Magazine article American Cinematographer

Left for Dead

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Left for Dead

Article excerpt

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC are keenly aware that their method of shooting The Revenant last fall and winter- in sequence and relying almost exclusively on natural light in the harsh Canadian wilderness - has been controversial. Now, after nearly five years of planning and a brutal, extended production and post schedule, the filmmakers are eager to explain why they believe the undertaking was worth enduring such punishing conditions.

Adapted from author Michael Punke's 2002 novel, The Revenant is based on the real-life survival and revenge story of Hugh Glass. The 19th-century explorer (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) was mauled by a grizzly bear during a Missouri River expedition in 1823, and after declaring him beyond hope, his companions took Glass' weapons and fled. In the movie, Glass awakens wounded and unarmed in a shallow grave, but rises up and steels himself to track down the men who had left him for dead.

Iñárritu and Lubezki readily concede that the production was numbingly difficult. Filming took place primarily in the remote Rocky Mountain region surrounding Calgary, Alberta, Canada - with certain sequences captured at the Squamish River in British Columbia, north of Vancouver, as well as the Kootenai River in Libby, Montana. The final scenes were shot in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Iñárritu calls the project "a once-in-a-lifetime experience," and Lubezki describes it as "the roughest and hardest thing I have ever done in my life."

"It got so intense and so challenging, but we all knew when we signed up that it would be this way," Iñárritu says. "We discovered that when you are exposed to the weather and these conditions every day, you have to adapt. I had to shoot the movie chronologically, because that is how it is written - it starts in autumn and moves into winter. And the character goes through a very real physical experience of being in the middle of nowhere for months. So we couldn't do it on a set, under normal Hollywood rules, and bring in snow and put in bluescreens. I wanted to absolutely kill any artifice. In keeping with that truth, we had to go through a true natural process, and challenge ourselves."

At the center of it all, Iñárritu attests, was "the Chivo element," referring to Lubezki by his nickname. "I could not have done this movie without him," the director says. "His knowledge of natural light, the complexity of it - there could never be a better creative partner." Indeed, Iñárritu insists that Lubezki did "by far his most superb work ever" on The Revenant - which is high praise, considering Lubezki entered the production after winning two consecutive Academy Awards for Gravity {AC Nov. T3) and Iñárritu's Birdman {AC Dec. T4).

As Lubezki explains, he realized from the beginning that shooting in harsh weather amid woods, mountains and prairies, with constantly shifting skies and short windows of daylight, would only work if the entire crew performed "as true filmmakers" - a hearty band of collaborators on their own adventure, mirroring the saga they were putting onscreen. He describes the colleagues who made it through, from grips to camera assistants to fellow operators, as "indispensible" and "my right hands" on the project.

The original plan for the production had been to shoot a film/digital hybrid, and while the production did carry film cameras early on, no film footage appears in the finished cut. The Revenant ultimately relied on a combination of Arri Alexa cameras: the Alexa XT, which was used primarily for Steadicam and crane shots; the Alexa M, which was designated as the primary camera; and the new Alexa 65 system, an early version of which Arri made available to the filmmakers in January of 2015, several weeks into production.

Though the Alexa 65 was originally carried primarily for vistas and more expansive shots, the filmmakers ended up using the new large-format camera "more and more and more," according to 1st AC John Connor, and for all sorts of applications, including crane work for entire scenes and some Steadicam. …

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