Oscar Artists: Lubezki, Emmanuel: Hollywood’s Brilliant Cinematographer

With Oscars for “Gravity” and “Birdman” already in his pocket, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki could be on track to win a third in a row, for his natural-light lensing of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant.” It would tie costume designer Edith Head’s record for features (Walt Disney gobbled up eight consecutive gold men in the animated short category in the ’30s) and perhaps be further evidence that, as one director said to me recently, the greatest filmmaker in the world might well be a lenser.

The day of the Oscar nominations announcement, Lubezki was typically modest in celebrating the achievement of his crew (the film was nominated in 12 categories) while expressing awe at how lucky he is to work with the caliber of filmmakers he has in recent years. He was particularly enamored by the nominated work in his own field, where examples of 16mm, 70mm and digital photography reveal a wide array of tools at the disposal of his fellow artisans.

“I’ve seen all of them and I think all of them are terrific and so different,” he said of the other films in the cinematography category. “It’s almost different languages. One is very operatic and theatrical and the other one is very naturalistic and minimalistic — the variety is what makes it incredible.”

One likely never gets used to Academy laurels, but Lubezki certainly does seem perennial at this point, making that first nomination for Alfonso Cuarón’s “A Little Princess” in 1995 seem like another lifetime. Indeed, reminiscing on his good fortune all those years ago, Lubezki couldn’t help but remember what a milestone the project was for him at the time.

“‘Little Princess’ was the first big movie that I did in America with big stages where we had kind of a different schedule to work,” he recalls. “We had a great production designer, Bo Welch, and we had time to think about the movie in pre-production. And Alfonso really bloomed during that movie. It was exciting to see him working on a big movie as if he had done it 20 times before. The look and the language and the colors, it was amazing, and obviously a movie on the stage, very controlled, every shot is lit. It was a wonderful experience. We were very excited and nervous.”

Lubezki was just a year removed from his first major studio film in the States, Ben Stiller’s “Reality Bites,” and was still learning the industry here. Not only that, but the awards season was, to say the least, quite a different experience.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Nobody could believe it. Even my agent, she was so surprised. It came out of nowhere. Right now there’s people publishing and doing studies and the tracking of the movies and what they think is going to happen. There’s a lot of buzz. In those days it was quiet, quiet, quiet, then the phone rings: ‘Chivo, you got a nomination.’ And it’s like, ‘What? Are you sure?’ It was very different. And also to realize the movie didn’t have any support. We didn’t have a PR team working on the movie or anything like that. I would arrive sometimes to an event and nobody at the event knew what ‘Little Princess’ was. But it was very interesting and an incredible shock.”

Eight Oscar nominations later and Lubezki remains one of the most laureled artisans in the business.