February 28, 2014 2:52 PM EST

Updated Mar.3, 2014

Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki is one of Hollywood’s most innovative and celebrated cinematographers. He has worked with the likes of Tim Burton, Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuarón, and was awarded his first Oscar this weekend for the cinematography on Gravity.

The origins of Gravity began several years ago. The goal was to visualize a film set almost entirely in zero gravity, while employing a seamless combination of advanced CGI and traditional moviemaking techniques.

Updated: May 6, 2014, 5:40 p.m. E.T. The U.S. is preparing to deploy a team of military, law enforcement and hostage negotiators to Nigeria, officials said Tuesday, to help with the ongoing effort to recover more than 250 kidnapped schoolgirls whose plight has captured global attention. "Obviously it's a heartbreaking situation, outrageous situation," U.S. President Barack Obama told ABC on Tuesday. “We’ve already sent in a team to Nigeria — they’ve accepted our help through a combination of military, law enforcement, and other agencies who are going in, trying to identify where in fact these girls might be and provide them help," he added. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on Tuesday morning to discuss the plan to send a "coordination cell" to Abuja, the Nigerian capital, to assist in locating the girls, who were taken by the Boko Haram militant group in April. The group's leader recently boasted in a video that "I will sell them in the market." State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the team "could provide expertise on intelligence, investigations and hostage negotiations, help facilitate information sharing and provide victim assistance. It would include U.S. military personnel, law-enforcement officials with expertise in investigations and hostage negotiations, as well as officials with expertise in other areas that may be helpful to the Nigerian government in its response." Psaki didn't say how large the team will be, nor would she confirm if the Nigerian government has explicitly accepted the U.S. offer to help. "I think [Kerry] came away from the call with an understanding that this is something we'd work with the Nigerians to implement," she said. White House press secretary Jay Carney said President Obama and Kerry would discuss the ongoing effort to locate the girls in their meeting Tuesday afternoon. "We are not considering at this point military resources," Carney said, saying the military personnel being sent are to take on an advisory role for the Nigerian government. "What I can tell you is that it is certainly Nigeria's responsibility to maintain the safety and security of its citizens," Carney added. [time-brightcove videoid=3541391677001]
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But all the technical innovations in the world couldn’t give it a life and a soul, and that’s where the combination of director Alfonso Cuarón, cinematographer Lubezki and visual-effects supervisor Tim Webber brought their own personal perspectives to the riveting story.

Recently Emmanuel Lubezki took a break from working on his current project to discuss the visuals of Gravity and how they breathed life into something that could have felt so alien. We also discussed his favorite scenes — including the challenging 12-minute opening sequence.


The following is condensed from a longer interview with LightBox.

LightBox: How have you honed your vision as a cinematographer? Did you ever take still photographs?

Emmanuel Lubezki: I wanted to be a still photographer, but there was no proper photography school in Mexico when I was younger. A friend of mine was the son of Graciela Iturbide, one of the great photographers of Mexico. She was very kind and invited me on one of her trips to a little town in the mountains of Mexico.

She told me to bring my camera and we would take photos together. I was about fifteen or so and from the moment we arrived in this town I saw how quickly people opened up to her. She became completely invisible, could do whatever she wanted and had control, in a way, and I couldn’t do it.

I had a panic moment because I didn’t want to be a fashion photographer or a war photographer. I wanted to do what she was doing.

She said, “Why don’t you go to film school? You will learn the basic craft of photography and then you can do whatever you want.” And after one week of film school I had forgotten about still photography and was on my way to becoming a cinematographer.

Thailand plunges further into political chaos after the country’s highest court ousts Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for abuse of power. The 46-year-old remains popular with much of the country and tens of thousands are already slated to protest the decision

LB: When approaching a film like Gravity how do you begin the process of researching what that’s going to look like?

EL: I never want to base my work on other films. I use them as reference for what I don’t want. But what I did was a very intense search of images from NASA and the Russian Space agency.

We put together a large collection of photographs and picked what was best for the movie. The only thing we couldn’t get was how the stars looked during the daytime. At first we based that on descriptions from astronauts and then we had to take license. Without the stars it’s just blackness and feels two-dimensional, and we wanted it to feel as deep as possible. We had to kind of cheat, sometimes, to give that impression of depth.

LB: Can you take us through your favorite scenes from the film?

EL: The first scene is incredibly challenging because the light is constantly changing from one frame to the other — the earth is moving, the ISS is moving, the sun is changing position — and that was incredibly exciting. It took many months to design it and years to shoot it.

LB: Is there a particular moment in that shot that you’re particularly proud of?

EL: Something that is very exciting for me to see is Sandra Bullock spinning out of control. We designed all this equipment that allows us to spin the environment around her and give the impression that she is spinning. You can see that in the reflections in her eyes and the visor as the shot is going from an objective shot, where you see her spinning, and then suddenly it becomes this subjective shot, and you start to see what she’s looking at while spinning out of control. I think it’s beautiful!

