The industrial exterior of the decommissioned Boeing factory south of Los Angeles now called Downey Studios hardly suggests the impressive realm of fantasy housed within. But by taking a few steps past the scores of generators quietly humming in the sun-baked parking lot, a visitor is transported to an alternate universe: a rustic seaside village with waves lapping against the shore at sunset; an immense, dank underground cavern with shafts of light streaming in from above; and a vast cornfield bisected by a set of train tracks, upon which a dilapidated sedan is precariously positioned. One could dismiss these as a collection of clever façades, foam boulders, forced-perspective miniatures and painted cycloramas, but the uniquely soft light illuminating each set fully sells the illusion, binding each element together with a palpable atmosphere of subtle magic.
It’s exactly this effect that director of photography Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, ASC, AMC sought for the project at hand: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. “It’s a very stylized movie,” says Lubezki, who has become something of a go-to guy for magical-realism filmmaking, given such credits as A Little Princess (see AC June ’96), Meet Joe Black, A Walk in the Clouds, Sleepy Hollow (AC Dec. ’99) and The Cat in the Hat. “We’ve tried to do a lot of things in camera, as we did on Sleepy Hollow, such as using painted backings as opposed to TransLites or bluescreen effects. Some of it worked and some of it was less successful, but the film has an interesting mood, and it was a great opportunity to experiment.”
Based on the books by Daniel Handler, Lemony Snicket traces the plight of three plucky orphans (played by Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, and the infant duo of Kara and Shelby Hoffman) who must contend with their beyond-eccentric relatives, including the exceedingly greedy Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), who dons a series of elaborate disguises in his attempts to control the kids’ immense inheritance.
Director Brad Silberling sought Lubezki’s help from the outset. “Stylistically, A Little Princess and Sleepy Hollow are quite close to what we eventually did on Lemony Snicket, and I think that’s why Brad called me,” says the cinematographer. “I knew him socially and we had discussed other projects in the past. He especially liked what I’d done on Sleepy Hollow; our production designer and costume designer on Lemony Snicket, Rick Heinrichs and Colleen Atwood, also worked on Sleepy Hollow. When we began working on this film, we all realized how great it was to be back together.”
Fortunately, Lubezki was able to join Snicket relatively early in preproduction, giving him and his collaborators the opportunity to do extensive camera tests and discuss their overall visual approach to the picture. “Because Rick, Colleen and I had done Sleepy Hollow, part of our conversation was about how we would make this movie different. We wanted to retain certain elements the blacks, the contrast, the use of soft lighting because that’s what Brad wanted, but we worked very hard to explore different things. This is a much calmer film, but it’s also more complicated in term of the sets, the use of color and textures in the wardrobe, and the huge exteriors we had to create on stage. Most of the lighting in Sleepy Hollow was very soft, and I could often use just a single source, but on this film I explored some scenes with very hard light or mixed textures of light. To achieve the proper effect, I had to use many fixtures.”
A key component of Snicket is the air of melancholy that hangs over the otherwise comedic proceedings. “That was very important, because the basis of the story is that these children have lost their parents and are seeking someone to look over them, which is incredibly sad,” says Lubezki. “It’s a quality that makes the books very different tonally from other books for children; they have a full range of emotions. We tried to convey this in a lot of ways, including through a very subjective use of the camera, which always conveys the children’s state of mind. While the characters around the children are very funny, they’re also somewhat scary, so [the tone is] a balance of comedy and tragedy. There is darkness, but I tried to find light as well, as in flashbacks where the children invent all of these amazing devices. To suggest their spirit and creativity, I lit those scenes to be brighter and warmer. We’ll see how those contrasts play in the finished film.”
Though there are plenty of exceptions within his filmography, Lubezki’s consistent use of extremely soft, often completely unmotivated lighting has become one trademark of his style; to add just the right glow to a scene, he occasionally allows illumination to appear almost from nowhere. “Yeah, that’s true,” he admits. “At the beginning of this movie, I was working to create what I call ‘secret lighting’ you don’t really know where it’s coming from. It’s something I’ve been working on for a long time, so I get nervous when I put a hard source through a window with some smoke and get a shaft of light. I get nervous when I start revealing the sources, which I feel reveals the cinematography to the audience. I can’t hide my work from other directors of photography, but I don’t want the audience to completely figure it out. Fortunately, because Snicket is not realistic, I could work this way more easily. I wanted to find the balance between naturalism and lighting that’s completely insane. Toward the end of production, though, my lighting became more directional, and I think that’s because I wanted to experiment and make things look different I didn’t want to let the film look like something I’d done before. Also, the limitations of the sets will always help you create the style of the movie; it’s not the lighting style, but the ‘final’ style.”