Emmanuel Lubezki

The Academy Awards: Our Favorite Cinematography Wins of Last 10 Years

Life of Pi

Life of Pi

While the acting and Best Picture awards typically dominate the buzz and conversation leading up to the Academy Awards, the cinematography category often has — quite literally — the showiest nominees. While typically the director has a say in how a film will look, as well as how specific shots will be laid out, their director of photography is usually the one tasked with creating this look.

Lighting, camera angles, camera movement, focus, and depth of field are just some of the choices a film’s cinematographer will make, with or without the director’s input. They will also have a say in the types of film stock and camera equipment used on set. All of these decisions culminate in a film’s final look, which is why it’s the director of photographer who will take home the Oscar when a film wins the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

While all of the nominees made the short list because of their unique, harrowing, complex, or gorgeous looks, here are just some of our favorite wins from the past decade:

Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda

Ang Lee adapted the novel Life of Pi and perfectly captured its otherworldly tale of a young man trapped in the middle of an ocean with a tiger. The movie is bright, colorful, and larger than life. In addition to taking place mostly on water, it incorporates magical islands and neon-infused skies, making it one of those films that should be illegal to watch on your phone. This deserves the 4K widescreen TV treatment at the least. No wonder it managed to beat out cinematography legend Roger Deakins’s outstanding work on the James Bond smash hit, Skyfall, as well as the other nominees in 2013.

Check out Life of Pi co-star and New York Film Academy alum Vibish Sivakumar here

Life of Pi

Life of Pi

La La Land – Linus Sandgren

Another colorful entry in this list is 2016’s La La Land, though the backdrop was less ocean fantasy and more theatrically artificial Los Angeles. But by combining traditional filmmaking techniques with modern sensibilities, Sandgren managed to put the audience in the world of writer/director Damien Chazelle’s making. La La Land earned multiple nominations and was a certified hit that left smiles on lots of faces.

La La Land

La La Land

Gravity – Emmanuel Lubezki

With nearly the entire action thriller taking place in space, you’d think there wouldn’t be much to shoot outside of star Sandra Bullock in an astronaut suit — but that’s partly why Lubezki’s work on Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is so impressive. By using outer space as negative space, Lubezki was able to capture a loneliness and isolation on levels rarely seen in cinema. Conversely, by using the bright blue Earth as a massive, larger-than-life backdrop in certain shots, the film never lost its sense of place, even as Bullock drifted aimlessly into a black nothingness.



Birdman – Emmanuel Lubezki 

Lubezki won a second consecutive Oscar for his work on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, a film comprised of several long, complicated takes edited together to look like a single, continuous shot. This technique was used to some extent in Lubezki’s previous film Gravity, as well as Children of Men, but it was here where he really mastered the technique, transforming it from a mere gimmick into a statement about acting, theatre, and filmmaking in itself.



The Revenant – Emmanuel Lubezki

Emmanuel Lubezki appears frequently on this list because he became the first person to ever win three Academy Awards for Best Cinematography in a row, a distinction that shows just how brilliant he is behind the camera. His third win came for The Revenant, again directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, and again filled with seemingly endless one-shots. Even more impressive was that The Revenant used only natural lighting and was shot nearly entirely outside in the wilderness on very cold days. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, The Revenant manages to be one of the most gorgeous looking films of the last decade.

The Revenant

The Revenant

Who will win this year’s award? Could it be Roger Deakins for his expansive work in Blade Runner 2049? Or Dan Laustsen’s grimy fairy tale noir look for The Shape of Water? Or maybe Rachel Morrison, the Black Panther cinematographer and first ever woman nominated in the category for her work on Mudbound? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Interested in studying cinematography and taking home an Oscar or three yourself in the future? Check out New York Film Academy’s cinematography programs here.


The Best Cinematography: A Look At Birdman

Michael Keaton in Birdman liquor store

By the end of this year’s Academy Awards, Birdman winning Best Picture wasn’t much of a surprise. Earlier in the ceremony, it had already picked up Oscars for Best Screenplay, Best Directing and Best Cinematography. The Cinematography award went to the film’s director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, giving him a record-tying two Oscars in a row in the cinematography category. Lubezki had won the year before for the stunningly shot Gravity.

Like Gravity, and other films Lubezki shot, including Tree of Life and Children of Men, Birdman is known for its long takes—single, seemingly unedited shots of several minutes or more in length. In fact, Lubezki and writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu worked very hard to make Birdman seem like it was shot entirely in a single, continuous take. This was achieved by combining several long takes and making their transitions as hidden and seamless as possible. For the most part, it was successful, and is considered a major factor in Birdman’s considerable award season praise.

While the film used camera tricks and illusion to make Birdman seem like a two-hour-plus single take, it still involved several long shots that are incredibly difficult to film in a practical setting. According to Lubezki, most shots are around ten minutes in length with the longest take around fifteen. Even a single one of these takes would be considered a daunting and possibly unnecessary task in a production.

How did the Birdman team (Birdteam?) pull this off? With lots of practice. A proxy set resembling the labyrinthine backstage hallways of the St. James Theatre—where Birdman is set—was built in Los Angeles before filming began. It was there that Iñárritu and Lubezki blocked out each shot, playing Birdman’s jazzy, drum-based score in the background to help set the tone. By plotting and practicing each long take, the filmmakers were able to figure out how and where they could hide their shot transitions, as well as get an idea of where to stage their actors and place their lights. They realized for the more difficult shots, visual effects would be needed to help with the transition.

Zach Galifinakis and Michael Keaton in Birdman

Shooting and combining these takes were assisted in the mobility of the Steadicam, which Lubezki employed throughout filming. The cinematographer has become well known for his intense handheld shots, and Birdman was no different. He personally operated the camera for many handheld shots and relied on veteran Steadicam operator Chris Haarhoff for Steadicam shots, working with him and directing him in real time to better capture the improvisational production of the film and respond to the actor’s movements and unpredictable natural lighting. A 2nd AC would also follow the operator for some shots to spot necessary camera moves.

The cameras used in Birdman included the Arri Alexa and, for the handheld and Steadicam shots, the Alexa plus. The Alexa M was used for some remote and extreme handheld work, using a custom-built backpack holding an external recorder, its batteries, and a wireless transmitter. The primary lenses used were Leica and Zeiss Master Primes. While many cinematographers would avoid using extremely wide lenses for close-ups, Lubezki, considered a master with wider lenses, did not hesitate to use the Zeiss Master Prime 12mm and similarly wide lenses even for tight close-ups in the claustrophobically shot film, creating many memorable and intimate images.

Michael Keaton shirtless in Birdman

Camera movement wasn’t Birdman’s only technical feat. Iñárritu did not shy away from using strong colors like red, blue and green to enhance the drama of the film. Blue and red were used in particular on stage in the play-within-the-movie. Scenes shot outside, with the theater exterior just yards away from Times Square and a memorable scene in the heart of Times Square itself, meant the filmmakers had to work around New York City’s omnipresent artificial lighting.

Lighting proved particularly tricky considering the long, varied takes—without the safety net of cutting, Lubezki had to hide his lights out of frame very carefully. In typical cinematic shots, not only do cinematographers take pains to hide the physical lighting equipment and cables out of frame, but also must maintain the angle of their source within a camera move—shadows or other lights could betray the artificial sources if a shot is not blocked and choreographed correctly. During Birdman’s long takes, with shots often showing 360 degree angles of the set, maintaining this lighting continuity was an epic struggle.

Not only did Lubezki find the right placement for his lighting equipment, he had his grip team constantly move them during the shot, with the lights dancing just out of frame and moving along with the actors, Lubezki, and the camera operator. They would move not only heavy, superhot lamps but also the gels and diffusions bouncing their light and shadows, all to maintain the illusion of a natural source within the shot. This needed to be done for every single take of nearly every single shot in Birdman.

Naomi Watts in Birdman

To minimize lighting equipment and allow for what Lubezki called “a ballet” of hustling and shifting crew members, Lubezki pushed the Alexa to a ISO of 1280 with the aperture open wide. By making the camera more sensitive to light in this way, Lubezki reduced the need for larger and more elaborate lighting setups, giving the camera, actors, and crew more freedom and room to move around within each tracking shot.

Lubezki and Iñárritu also employed the use of lens flares to add visual texture to Birdman. By having lens flares on the film’s copious wide-angled close-ups, Lubezki was able to soften the image, lowering the contrast and making the actors’ more intimate scenes prettier and more emotional.

Simply put, Birdman was more than just a string of gimmicky long takes. If the Oscar for Best Cinematography was given on a purely technical level, Birdman would be more than worthy of it. If the Oscar was awarded based on artistry and how beautifully shot a film is, then Birdman would be more than worthy of it. The Oscar, however, is given based on a combination of both these qualities. Birdman was more than worthy of it.

MIchael Keaton Emma Stone Birdman hospital scene

Interested in shooting movies one day? Check out our cinematography school classes today!

The Best Cinematography: Looking At Gravity

A wide shot from Gravity

This is the first in a new series looking at the best cinematography in movies both old and new.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is one of the rare, lucky movies to have its own distinct look shared with no other film. In 2014, it won (among many other awards) the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. One look at the space-set thriller and anyone can see there are several reasons Gravity won and earned this accolade.

Gravity was shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, a director of photography who has worked with a wide array of varied first-rate directors, including Terence Malick, Tim Burton, Mike Nichols, Michael Mann, the Coen Brothers, and most recently with Alejandro González Iñárritu for the critically acclaimed film Birdman. Lubezki has also worked previously with Cuarón for the compellingly shot Children of Men. Gravity is just another example of how well the two filmmakers from Mexico City work together.

With an incredible amount of computer FX shots and faithfully recreating the look of zero-G space, Gravity took over four years to make, a true work of passion of and artistry rarely seen in modern-day blockbusters. Lubezki and the cinematography team had to overcome the challenge of making Gravity’s setting—the black void of space—both interesting to look at while also overpoweringly empty. Shooting nothing is harder than shooting everything, and for the film to work it was essential it sold that space was indeed an eternal expanse of nothingness. Fortunately for the filmmakers and the audience, Gravity achieved this in spades, and is perhaps the most successful attempt at transporting a mass audience to outer space.

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in Gravity

One of the clever ways the film faithfully interprets an infinite darkness is by using perspective. Most of the action is set in front of the background of all backgrounds—the planet Earth. In Gravity, Earth is a huge contrast to the stark void of space, a gigantic ball of bright colors and life, encompassing the characters and the setpieces in its shadow, at times threatening to swallow the frame whole. At the same time, it is just tantalizing out of reach for the stranded astronauts of the narrative, essential to selling the tension and thrills of the movie’s plot.

Along these lines, Cuarón used his penchant for long takes—including a very lengthy take that opens the film—to capture the environment in three-dimensional place, giving the audience a firm idea of how all elements in the film physically relate to one another. Typically, long takes are feats of acting and technical prowess, such as Cuarón and Lubezki’s lauded shot in the climax of Children of Men. Here, with a camera not bound by gravity, and a digitally created set somewhat easier to maneuver around, the long take is instead used as a tool to guide us through the film’s setting and prepare us for the disorienting action ahead.

Lighting also proved key to recreating the look of the cosmos. In space, there is no atmosphere or water vapor to reflect and refract particles of light. All light from the sun and spacecraft are direct and unfiltered, a unique look rarely as realistically portrayed as in Gravity. By using 1.8 million individual LED lights, the film was able to make space look more like space, even on a subconscious level the audience may not fully realize, which furthers the immersion into the world of the movie. Most cinematographers have to deal with a dozen or so lights for a typical film set—using nearly two million was another laborious yet innovative method that sets Gravity’s look apart.

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Gravity isn’t all space, however. For the scenes set within various spacecraft, the filmmakers composed claustrophobic yet warm shots—contrasting with the cold expanse outside the ships. The framing of the movie in these scenes adapted to the cylindrical structures of the spacecraft, utilizing circles several times. Together, these choices helped sell a key moment in the film that represents Sandra Bullock finding sanctuary in the womb.

The very last setpiece of the film differed from the rest as well, taking place back on Planet Earth. While most of the movie is shot digitally, the Earth-set scene is photographed on 65mm film, giving it a more organic, vital feel. A desert lake was carefully chosen to represent the planet, bringing earthy tones of brown and green to a movie that was practically black-and-white for its entire running time. Representing both the dawn of man and simply a character’s completed journey back home, the ground is framed for most of the scene, focusing on Sandra Bullock’s legs and feet as she takes her first steps. The muddy earth becomes the new foreground, contrasting the planet Earth’s haunting ethereal place as the background for the bulk of Gravity, and visually bringing the entire film full circle.

Sandra Bullock at the end of Gravity