In fact, Sandra appeared to be moving way faster than in the final cut of the film, but as it became more three-dimensional it became unwatchable. I was getting nauseous and we had to slow it down.

LB: What’s another challenging scene?

EL: When you see Sandra floating inside the ISS for the first time. When she looks fetal was one of the toughest shots because she’s going from wearing a CGI suit to being almost naked.

The idea is that she was inside the womb. It’s funny, but Alfonso and I have been working together for so long we don’t have to chat too much. If he draws something like that, I just know.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki rejected calls for his resignation on Tuesday, amid allegations that veteran care facilities had neglected to treat patients. Shinseki told the Wall Street Journal that he would work toward improving communications with the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans advocacy group, which called for Shinseki's resignation on Monday. The Legion accused Shinseki of "poor oversight" after whistleblowers came forward with reports of a care facility in Phoenix shunting patients onto a secret waitlist, obscuring prolonged wait times that may have contributed to patient deaths. "I'm very sensitive to the allegations," Shinseki told the Journal, promising that he would react to the conclusions of an independent investigation. [WSJ]
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture—© 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

LB: Were you thinking about the great science photographs of fetuses?

EL: Yes, I have in my mind all the photos thanks to LIFE. I’ve seen all those photos of fetuses backlit and you can feel the surface scattering — you know — the light as it goes through the skin and scatters inside?

The first version of that “in the womb” scene did not to have the window behind her. In the real module there is no window and Alfonzo wanted to keep it as close as possible to reality. But I went to Tim Weber and said I needed a window there — I wanted to see the transparency in the skin. I had an incredible collaboration with Tim. He began to feel that the window translated the idea better. Once Alfonso saw the version that was closer to the final he said, “Oh, let’s go for that.”

Without Sandra it would be impossible to make that scene work. She’s really seated on a bicycle seat and the camera and the lights and the environment are moving around her. But she can’t show tension because that doesn’t happen in zero gravity. She’s like a great ballerina — she taught her body to move as if she was in zero gravity and act at the same time.

A panel of legal practitioners and policy experts have called for the implementation of a “one drug protocol” policy with capital executions following the bungled execution of an Oklahoma inmate late last month. The recommendation to institute a new policy regarding the drugs used to execute capital prisoners was one of 39 such suggestions presented in a mammoth 165-page review of the death penalty in the U.S., which was published by the Constitution Project this week. While the sprawling assessment of capital murder procedures in the U.S. had long been in the works, the report shined a light on the occasionally problematic practice of using elaborate pharmaceutical cocktails to execute inmates convicted of capital murder. The publication of the report comes a week after the botched execution of Oklahoma death row inmate Clayton Lockett, who convulsed violently after being injected with an untested concoction of drugs from a non-disclosed source. He later died 43 minutes after being injected with the unknown drugs of a heart attack. “States are urged to adopt a one-drug protocol that achieves death by an overdose of a single anesthetic or barbiturate, as opposed to the three-drug method,” read the report. “The one-drug method is also preferred over the three drug method by veterinarians for euthanizing animals because the one-drug method is more humane and less prone to error.” The study also called on state officials to “base their choices on the latest scientific knowledge” when considering drugs to be used for executions. States relying pharmaceutical agents to execute prisoners have had increasingly difficult time sourcing necessary drugs as European pharmaceutical firms object to supplying their products to carry out the death penalty. The shortage of such drugs has pushed states to increasingly reach out to undisclosed sources for lethal pharmaceutical, drawing ire from criminal justice experts and death row inmates. Following the muffled execution of Clayton Lockett last month, President Barack Obama ordered an official Justice Department investigation into the capital executions nationwide.
© 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

LB: What advice would you give to a photographer moving from stills to film?

EL: Right now you can make a movie with your iPhone. I would say just do it! Don’t wait for a studio to call you. Get together with your friends and make a movie, make a short film, just go and jump.

LB: Can you talk about the last scene when she gets out of the water?

EL: Almost the whole movie was shot digitally. We use the ARRI Alexa camera. A lot of the film was created pixel by pixel. But when she comes out of the water at the end I wanted her to see the earth with different eyes after she goes through her rebirth. So we decided to shoot that in 65-millimeter film. It’s a massive negative that allows you to capture a lot of detail that digital can’t. It was kind of dangerous because we didn’t want you to feel like you were in a different movie. We wanted a feeling of enhanced mindfulness.

Going back to medium formant photographs, they always give you that impression. When you see a large format negative of a picture of a tree you feel that the tree has a spirit. That feeling is what I wanted to capture.

Update: Post updated to reflect Emmanuel Lubezki’s Oscar win for Best Cinematographer.


Paul Moakley is the Deputy Photo Editor at TIME. His last interview for this series on great cinematographers was with Sean Bobbitt on 12 Years a Slave.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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