Emmanuel Lubezki, DP of 'Gravity', Expounds on Cinematography in the Virtual Age

Emmanuel LubezkiAlfonso Cuarón's Gravity might just be one of the most technologically impressive films to ever see the light of day, and it's certainly going to be a shoe-in for all major awards in the categories of cinematography and visual effects (and probably sound as well) come awards season. Last year, Claudio Miranda took home the cinematography oscar for his work on Life of Pi, and many were concerned that a film so heavily dependent on CGI couldn't have proper cinematography in the traditional sense of the craft. However, Emmanuel Lubezki ASC, AMC (better known as Chivo) talked with David Heuring of American Cinematographer recently about the ever-evolving role of the cinematographer in the virtual age. What he had to say might surprise you.

Firstly, for those of you who haven't seen the film yet, here's the official trailer for Gravitywhich gives you just a taste of the technical mastery of the film:

At this point, critics are already hailing Gravity as a game-changer, with some even going so far as to say that it's one of the greatest visual achievements in the history of cinema. These accolades are no doubt a direct result of the seamless integration of practical cinematography and special effects.

However, as Chivo points out in the interview, this seamless integration is no small feat, especially considering how difficult it is to effectively marry live action characters with digital backgrounds, and do so to the point of immaculate realism. More often that not it's the lighting (both practical and digital) that makes the difference:

Most of the bad CG in the world doesn’t work because the lighting is bad. When the lighting of the background doesn’t match the lighting of the foreground or the actors, then things collapse. You need someone with an eye, and with a command of the technology. Just because a movie has extensive CG, that doesn’t necessarily mean a diminished role for the cinematographer.

Chivo also talks about how cinematographers, and their unique skill sets, are absolutely crucial to the making of films in the digital age. Even though many of the images are being created in post production, or at least being heavily manipulated, they still require someone with keen knowledge of lighting, camera, and composition to oversee their creation so they can be as effective as possible.

Who is going to decide how these actors are lit at the end? It’s still an extension of cinematography. You still need a craftsman to decide how this actor should look, and then how to marry these actors to the background. (On Gravity) I was able to do all the lighting for the movie, and to collaborate on the framing and design of the shots. Who better than a cinematographer to understand what light should be doing in a scene?

For anyone who is familiar with Chivo's previous live action work, especially Children of Men and Tree of Life (on both of which he was nominated and snubbed for the cinematography Oscar), it is apparent that much of his unique styling has been transferred over into Gravitydespite the fact that the film leans so heavily on its effects.

It seems safe to say at this point that the role of the cinematographer hasn't been diminished in the digital age, so much as it has simply changed and morphed alongside our technological advances. In the end, cinematography is all about composition, lighting, and camera, all of which are inherent aspects of every film, not just the live-action ones. Since these images still need to be treated with immense care in order to be cinematically effective, who better than the cinematographer to oversee the process?

What do you guys think? Has the role of the cinematographer been degraded in the digital age, or is it more important than ever? How do you see the role changing in the future? Let us know in the comments!

Link: Emmanuel Lubezki Ponders Virtual Cinematography -- The Parallax View (ASC Blog)

Your Comment


I am going to see the movie tomorrow, but whenever I read that a film is a game-changer, I become sceptical, because almost every time it is just simple PR. Hope I won't be disappointed.

October 8, 2013 at 9:49AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I saw this opening night in IMAX 3D, and I can attest to how well the film was made. I've been a massive fan of Cauron and Lubezki since Y Tu Mama Tambien, and these two have created an incredibly special film that has changed what cinema is, and where cinema can go. I can't find a flaw with the film, and will go see it again. I've never seen 3D as well done as this, and it isn't used as a gimmick, it was used to suspend the depth and immensity of space, as well as the helplessness of it all. All I can say is go in knowing that the filmmakers behind this film have made incredible films before hand, so you can rest easy knowing that the PR isn't just spouting a sales point. The critics, and myself are raving because this is an incredible film. Go see it.

October 8, 2013 at 11:58AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Definitely a very unique movie, as the usage of S3D was really immersive and it sets a precedent for sure. I've never experienced anything like it. The story is just OK, but yeah.... it's really more an experience than a movie. If there's ever been movie that has to be seen in theaters and in 3D, this is the one. It just doesn't work nearly the same otherwise.

October 8, 2013 at 12:15PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Gene Sung

does sandra bullock get all dramatic. if so, is it better to watch this with earplugs?

October 9, 2013 at 8:48PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


This just goes to show how important lighting is as well as framing, in the real world an digital. It shows a person who know what they are doing from someone not yet familiar with cinematography. Every time I can get more info from lighting i always put that to the top of my list.

October 8, 2013 at 10:09AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I just can't believe Chivo hasn't won an Academy Award yet! Both Children of Men and Tree of Life were beautifully shot.

October 8, 2013 at 11:30AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Probably he's one of the best cinematographers in the history of filmmaking.

