How to Light a Film that Looks Like One Continuous Take: Chivo Talks 'Birdman'

Chivo Birdman Lighting Cinematography
Credit: Peter Strain
Blocking and choreographing a feature film to look like one continuous take is a daunting task on its own. But how in the hell do you light something like that?

We've already taken a quick look at technical challenge of making Birdman feel like one continuous take. In short, it's a combination of extremely long takes (usually in the 10 minute range) seamlessly stitched together through a combination of editing trickery and subtle VFX mastery. In case you missed it the first time around, here's the nifty BTS video detailing the film's seamless look and the process of color correcting it.

Making the film look like one take is one thing, but considering the Birdman's visual style, which features complex steadicam and handheld camera movements that sweep around the massive, maze-like set, having any semblance of traditional lighting is virtually impossible. The obvious solution is to build as many practical sources into the set as possible, which allows for freedom of character and camera movement while maintaining a naturalistic sense of light.

To a certain extent, much of the lighting in Birdman comes from well-placed practicals. However, relying solely on practicals makes it extremely difficult to create lighting that looks and feels staged -- which is a crucial element of a film that is essentially an elaborate filmed stage play -- so Emmanuel Lubezki had to figure out a way to light Michael Keaton to achieve that glamorous and dramatic staged effect while factoring in the need for constant camera movement through a variety of spaces. 

In a recent Hollywood Reporter article, we get a brief glimpse at how Chivo tackled the tremendous technical challenge of lighting Birdman.

That is because, for instance, the light that is lighting Michael at his makeup mirror will create a shadow a minute later if we move around the room. So we had to time all of the lighting changes, making sure you don't see shadows. We were moving lights; we were moving diffusions. There were grips moving with me. Every time you see a shot, there were eight people moving with me. It was like a ballet — that's what made it truly exciting.

In a series of Birdman BTS videos from the YouTube channel Movie Blooper & Making Of, you can get a sense of just how complex this dance was for some of the shots:

Ultimately, as has been said countless times before, Birdman is a tremendous film that is not only artistically unique (and relevant) in a time when few films are, but it was a massive technical undertaking that was executed perfectly by an extremely talented team of people. And if any more proof that Chivo is a cinematography genius was needed, this is surely it.

What are your thoughts on the lighting of Birdman?     

Header image by Peter Strain for the New Yorker

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Having just re-watched the movie for a second time, it really is incredible just how little all of the intricate work that went into it shows up on screen - and I mean that in the best way possible.

For a lot of people it would seem easy to chalk up the whole "single take" thing as a gimmick, but in the film, the camera work as well as the lighting comes across as really understated. And for me, the true testament to Lubezki's talent and ability is how he and his team put all of this work and effort into creating the most seamless, and least intrusive experience possible for the audience.

At the end of the day, you really are just caught up in the story, and the camera movement and lighting are used simply to move the story forward and provide commentary and insight into the characters' relationships and inner workings.

Also, I love that Chivo even shot the cell phone footage of Emma Stone Skyping with Riggan. It just warms my heart to see a DP be so involved and hands on even on the little things.

December 31, 2014 at 11:49PM

Oren Soffer
Director of Photography

One can't help but appreciate the effort and the meticulousness which goes into creating something - especially when it's a colossal surprise-package like "Birdman".

Undeniably, the Cinematography has been the most significant aspect of the film.
I don't know a better way of putting it, but even the inputs from likes of DI Colouring department (as highlighted) were clearly so influential in making this film the way it came out and what it has become, in a mere span of few years.

Undoubtedly, remarkable film-making!

May 29, 2018 at 12:25AM

Tanay Chaudhari
Film Appreciation, Reviewing, Screenwriting (in that order)

Robert, I get a small incline that you like Chivo quite a lot...

In fact, I'd say that you may officially have a man-crush. I think that you've written more articles on Chivo than you've written articles hehe.

I'm looking forward to seeing the movie here in the UK

January 2, 2015 at 2:26AM

James Oldham

Hands down my favorite movie of 2014. It was a master class in cinematography and lighting, and surely will be talked about for years, if not decades.

The acting and dialogue also really draw you in, especially when between Norton & Keaton, as well as Keaton & Stone. I had high expectations going into the movie and seriously, I couldn't stop smiling at all the things that were happening from an artistic and technical point of view.

Best Picture/Best Director/Best Cinematography winners right here, I'm calling it right now!

January 3, 2015 at 12:37AM

Joe Gunawan
DP/Camera Op/1st&2ndAC/Commercial Photographer

Just saw it. Wow! I worked in theatre for years before coming into film and it's unbelievably accurate in it's portrayal of the art and how self concious (and sometimes egotistical) the creators of theatre actually are. It's even got theatre critics writing on it here in the UK and they took it quite personally (which lets face it, is awesome). I don't say this lightly but this is one of the best movies I've seen in years. People (including myself) even applauded a bit at the end. I don't think I've ever seen that happen outside of a premiere.

January 7, 2015 at 3:32AM


It wasn't executed perfectly, there was terrible post stabilisation artefacts throughout.

I'm really interested to know what happened with the footage/camera operator to make them use the amount of stabilisation they did in post. I honestly thought they shot in 4k handheld/shoulder rigged and intended to have that type of look throughout then changed their minds in post and decided to try to make it look like it was floating instead (steadicam look) so applied all this stabilisation. But after watching this bts video and seeing that the worst scenes were actually filmed on a steadicam it makes me even more curious as to what happened. Does anyone know?

February 9, 2015 at 6:03AM

Tyran Nosaur
DP/Director - lots to learn

I would have to watch it again, but I don't recall noticing any bad stabilization artifacts... I do quite a bit of stabilization, so I know what it looks like but nothing seemed to jump out at me when I was watching it. I doubt it was too severe if really present at all..

February 10, 2015 at 10:00AM

You voted '+1'.

Good question. I noticed that as well, that sort of sticky warp stabiliser feel.

February 23, 2015 at 7:38AM

Jacob Claassens
Editor, DP, Director.

I wholeheartedly agree, there are multiple moments where you can see the same artifacts (though softer) that appear in YouTube stabilization for example.
I saw the film at a theater (DCP projection) last night and saw them very clearly throughout it.
I don't understand the downvotes, honestly. The effect is clearly visible to the sort-of-trained eye.

February 25, 2015 at 10:45AM


I think one reason for using stabilisation would be to get the pans working together while having some room to play. I doubt they got the pans going at an exact angle in/out from shot to shot so they probably shot it in 4K and moved the frames between cuts as needed. Stabilisation would also deal with any minuscule movements opposite from the previous shot. So if the pan out there was minor movement down and the shot following started with minor movement up, that would definitely jar as it would seem unnatural. Plus doing seam stitching on smooth footage is much, much easier than jittery handheld - less manual work.

April 6, 2015 at 7:08AM

PJ Palomaki
Cinematographer | Motion Graphics

Brilliant movie! Watched it twice this weekend and was just entranced each time. Thankfully something this creative and amazing won Best Picture. Maybe this will get more original flicks made in the future instead of just super heroes and sequels.

February 24, 2015 at 3:53PM