Emmanuel Lubezki talks artistic similarities between Alfonso Cuarón and Terrence Malick

One of the great achievements of the year is Emmanuel Lubezki’s lensing of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” which it would seem has all but locked up his first Oscar win for Best Cinematography to date. His work in the film, which the uneducated will dismiss as limited due to the amount of CGI on display (failing to understand his invaluable place in that process), is a work of technical prowess and thematic potency.

On that last point, I recently spoke to Lubezki about some of the specific frames and fluid shots he and Cuarón crafted in the film. Perhaps you’ll be reading those quotes later in the year as part of our annual “Top 10 Shots of the Year” column, but what struck me while discussing one image in particular was how much his thematic view of “Gravity” matches up with another film he made recently, from another master of the form.

First, the shot: the opening image of the film, which is a 13-minute single “take” lingering with Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Soon enough, disaster strikes as a debris storm set off in a chain reaction half-way around the globe crashes through the space shuttle and the Hubble Telescope, shredding the technology to tinker toys in orbit. In the chaos, Stone, attached to a piece of wreckage, begins spiraling out of control until, finally, she releases herself. Off she flies, into the void, into the unknown, until finally the first cut of the film brings the viewer back into her space and continues the action of the scene.

But that originally wasn’t going to be a cut, Lubezki says. The camera was going to catch up with Stone and the fluid shot would keep going. But for him, that would have diminished what he felt was the theme of the film and done a disservice to the power of that final image in the take.

“To me that shot is very powerful and tells the real story of the movie: that humans are tiny little specs in space and we’ve always been afraid of that,” Lubezki says. “And it’s very hard for us to understand eternity and infinity. These are the themes that I think are very strong in the movie, and the moment that Sandra is starting to float away into space and getting lost – basically probably lost in space – was losing power, because then the camera had to go and chase her. There was not a true elegant way to keep the shot going and we didn’t want to lose this image of Sandra disappearing into space.”

In other words, the very idea that the camera could catch up with Stone was diminishing that element of human frailty in the universe. And it’s not something that Lubezki ever discussed with Cuarón in an explicit way; he admits this was his interpretation of what he felt Cuarón was trying to do subtextually. But what is striking is how Lubezki’s take on the themes of “Gravity” could be used to describe Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” which he also shot. That 2011 film is structured in such a way as to present humanity’s insignificance in the greater schemes of not just the Earth, but the cosmos.

“Agreed,” Lubezki says. “This happens, that two amazing directors, two amazing artists in two completely different ways try to express something similar. And that’s the beauty about art. That’s when I think movies that usually are not art can become art.”

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Lubezki has shot five films for Malick (including this year’s “To the Wonder”) and five for Cuarón. He has received Oscar nominations for four of those 10 collaborations, two for Malick (“The New World” and “The Tree of Life”), two for Cuarón (“A Little Princess” and “Children of Men”). He says the two auteurs are very similar in one way: they both believe in the power of visual communication in cinematography, which he feels is all too rare in the industry.

“They don’t use cinematography as an illustration to text,” Lubezki says. “Most directors in Hollywood use cinematography to illustrate text, especially the directors that work on comedy. But I would say 99 percent of the directors don’t know the value or don’t know the power of visual storytelling. And for Alfonso and Terry, cinematography and visuals are not a branch, are not a part of the movie, but are the movie, are as important as the actor, as important as the location, as important as the music. Every single piece of the storytelling is an essential part of what film is for them. And that’s why I love to work with them, because they believe that you can express emotion visually. I know it sounds insane, but most directors don’t use visuals that way. So I’m just incredibly lucky that I get to work with them and learn from them how to approach a scene and how to be able to express something with visuals.”