The clouds parted, and the light descended, casting the scene in a dramatic hue. Glancing at him meaningfully, the director nodded. “Film this.” And so it began.
Credit must be given where credit is due, but how do we know where that is? In most cases, any movie that is well made or has a distinct style is attributed to a wonderful and supremely talented director. All hail the director’s view! His vision! His camera angles. While at times this is true as some directors do set their own shots, often such is not the case. Directors of Photography, or Cinematographers, are called in to give stylistic vision and practical wisdom to an idea or desire of the Director. Though some Directors of Photography simply do the dirty work, a few have a vision. Emmanuel Lubezki is one of those visionaries.
Born Emmanuel Lubezki Morgenstern in 1964 in Mexico City, Mexico, Lubezki began his career working on small Mexican independent films and television shows. As he gained recognition, he also developed an individual style, one that has remained distinctly present throughout his career. This style incorporates stylistic lighting techniques, gritty close ups, and sweeping camera angles. Such combinations have lead to the strong brands that identify Lubezki’s work.
Bruce Beresford, director of the films King David and Paradise Road once said “It is not just the performance that counts but the way it is interpreted through lighting, camera angle and editing.” He could not have been more correct. Acting is only part of the vision. Light plays an enveloping role in filmmaking, and a Director of Photography can make or break the mood with his chosen setup. In 1992’s Como agua para chocolate, Lubezki teams up with director Alfonso Arau to create a film about two star-crossed lovers who fight tradition and reality to be together. The tragically beautiful story written by Laura Esquivel is bursting with magical realism: often times difficult to grasp and even more difficult to portray. Yet Lubezki expands from Arau’s vision and identifies the main points that help us absorb the fantasy. An intense focus is placed on food, the main power driving the film. As Tita, the main character, pounds out her frustrations in dough or drops blood stained petals into soup, light shines in from the kitchen window to illuminate her love washed food.
Perhaps an even better use of lighting can be seen in the recent film Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Based on the highly popular children’s novellas, the film combines the first three stories to create a quick paced dramatic conflict. With the fast pacing and Jim Carrey’s spastic acting style, the movie could have been a flop. But Lubezki focuses his attention on the children, making sure that the creative art design is not lost, while the characters are illuminated in a soft glow. Indeed, the entire movie seems to glow, rather from the inside, a trait seen in all of Lubezki’s collaborations, from Ali to Children of Men.
Looking at the two previously stated films, another trend seems to emerge in Lubezki’s work. Though the background in the movies he works on is often gorgeous, Lubezki rarely focuses on outward vision. Instead, the audience is introduced to the depth of character emotion, the exact movements of their faces, the secrets revealed there. No matter how much fantasy may surround the world (look what he was working with in Cat in the Hat), Lubezki finds the reality in human grit. Ali, directed by Michael Mann, describes history at its greatest. Just a story about a boxer? Hardly. This story displays the truth of American culture and the racial extremes that have always been present. This story needs grit. Lubezki’s focus then is on Will Smith’s face, his movements, anything to bring out the beauty in what truly exists.
However, focus is not simply placed on main characters; minor characters are also made important in this vision. Children of Men spends much of its time disorienting the audience as to who is and who is not important. Therefore it is necessary for each person to be equally revered. The lighting used whenever Julianne Moore enters shows her poise and beauty- making her out to seem strong and important in the story. Even fantastical stories like the aforementioned Lemony Snicket’ A Series of Unfortunate Events portray character importance. Violet, Claus, and Sonny Baudelaire have not led easy lives but continue to have a cheerful and pleasant persona. Children naturally wear their emotions on their sleeves, and Lubezki zooms right in to capture it all. With the combined use of lighting and camera angles, Lubezki creates the aura that there is some wisdom in this story that we may not be attaining. Some would rather all this be attributed to the director, Brad Siberling, but with the pasts of both men (Siberling is most known for his television contributions on shows like Judging Amy and NYPD Blue), it is hard to believe that Lubezki did not have some say in the angle of the film.
So what of camera angles? We see that lighting and reality are important in the world of Lubezki, but what of the camera itself? Looking at Children of Men, it is obvious that keeping the audience off guard and in the moment is an important quality of the movie. Long camera shots are utilized in impacting scenes, such as the car attack in the middle of the film where Julianne Moore loses her role as an important player and again towards the end as fighting erupts around the main characters. The purpose of these shots is to gain intensity of course, but again also to focus on the emotions of the scene. The reactions of the characters can not be faked or broken; the lack of noticeable editing allows for nothing but intensity. Yet here we can not attribute all vision to Lubezki. Instead, to give credit, we must recognize Lubezki’s return to Mexican cinematic creation and the collaboration with director Alfonso Cuarón.
Indeed, though Lubezki entered the American movie scene with Twenty Bucks in 1993, he has not forgotten his roots. After 1996’s The Birdcage became a hit, Lubezki could have chosen to work in American cinema exclusively. Nevertheless, he has returned time and again to work with Cuarón, having created their most influential films as a team. Their first collaboration being A Little Princess in 1995, the two have gone on to create Y tu mamá también and the previously described Children of Men. After such beautiful pairings, it is no wonder the world is anxious to see the newest film with the duo, scheduled for release in 2008.
With beauty evident in the very design, Emmanuel Lubezki captures depth in his films. Having won or been nominated for an award for over half of the films on which he has worked, including four Oscars, it is clear that Lubezki has a talent not soon to disappear. And so we gladly wait for his next vision, knowing that somehow we will be more enlightened by the end.