The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents January 2016 Return to Table of Contents
ASC Theatrical Nominees
Roger Deakins
Janusz Kaminski
Ed Lachman
Emmanuel Lubezki
John Seale
ASC Close-Up

The Revenant

Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC


Speaking to American Cinematographer for the January ’16 issue, Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC, described the production of The Revenant as “a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the roughest and hardest thing I have ever done in my life.” He received his sixth ASC Award nomination for the film, his second collaboration with director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Lubezki won ASC Awards for Birdman (also directed by Iñárritu), Gravity, Tree of Life and Children of Men, and was also nominated for Sleepy Hollow.

Inspired by true events, The Revenant depicts Hugh Glass’ (Leonardo DiCaprio) effort to survive in the uncharted wilderness of 1820s America after he is attacked by a bear and left for dead by members of his expedition.

One of the filmmakers’ earliest key decisions was to shoot the story chronologically. “The story starts in autumn and moves into winter, and Glass goes through a very real physical experience of being in the middle of nowhere for months,” said Lubezki. “We felt we couldn't do it on a set, under normal Hollywood rules, and bring in snow and put in bluescreens. I wanted to absolutely kill any artifice. In keeping with that truth, we had to go through a true natural process and challenge ourselves.”

In keeping with the desire for realism, Lubezki decided to shoot exclusively with natural light and period-correct firelight. During the wintertime shoot in northern Canada, where most of the film was shot, the daylight window was small: 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. This factor prolonged production by several months. Because of an unseasonably warm winter in the region, the filmmakers eventually had to move to Argentina to find a commensurate amount of snow.

Lubezki used Arri Alexa cameras: the XT, the M and the 65. In one extraordinary sequence, an avalanche occurs in the background during a key moment between Glass and the treacherous Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). This was not achieved through CGI, miniatures or any other kind of movie magic. With the cooperation of Canadian authorities, a helicopter dropped explosive charges into the snow on cue. “We had the Alexa 65 on a little crane arm with the 24mm lens to get a close-up on Leo and incorporate the landscape in the background,” Lubezki revealed. “We knew we had only one chance, and we didn't want to blow it. The digital camera let us shoot at 1,200 ASA for more depth of field, keeping Leo and the mountain sharp. The detail in the background is exquisite. We could never have done that with a film camera.”

As with Birdman, Iñárritu wanted The Revenant to feature extended takes and a very mobile camera. The director told AC, “I would say there was a beautiful development [on this film] from what we learned on Birdman in terms of the value of wide lenses, and how to sustain long shots and why. For instance, in the scene in which [a trapper encampment is attacked], I wanted to cover [the action] without lots of [cuts] or trying to show every angle. I wanted to show one point of view to allow the audience to experience what it must feel like to be attacked in that way. That was very challenging, because we had to shoot the sequence straight for about an hour and a half. It was like a live performance.” With few exceptions, the camera consistently tracks the actors in one of three modes: handheld (operated by Lubezki), Steadicam or Technocrane.

Lubezki used Arri/Zeiss Master Primes and Leica Summilux-Cs, sticking with the wider end of the range. His main lens was a 14mm Master Prime. He noted that Leica lenses were particularly useful because of their lighter weight. “As I age,” he said with a laugh, “certain equipment becomes very heavy for all the handheld work.”

Excerpted from the January 2016 issue. Original reporting by Michael Goldman.


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