuality of the performances but also by the sweep of the camera. Slow, patient takes uninterrupted with fussy cuts added to the feeling of crossing over boundaries and experiencing something new, something slightly scary, something breathtaking.
The next time Lubezki would partner with Cuarón would be for 2006’s Children of Men, a film that gave cinematographer enthusiasts and movie geeks in general a half dozen or more stand up and cheer moments. There are several jaw dropping sequences in Children of Men that were so ingeniously constructed you weren’t even aware of why the action was so terrifying and enthralling—it was because Lubezki put you into such close emotional proximity to the chaos you felt as if you were there. Take the below scene, in which Theo (Clive Owen) tries to escape the compound he's hiding out in with the world's first pregnant woman in 18-years, the men and women committed to protecting her, at all costs.
One particular sequence, the now famous ‘ambush’ scene, once again put you inside and outside a car driven by Theo as men and women pour out of the trees adjacent to the road in an attempt to take them hostage. The camera moves from inside the car to outside in a single, unbearably tense five-minute sequence that required trick car seats, a moveable windshield and bespoke technology in order to achieve such intense proximity and fluidity. The second, even more celebrated sequence is a stunning, seemingly single-shot (there is a clever, invisible edit in the middle of the scene) in which Theo moves through an obliterated city in the midst of a ferocious battle, ducking, diving and crawling towards the sound of a newborn baby wailing nearby. At one point in the scene blood splatters onto the camera—later on in the sequence, the blood is gone, but you have no memory of the edit because it was so seamlessly constructed into the action.
Although Lubezki was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Children of Men, the film was relatively little seen. Few if any cinematographers are household names, yet even so, he became more widely appreciated after Terrence Malick’s 2011film Tree of Life premiered. Starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as parents in 1950s Waco, Texas, Tree of Life was filled with beautiful images, and Malick’s allure (he films once every five to ten years, with one twenty-year break, to boot) and Pitt’s involvement brought the film a lot of attention. Lubezki was nominated for his fifth Oscar.
Then Gravity happened. By the time we spoke to him about his groundbreaking work in Cuarón’s long gestating space epic, we were one of many, many outlets trying to unpack the intricate, seemingly impossible construction of the film. We would learn about the years long process of building the equipment the film’s scope and scale would require, and how Cuarón, Lubezki and the rest of the crew committed themselves to creating a film set in space that would do more than just wow an audience, but put them inside of Sandra Bullock’s spacesuit and make them feel the claustrophobia, fear and awe. Lubezki finally won his Oscar.
And now here comes Birdman, and whispers abound that Lubezki might have outdone himself again. Working with another Mexican master filmmaker, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman is earning rave reviews after bowing at the Venice Film Festival. Cuarón told Capture Mag last year that in 2014 there would be a film shot in “one continuous sequence-shot, and it’s a masterpiece,” and there are many reasons to assume he’s talking about Birdman. Directed by Cuarón’s friend Iñárritu and shot by his frequent collaborator Lubezki, Birdman’s early reviews almost all mention a film that feels as if it’s a single, stunning shot. Variety’s Peter DeBruge wrote that after the film opens on star Michael Keaton, as Riggan Thomson, a washed up actor once famous for playing the eponymous superhero and who is mounting a Broadway play as his comeback levitating in his dressing room, “It will be more than half an hour before the next obvious splice—a trick that d.p. Emmanuel Lubezki learned on Children of Men.” Debruge writes that the illusion of long, uninterrupted takes last nearly the duration of the feature. Todd McCarty at The Hollywood Reporter writes that the director “and his indispensable cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have gone the extra mile to make a film that, like a far more complicated and sophisticated version of what Alfred Hitchcock did in Rope, in 1948, tries to create the illusion of having been filmed all in one take.”
Have a peek at the trailer below, and, regardless of whether you’re a fellow film geek or just a casual moviegoer, put Birdman on your fall film list. In Debruge's Variety review, he wrote, "Judged by Howard Hawks’ quality standard — “three great scenes, no bad ones” — Birdman features at least a dozen of the year’s most electrifying onscreen moments." Sold yet?
Featured image: Michael Keaton and Ed Norton star in Birdman. Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures.