You Might Have Heard Of... Emmanuel Lubezki

Emmanuel Lubezki (centre), flanked by Clive Owen (left) and Alfonso Cuarón (right) 

It's a rare thing to find a cinematographer whose work is recognisable to the mainstream. Stop someone in the street (or perhaps, outside of a cinema) and in modern day terms they might be able to name Wally Pfister or Roger Deakins. Looking back, Conrad Hall might spring to mind. Rising through the ranks quicker than Nicholas Cage's line delivery though is Emmanuel Lubezki, a cinematographer with over twenty credits to his name and a man who recently featured alongside Deakins and Pfister on Empire's guide to the ten hottest cinematographers working today.

The most obvious touchstone in Lubezki's oeuvre is Children Of Men, the beautiful, daring, post-apocalyptic vision of long-term collaborator and fellow Mexican, Alfonso Cuarón. Before that though, it's possible to see Lubezki's unique touch in Tim Burton's continually under-rated Sleepy Hollow. Whilst the twisting trees and faux-horror elements might be pure Burton, the focus on unerringly deep colours (Burton's favoured blacks and artery-spraying clarets in this case) is pure Lubezki. It's also a film in which the vistas and sense of location are always forgotten but in Lubezki's hands he crafts a believable 'village in terror', where others would have settled for a more standard Burton fantasy-land.

Liam Aiken, Kara/Shelby Hoffman and Emily Browning in the Lubezki photographed Lemony Snicket

More overt use of his talents can be seen in the again underrated Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps forgotten because it was part of a franchise that never was, Brad Silberling's film is dominated by Jim Carrey's perma-disguised Count Olaf, who terrifies three orphans to capture their inheritance. In each disguise Carrey's world changes, as does the world of the film, as the children move from refuge to refuge; from Billy Connolly's Amazonian-themed animal house, to Meryl Streep's crazy hilltop domicile.

As a cinematographer, this must have proved challenging for Lubezki. Each world is lit differently. The over-arching world itself is only half grounded in reality. Everything has a touch of retro applied to it. But, to his and Silberling's credit, the film looks wonderful. A scene involving a train and Olaf's car looks almost Wild West in its staging; the on-rushing train a speck in the distance, advancing for its quick draw face-off; the single outpost in the middle of nowhere where Olaf takes refuge from the chaos he is about to create. After exiting Aunt Josephine's (Meryl Streep) house, the characters are enveloped in fog. This might seem an easy technique to accomplish but capturing images of people whilst heavy fog swirls around (digitally enhanced heavy fog or otherwise) is difficult. Think of it as trying to take a picture at night without getting the artificial effects of a camera flash.

An interesting comparison, seeing as that is exactly what Lubezki chose to do in Children Of Men. One of his collaborations with Cuarón, Lubezki is credited as having taken the decision to not use a single piece of non-natural light in the framing of his night shots, adding to the gritty feel of the film. The film is also remarkable for its two long-take actions shots; one shot in a single take, the other the result of several seamless edits. In Children Of Men, Lubezki shows the technical know-how required in his job role. The 'car attack' sequence involved the use of brand new equipment, as well as a device which lowered the actors in the car, allowing Lubezki's camera to pass right over them and out the other side. Coupled with the action sequence at the film's conclusion, it is one of the few moments in modern cinema when something genuinely new, fresh and exhilarating has been captured on camera.

Malick's next, shot by Lubezki, will be a 'big romance'

There have been failures in Lubezki's career too. Despite its Oscar nominations, Ali is not fondly remembered. Mike Myers' The Cat In The Hat even less so, whilst Terrence Malick's The New World only produced a collective shrug from most audiences.

But it is to Malick's fate that Lubezki's future seems to be aligned. Having worked with the Coens on 2008's Burn After Reading, the cinematographer has taken a few years away from the screen, returning this year with Tree Of Life and again with Malick in 2012, this time on an untitled project, the first picture of which appeared last week. With four Oscar nominations to his name already (Lubezki is in his late forties) the odds are that he'll be the proud recipient of a statue in the not too distant future, a fact which might even see him climb to the very top of the cinematography tree.


  1. Chivo is right now, my favorite cinematographer. Anything he did with Alfonso Cuaron is always a highlight with me. I just love the way he lights those scenes in those films.

    I agree with you on his work on Lemony Snickets which was one of the few things I liked about the film.

    Then there's his work with Malick. Malick chose the right man to shoot his films. His work in The New World and seeing it on the big screen. That was cinematic orgasm for me.

    As for his work in Cat in the Hat (which wasn't any good but then again, he was working with a director who was known more as a production designer) and Burn After Reading (which didn't really stick out for me). Those were very minor work in terms of photography.

    If Chivo doesn't win for The Tree of Life. I'm calling all of my eses and we'll have a riot at the Oscars. You got that homes.

  2. Great insight thevoid, thanks for dropping by to comment.

    I like Lemony Snickett a huge amount and his photography coupled with the great design work in that film is a large part of why I love it.

    Pairing himself up with Malick is a great move and I can see some really good work coming out of that partnership - TREE OF LIFE to get his Oscar might not be a bad shout at all!

  3. This is an excellent article on a great cinematographer. Yes, Lubezki didn't win the Oscar for Tree of Life, but he did get the ASC award -- which counts for quite a bit because it's truly from one's peers. And for me his greatest achievement so far was on Children of Men, which is a masterpiece. And if you haven't you should check out A Little Princess, a favorite of Cuaron, which is an absolute jewel of a movie and its visuals are perfect; for my part, I feel like I now need to check out Lemony Snicket thanks to your recommendation -- I hadn't previously gotten around to that one.

    Thanks again for the article: I've featured it in a blog post I recently did on Lubezki and cinematography:

    1. Very kind comments, thank you very much! I wrote this a while ago but I still feel he's one of the most talented cinematographers out there today. Agree that Children Of Men is the real star of his work so far but yes, would really encourage a viewing of Lemony Snicket - its one of the best looking children's films I've ever seen and I actually think the film as a whole works really well. Never heard of A Little Princess, I'll look that up now and have a read of your article.