Arriving at a Malibu cafe while waiting to conduct a post-screening Q&A, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki isn't just on time but, startlingly, early. The 49-year-old Mexican-born cinematographer has earned raves for two very different films last year: Terrence Malick's earthbound romance "To the Wonder" and Alfonso Cuarón's outer-orbit survival epic, "Gravity," for which Lubezki has received an Oscar nomination.
It's Lubezki's fifth collaboration with director Cuarón, and it's a relationship Lubezki cherishes, even if it's a little intense: "Many, many times making 'Gravity,' I thought if somebody else was directing, or if I was directing, I think I would have said, 'OK, stop it, let's just do it with whatever we have.' Alfonso's appetite is just so enormous, and, in a funny way, he's a tiny bit naive, and I think that allows him to have all these dreams and just push us, the technicians, to get where he's attempting to go."
I don't go to a movie expecting correct science. Were there ever moments making the film where you went, "This is not scientifically accurate, but it makes for a better film"?
Not every day, every second, but the movie's not scientifically accurate, and we knew it. We had astronauts working with us, and sometimes they were appalled by the licenses we were taking. But we had to — because you cannot truly fly like that with an extinguisher; the ISS [International Space Station] and the other spacecraft are in different orbits, you cannot just travel from one to the other the way [Sandra Bullock as a stranded astronaut] does. It's packed with inaccuracy, but there was no other way to tell this story. That's what we have to remember, that it's a fiction, it's a story about a human being stuck in a horrible environment.
I was able to see both "Gravity" and "All Is Lost" within a week of each other, and they're both survival films.
I think the success of "Gravity," [compared with] other movies, is that it happens in space even though it's not real. Because nobody has seen that before, the way that we did it. I don't want to sound pretentious, but it hasn't been shown like that. There's something about space that I don't think you can find in the water or underwater or climbing Everest — and that is just how small we are. A lot of our human fears, without having to talk about them in the movie, you can just see them right there. How tiny we are, how we don't understand the infinite, how we don't understand the enormous size of the universe. And all this appears in one or two shots.
The light box you built for this film — large panels of individually controllable LED lights you could put around the actors to match lighting between CGI and live action — you said you got the idea at a concert?
The first time I saw the LEDs was many, many years ago. A friend of mine who is a lighting designer who worked for U2 and Pink Floyd brought them to me on the set of a movie and said, "Oh, my God, you have to see these!" At that time, they were very heavy and they were not bright enough, and they had all sorts of technical problems. And when we started talking about "Gravity" and figuring out how to do these shots, I was at a concert at the Greek Theatre and Peter Gabriel had a great lighting show, probably even better than the music he was playing. I was looking at what [the LED panels] were projecting and how it was affecting his face, and I said, "This is it. This is the way we should do it."
But the technology, that's all just part of the storytelling.
Yes, because it's a bit of a magician's trick to make the audience believe that this is real even though it's not — it's far from reality. And when people watch that, even though they haven't been in space, they feel that it's realistic. They feel that it's believable. So, this reality that we are creating has some root somewhere that makes the audience believe that the movie could happen, or is happening. It's just a trick.