WWI: The Cinematography of ‘The Revenant’

Oscar winner and frequent Inaritu collaborator, Emmanuel Lubezki is an extremely talented DP with a deep understanding of the medium, an open ended yet visceral style with an affinity for filming outdoor scenes with expertise, perhaps nowhere best demonstrated by The Revenant. Having won three Oscars for photography in a row it is obvious that those working within the Hollywood industry and with experience behind the camera recognise his innovative approach to film-making. His use of imagery and composition makes him stand out as a DP and importantly he does not hide behind colour correction or low lighting to articulate a scene but instead is more creative in his approach drawing from all of the other tools at his disposal.

The movie was filmed over the course of five years using the Alexa M for it’s handling of colours and LOG-C. It is effective at squeezing the range effectively into a container. The bolt wireless would direct the signals to Inaritu’s monitor. The Zeiss/Aery T1.3 lens masterprime helps with the anti-flare code by holding the dot of flare. The time of flight used by the Cinotape dictates the distance and helps maintain a steady distance between the subject and camera. Other times a 12 Milimaster prime was used for closer shots by inverting it. At times they used optics engineering to get an even closer focused shot.

Instead of using film Mexican DP used digital recording for it’s sensitivity in capturing the scenes at dusk and dawn. He used lenses ranging from 12mm to 21mm. Moreover, this digital technique allowed them to shoot without noise or grain between the actor and audience like watching the film through a clean window. The sensory shots evoked strong emotion through sensory experiences giving a sense of freedom, magic, beauty and authentic discomfort.

For some of the smooth walking shots they used steady-cam and a handheld with a stabilised flight head. In particular they used a static fixed-length jib on a off-road vehicle enabling the horizon to remain stabilised. This being an outdoors shoot this equipment was necessary for quickly getting the shot with the correct lighting. This also helps for more dynamic shots. Here, they used a geo-systems stabilised crane head and a Lieberhead with a movie-bird mounted to an off-road vehicle. The practicality of Lubezki’s approach to filming reflects his intention to immerse the viewer in the narrative rather than the roughness of a shot.

Often times Lubezki would use a crane to look the camera down on DiCaprio so as to reiterate his animistic subservience to survival instinct. To complement the natural light and give it a wild feel, the movie was shot almost entirely using natural light so that the audience are able to empathise while Lubezki draws back. However, at times Lubezki adopted a 40x20m solid to block the lighting on the talent in the foreground and specify a specific weather and atmosphere to the scene unavailable at the time of shooting.

Moving from the technical generics to the film itself, the film begins with a water shot panning up to a partially silhouetted figure with a forward pushing action. The body language reveals a hunting-esque posture with a pose suggesting readiness alongside a wide field of view. This is reminiscent of a video-game and therefore is a clever visual reference by Lubezki because it immediately creates empathy, curiosity and interactivity to draw the viewer in much like a third person video-game.

As we jump forward to the dramatic dialogue between DiCaprio and his native-american son a wide lens is used with the son closer and therefore more emotionally present than his father behind him. The shot is angled up towards DiCaprio as though we are the child experiencing his authority and presence, again creating empathy with the characters through visual style The spatial positioning is realistic and therefore engrossing much like before. When the roles become reversed after DiCaprio’s near-fatal injury the roles are reversed and the son leans over his father in the foreground looking down as a visual dynamic reflecting the switch in power dynamics.

For sunnier weather DP Lubezki used Zuma X with a wide Master Prime. This camera has a different focal length and flare code to the previous and creates a more consistent visual style than using the first consistently. Switching to sky shots Lubezki uses the blue ambient diffused light of the sky at magic hour with a strip of the warm light of the indirect sunrise peaking out as an interesting colour palette to represent the smallness of our protagonists hope in his harsh environment.  The blue light renders the snow blue and the fire-pit contrasts in colour to reiterate this smallness for saturation purposes.

The colour dynamic is repeated throughout the film with the orange hot-spots of fire set against the saturated blue of the wilderness. These elements are isolated in coloru correction unlike the natural vignette of the sunrises. As the scene becomes more grounded the blue and orange remain but a shallow depth of field is used as Lubezki returns to his close-up on DiCaprio highlighting the film as a quest of revenge and struggle of one individual against the elements. The tone of the skin against the fire creates an amazing contrast so as to emphasise the deep moment of respite.

Importantly Lubezki explores different coloru temperatures as the environment shifts. When an icy blue is required a middle blue which has been desaturated is used for a steely effect. This look focuses on the coldness of the environment in isolation rather than as a contrast as before to distinguish the environments. The monochromatic blacks of the trees create a structure to build the colour around alongside a neutral white to be a middle ground between the two. The skin tone becomes blue and one with the environment as Lubezki seeks to explore the teachings received by DiCaprio by a native of becoming one with nature and working alongside it for survival. The narrative reflects the visuals. The atmospheric perspective adds depth through high contrast of the subject’s hair in the foreground set aside the lower contrast of colour tones in the background.

To create the impression of disorientation a low tilted shot is used as DiCaprio clambers out from under his shelter. From a comic-book perspective this tilt would imply action and gravity which has been adopted for the tension used in this story – survival. During the scene in which Poulter pulls a gun on Hardy a certain camera move is used to impressive effect. A wide shot is used which moves along the gun towards him and then turns around in a continuous take as he speaks to build the tension and add character to the confrontation, particularly on Hardy’s part. The whip pan makes this shot two, combined over the shoulders. Your attention is not broken and it is believable because there is no cutting to make you suspend your belief temporarily. This is repeated again earlier in the film when Poulter is dragged down underwater by a combatant and the camera follows him as he releases bubbles. This creates a frenzy and sense of disillusion.

The native american attack near the beginning was meant to be immersive and to plunge the audience into the environment with the characters. The wide lens and smaller cameras allowed the crew to move around quickly and add elasticity to the shot as they moved from the objective to the subjective. Lubezki had a clear map of this extended shot. It started with the point of view of the audience and then moved to the characters such as DiCaprio and the Chief looking for his daughter to make the stories interconnected. Moving without a cut allowed the audience to see the desperation in the characters. This helped to articulate the horror of war and to avoid the glamorisation of violence as a defining principle during the filming process.

During the research process for the bear attack scene the crew met with many survivors and bear experts to create a vocabulary with which to work by. Again Lubezki avoided too many cuts and helped block the scene so that DiCaprio would shoot in the correct way. The choreographing of the process was very difficult and involved a certain level of experimenting as Lubezki tried to create a balance of wide and close shots and as he taught himself when to pull back and pull in in such a way as that the audience is crowded when necessary, hopeful when required and panicked with lack and abundance of clarity and the clever use of space.

From a shot-type perspective Lubezki uses a wider lens to overcome the storytelling issue of seeing both the individual and background in frame. His approach to lighting the sky was phenomenal and used some interesting colour correction as did the icier, more steely palettes used in other scenes. The colour choices and lensing as well as the lighting in post and during production were all important elements. In modern cinema cinematography is becoming less and less to do with which technical tools are used to create the end result, but rather how they have been adopted and manipulated intelligently and reactive alongside the narrative on both a small and large scale.

Overall, Lubezki has become known yet again for his immersive, organic style, drawing viewers into the story, while embracing wide angles and long continuous shots to achieve this result. His artistic vision and use of technology to achieve it is remarkable as he uses contrast, interesting shot-types as well as mirroring in imagery and the environment to innovate in a visceral and compellingly articulate visual vocabulary which instantly draws the viewer in with it’s magnetic brilliance.

WRITING WITH IMAGES: THE CINEMATOGRAPHY OF ‘THE REVENANT’

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