October 8, 2013 at 11:31AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


He's a shoo-in for the Oscar, as is Cuaron, Bullock and Framestore.
After last year's win for Miranda I had a heated discussion with a couple of young DOPs (including one who shot The Canyons) about how this kind of digital film making wasn't in their opinion 'real DOP'ing'. When I say 'heated' I mean it.
Lighting is lighting, whether virtual or IRL. 'Children of Men' had a ton of brilliantly worked effect shots dealt with in a natural way.
Miranda and 'Chivo' are leaders in this naturalistic, seamless digital film making.

/ the science in Gravity is not so good.
/ there were times when it seemed to me to be Brentwood/Buckhead Mom in Space. I have a low Bullock threshold. :-)

October 8, 2013 at 12:34PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Your statement clearly shows that you have absolutely no sophisticated inside knowledge about digital lighting and how cg artist create the final shots for a movie. Claudio Miranda is a SHAME for all cinematographers in the world for accepting the oscar, which he clearly did not deserve.
The background plates that he shot for Life of Pie consist of a boy in a blue screen pool with a bag full of sand (the replacement for the cg tiger). All the artistic lighting, compositing, the cg tiger, the mood of the scenery were created by the hard working cg artist, who went bankrupt afterwards (Rhythm & Hues). Even the framing was changed later in the process of finalizing the shots.

So he won the Oscar because those old senile members of the Academy know nothing about cg integrations let alone that 90% of the shots were composed by other people. It just makes me mad when people praise such a guy (Miranda) because they just see the final images in the movie and the think that those cg artist just made a mere color correction. All he did was shooting stupid blue screen background plates UNDER THE SUPERVISION of the CG Supervisor in order to accomplish a seamless integration of cg and real life background plate.

October 8, 2013 at 3:23PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Frederik O.

Agreed, the cinematography Oscar for Pi was a joke. VFX artists for the most part are treated like shit. I've seen countless plates come in, shot flat with no real attention to lighting design, then a comp artist will light it afterwards. Guess who gets the credit?

October 8, 2013 at 5:49PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I love that in Gravity the CG artists are billed before the cast list, grips, camera etc.

October 9, 2013 at 8:38PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

David J. Fulde

totally, shame on him.

what do you expect should have happened? Should they have given the award to the visual effects team instead? They did that. You make it sound as if he showed up on set for a few minutes every day with his thumb up his ass and waited for the cg sup to tell him when it was okay to hit the record button. And regardless of what you think about the cinematography, you have no way of speaking to the degree of involvement this person actually had in designing that movie. You're tossing out oversimplifications and getting mad about who other people may or may be praising and should probably go get a clue before you continue to accuse people of being misinformed.

October 11, 2013 at 10:38PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


"And regardless of what you think about the cinematography, you have no way of speaking to the degree of involvement this person actually had in designing that movie."

Check out this link and see what two visual effects legends say about Mirandas work in Life of Pi, and then come back and double check your statement.

Starting 04:20 : http://vimeo.com/66487005

" Should they have given the award to the visual effects team instead?"

The next time when Ryan Gosling or somebody wins an Oscar, simultaneously the Oscar has to go to the sound guy, because what to you expect? Do you really think that the sound guy is just there on the set, holding the boom and pushing a button.

October 12, 2013 at 2:48PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Frederik O.

He's an amazingly talented and humble man

October 8, 2013 at 12:39PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

You voted '+1'.

After half an hour of previews of shallow comic book movies with cheesy Computer Graphic FX, seeing Gravity and the incredible FX was quite a contrast. Amazing film that also seems to have something intelligent to say. Wow. Highly recommended to see this one in 3D.

October 8, 2013 at 12:49PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I asked this exact question of Roger Deakins. It was back when Avatar won best cinematography and I asked him how a practically shot film could possibly compete with digitally shot films where any number of lights of any size and intensity can be put virtually anywhere with the click of a mouse. This is what he said:

I think that to make any kind of judgment between such a diverse group of films is rather impossible. ‘Cinematography’ is changing and the purists are in a minority. Even the seemingly classically shot “White Ribbon’ was shot on colour stock and manipulated digitally to create the look of the picture you see. That is a long way from how Greg Toland created images for ‘Citizen Kane’ or Subrata Mitra for ‘The World of Apu’. Would it be possible to judge the cinematography in those three films in competition?

It is not being dismissive to say that it is the work that counts and you are your own judge.

October 8, 2013 at 1:23PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


In digital age the role of cinematographer as important as ever. He or she is the Master of Visual. Not just the shooting, but from start to finish, from top to bottom.

October 8, 2013 at 1:39PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


This film blew my mind. Had no idea it was the same cinematographer as Children of Men. The opening shot is something like eight min. long. It's a great film. One of my favorites now.

