“On most films I’ve worked on, the most important thing is to ‘make the day,’” (keep to the shooting schedule) says Emmanuel Lubezki, director of photography on The Tree of Life, helmed by imagistic director Terence Malick. “Working with Terry, sometimes I can shoot a whole day and not know if there’s anything that’s going to be usable.”
The two often joke “that we’re on a fishing trip – some days we’ll catch a lot of fish and other days we may not catch any,” notes the award-winning Mexican DP. “That can sometimes be frustrating but ultimately it’s rewarding because it allows for the special or spontaneous moment, and Terry also encourages me to take risks.” In one instance, fireflies suddenly showed up outdoors after a day of filming had ended. Malick had expressed an interest in obtaining footage of fireflies, so cameras were pulled out and went into action instantly to film the glowing insects.
The Tree of Life is a loss of childhood innocence story, focusing on the eldest of three sons in a 1950s Texas family, with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as the father and mother. All three boys are played by non-professional Texas youngsters, spearheaded by Hunter McCracken‘s sensitive performance as young Jack. Sean Penn plays a grown-up and disillusioned Jack in scenes that bracket the film at the beginning and end.
The simple armature of a plot is the structure on which Malick hangs an impressionistic array of cosmic imagery. One wordless 20-minute segment early in the film is a compilation of images from the birth of the universe through the evolution of life on earth including the appearance of dinosaurs. Visual effects master Douglas Trumbull, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and also did effects for Close Encounter of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Movie and Blade Runner – came out of retirement to supervise the CG-enhanced images. Meanwhile, Lubezki and other members of his camera team provided footage of nature, dramatic and sublime, that was interwoven with the cosmic images obtained from NASA and the Hubble Space Telescope.
For Lubezki, who is universally known by his nickname, Chivo, the biggest cinematography challenge was Malick’s insistence that the filming be done using natural lighting as much as possible, so artificial light sources were kept to a minimum. The result is a visual purity to the look of the film, and a pellucid but naturalistic color range. The latter is exemplified in the lensing of Jack as a baby, where the color registration of the pinkness of the skin is startling because it is so true to life. “The word I’d use that best describes the look of the film to me is ‘honest,’” says the DP.
“We shot a lot of footage,” Lubezki acknowledges. To cope with well over 1 million feet of film five editors were hired to assemble different parts of the movie. The DP used an Arricam Lite and an Arri 235 to shoot the film in 35mm. The lenses were Arri/Zeiss Master Primes and Ultra Primes. He used Kokak Vision2 film including one very sensitive stock for low-light exposures.
Tree of Life is Lubezki ‘s second collaboration with the painstaking director whose hallmark is visionary and visually voluptuous films like Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line. The two teamed on Malick’s previous film, The New World, about the Jamestown Settlement and the conjectured upon romance between Captain John Smith and Pocahontas that was also praised for its visuals. And a third film, as yet untitled, is currently in postproduction and set for release in early 2012.
Lubezki, 47, had an early interest in photography and studied filmmaking at Mexico’s National University. He began as a cinematographer in the late 1980s working in the country’s film industry. He shot to prominence for his lensing of Like Water for Chocolate directed by Alfonso Arau, which was a big hit in the United States. He has subsequently been the DP on a highly diverse set of U.S. productions starting with Ben Stiller‘s Reality Bites. He shot Birdcage for director Mike Nichols, Sleepy Hollow for director Tim Burton, and Ali for Michael Mann.Y Tu Mamá También, the sexy road movie, was the first of five collaborations with fellow-Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron. These include A Little Princess, Great Expectations and Children of Men.
Lubezki has received four Academy Award nominations – for A Little Princess, The New World, Sleepy Hollow and Children of Men. He also won the American Society of Cinematographers award for a theatrical release for Children of Men. He was previously nominated by the ASC for Sleepy Hollow. And he is one of five nominees for this year’s ASC award for his work on The Tree of Life.