October 8, 2013 at 1:40PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


FWIW, I thought "Oblivion" looked awful. Not because Miranda's shots didn't match but because it all came through as too sterile, including the place where the lucky couple resided, where it was supposed to be just the opposite. "Gravity's" subject, much like the "Avatar's" another world fantasy, fits perfectly with the general concept of CGI.
"Rush" is another new film with a heavy digital presence, I've only seen clips so far but the integration of digital with live action footage is more interesting to me than a pure video game ride. Which isn't to say that it doesn't have a role in the marketplace.

October 8, 2013 at 2:43PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


How is this movie a game changer? Maybe there will be a wave of annoyingly mediocre space movie scripts finally getting green light, but as far as the integration of VFX and camera work goes, there have been multiple examples of the DOP improving on the overall look of a film, including VFX. The VFX in "2012" for example looked better than in any other Emmerich desaster flick, because for the first time, he got an a list DOP to film fantasies of mayhem (yeah, I know, the Patriot also looked great, but i meant the kind of movies, Emmerich is known for).
Don't get me wrong: I LOVE "Gravity" for the most part, only the ending to me somehow falls flat, as there are existential questions posed by the film, the ending simply ignores for the sake of getting a conventional action finale. But all the stuff we are now impressed by because they all come togethter on a very good movie (but please, no best film nomination, I mean, guys: This is an action flick first and foremost) doesn't seem they haven't existed for a long time already.

October 8, 2013 at 5:31PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Haven't seen it yet, but I will. Even so, isn't this a lot of fuss over one person when the film was obviously (from the trailer alone) made by many many people and cost a lot of money? I love these big hit movies as much as anybody, but what I really love to see are movies that are creative, visually appealing with great stories, made on a shoestring by a handful of people. And these small movies can now have really good special effects for a lot less money. That's the game changer. And yeah, of course the lighting is important, but didn't we know that? The lighting was important for effects like this when it was film and matte paintings etc almost a hundred years ago.

October 8, 2013 at 10:27PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I've seen this in both IMAX 3D and 2D and while the look was certainly real enough to immerse me in the story, I simply can't understand anyone thinking this has upped the bar for either special effects or the use of 3D.

1. Hollywood has done pretty realistic looking space effects for quite some time now. 2001 is darned new 50 years old now and not only does it hold up, I'd say it looks better in some ways (though certainly not all ways) than Gravity: CGI looks better than it did but it still looks more like art than a drawing. And it's continual improvement makes the eye pick out the deficiencies of older CGI. You thought the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park looked dead real when you saw it upon initial release. Now they look laughable and there's a good chance the International Space Station in Gravity will look that way ten years from now. Using CGI in your movie is a big gamble for a director, a gamble that in exchange for putting buts in seats now, you'll sacrifice anyone watching your work in decades to come. That's not a big deal for a commercial hack, but I'd wager Cuaron wants to make pictures that his grandkids will watch.

2. 3D does add a bit to certain scenes in this film, but not as much as you'd think given that it's about the perfect film for 3D. And it still has what I consider two major problems: A) the fact that the effect stops working (and often produces double images) if you look anywhere but straight ahead of you or tilt your head or do pretty much anything but hold your head stock still and look at the picture. B) The odd fact that while different objects are at different points in the distance, each individual object is flat. Current 3D is great at making X appear to be deeper into the screen than Y, but neither X nor Y every appear to have actual heft. So instead of being 3D, it's an odd mix of 3D and 2D. Opinions vary, obviously, but I think the effect hurts way more than it helps, even in Gravity.

October 10, 2013 at 8:44PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Don't they have sun visors in space? Looks great, terrible same old Hollywood crap.

October 11, 2013 at 12:07AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Chris K Jones

It's not just about getting the image on the screen, is it, it's about deciding what the image should be and having the final say over that process. Even with traditional filmmaking the DoP has a whole crew of people who help them create the image. I know Roger Deakins still likes to have his eye in the viewfinder but not all DoPs do. So, I kind of think the argument that 'a film relying heavily on CG shouldn't deserve a Cinematography award' is remarkably easy to counter because film has always been created by crews within crews. The DoP is the boss of everyone that contributes to the image and the power of the DoP is taste, guidance and ultimately veto. Basically, what I'm saying is that if the CG crew have to change the shot because the DoP says it doesn't look right, then the CG crew cannot claim to be cinematographers. When CG shots are put together they are scrutinized heavily by the DoP who tells them what they should change according to the DoP's own vision. It's the authoring of the image that is important. The artist guides the technician ... regardless of whether the technician is an artist in their own right (which in this case, of course, they are).

October 11, 2013 at 7:24AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Nicholas Cameron

Hmm, I could not imagine why Sandra Bullock, as an actor, would get dramatic, in a drama film.

It's an amazing movie visually, even if you aren't watching it in 3D. However if storyline is what resonates in you as a film maker you may be slightly disappointed from the hype, if you are fresh enough to believe said hype for majority of Hollywood films!

March 10, 2014 at 6:05PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Shayne A