'The Revenant': Inside the Film’s Cold, Wet, Dirty, Determined Production

“Nothing will take the place of the complexity of nature and the lighting in nature,” says DP Emmanuel Lubezki.
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Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, ASC, AMC, built quite a few technical challenges into the production of last year’s Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and for it they were rewarded handsomely with Oscars—Best Director for Iñárritu and Best Cinematography for Lubezki, in addition to the film’s Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay awards. But given what’s gone into making their follow-up, The Revenant, the extremely long handheld takes and the precision choreography required for Birdman seem a little less awe-inspiring in retrospect. That shoot, after all, took place in climate controlled buildings that were wired for electricity and had loading docks. The Revenant was shot in remote forests, at 9,000-foot elevation and in -30° F temperatures.

The period piece stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a fur trapper. Seriously wounded early in the story, he must make his way through the freezing mountain terrain. The hardships involved in the production of the film, which also stars Tom Hardy, are already well known. Reports of crews shooting knee deep in icy rivers in the wilderness of Alberta and British Columbia have circulated, along with stories about crewmembers leaving mid-shoot. For Lubezki, who shot entirely in natural light, it’s all about capturing the reality of the situation for the audience. “Nothing will take the place of the complexity of nature and the lighting in nature,” says Lubezki. “It is essential to make the film this way if we want to show what the character goes through.”

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Cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki shoots in a frozen river. Photo by Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox.

And DiCaprio went through a lot, walking and even crawling his way through trails in freezing weather for a significant portion of the film.

Roughly one third of The Revenant was shot with the then just-out-of-the-factory ARRI Alexa 65—a camera with an active sensor size of 54.12mm x 25.58mm, similar to the size of 65mm film negative—and ARRI optics made of rehoused Hasselblad lenses. Lubezki raves about the detail these cameras render. “We also shot a little bit in 65mm film and I definitely prefer the look of the Alexa 65. Film lovers talk about texture of the grain, but I don’t miss grain one bit! I think it was a problem that we had to live with for many years. The texture created a pictorial feeling of what we were trying to capture, but it was like seeing through a dirty window. To me, the images from this camera feel more natural. I wouldn’t use it for every movie, but it was perfect for this one.”

Although 65mm cinematography is frequently associated with epic vistas in films such as Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lubezki used the expanded image area in a very different way in The Revenant: with a 24mm lens (roughly equivalent in image area to a super wide 12mm for a 35mm sensor) very close to DiCaprio’s face.

Lubezki says, “The camera allows you to capture something very intimate along with a very clear presentation of the environment. It’s beautiful in a very immersive way and in a naturalistic way at the same time. I felt that the images we captured with the 65 perfectly translated what I was feeling when I was in those locations—all the subtleties of nature, the color of the snow and melting of the snow, the tree branches moving with the wind, the clouds moving in the distance. But we also see everything going on with Leo’s face. This is a movie about nature and this man who knows how to survive in nature, and so far there is no camera better at portraying that.”

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Leonardo DiCaprio. Photo by Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox.

The Alexa 65 was mounted on cranes, primarily Technocranes, that key grip Ray Garcia was charged with delivering to some very remote areas designated by the director and DP. Garcia often had to figure out how to get the gear into wooded areas with strong restrictions on what could be cleared and where roads could be built. Frequently, gear was delivered via zip line to locations hundreds of feet from the nearest path.

Much of the film was shot handheld with ARRI’s modular Alexa M camera, whose head and “brain” may be separated during operation. A-camera operator Scott Sakamoto, or Lubezki, when he operated, could handhold just the camera head with a 12mm or 14mm lens. The camera was sometimes so close to DiCaprio that the mattebox was touching the actor’s face. Though such proximity might infringe on some actors’ performances, Lubezki says it was never an issue on The Revenant. “Leo is probably one of the greatest film actors in the history of film,” the cinematographer says. “100 percent of his energy is used on issues that are internal to the movie. What will make the movie better. What will move the audience.”

Location scouting began some eight months before shooting commenced. At this time, core crewmembers and cast rehearsed many scenes and shot the rehearsals to help map out the approach the filmmakers would take. The idea wasn’t to fix specific setups in place, but rather to create a framework that would allow for improvisation once principal photography began.

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Tom Hardy (foreground) and Will Poulter hunt for the person they had left for dead.

Though they shot these rehearsals without extras, wardrobe or makeup, they did use the Alexa M and 65 cameras. Lubezki recalls, “On Birdman, I did a lot of rehearsals with a very lightweight camera because it was cheaper to do it that way. It happened to be a RED camera. And then we shot the actual movie with an Alexa and it was different. So [for The Revenant] we said, ‘Let’s shoot with the camera I’m going to shoot the movie with and see what I’m capable of.’ I wanted to feel the weight of the camera and to know that [if] I’m walking in a frozen river following Leo, I can go at his speed. So we rehearsed with the same cameras and lenses.”

One of the aspects of the production getting attention is the fact that it was shot almost entirely in natural light. Lubezki added some light bulbs to enhance a campfire, but he notes, “Even then, I kept dimming them and dimming them. If you’re shooting at [EI] 1280 or 1600 and wide open, you don’t need that. The real firelight and flicker is wonderful for the scene.

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1st AC John Connor’s “Conitor,” a SmallHD High Bright monitor, Preston Cinema Systems FI+Z lens control system and Paralinx Tomahawk transmission system. Alexa 65 image on the monitor with 24mm lens.

“I read something that said we went over budget because ‘the cinematographer wanted to shoot with natural light,’” he continues. “It made me angry. It’s the opposite. When you shoot with natural light, you don’t need trucks with lights and gennies and cable everywhere. It was a much faster way to shoot. We could be like jazz musicians. We could improvise. It wouldn’t be the way to shoot every movie, but it made this one better and faster. And besides, imagine bringing lights 9,000 feet up a mountain. And for what reason?”

Of course, the absence of movie lights doesn’t mean there wasn’t “lighting.” Lubezki worked with key grip Ray Garcia on some rather elaborate setups to shape, diffuse and cut the light. “For day interiors, we would generally shoot near windows,” Garcia says. “I would build shadows and try to [diffuse] direct light without affecting ambience. We would usually throw thick diffusion on any openings in ceilings or walls. Once we placed diffusion on a ceiling or a wall, we treated it like an aperture and we could let more or less light in as needed.”

Day exterior work was generally staged with the sun as a backlight. Garcia would then control any light that would bounce back onto actors’ faces, flying grid cloth rags of about 20’ x 40’ in trees to act as negative fill and take away the shadow of the camera and crew. Then he’d follow along next to the camera with cards to direct light back onto actors’ faces. “I aged and painted all the cards to resemble the environment,” he explains. “We never wanted just white or the look of unbleached muslin for the bounce. It had to look completely natural.”

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Lubezki operating ARRI Alexa M with dolly grip Ryan Monro. The camera is sending a signal to 1st AC John Connor, DIT Arthur To and the director, Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Lubezki operated on most of the handheld shots and Scott Sakamoto operated on the Technocrane shots. DIT Arthur To remotely controlled the camera’s iris. “You need an amazing DIT you can trust 100 percent in a situation like this,” says Lubezki, who was always connected via headset to To. “You can communicate exactly what you want and exactly what’s happening. Because we’re not lighting and the camera is moving, the exposure is changing constantly. Sometimes we’re going from T-22 to T-1.4—the entire capability of the lens!”

Also on headsets was John Connor (longtime 1st AC who has since moved on to shooting), who handled the complex job of keeping actors, sometimes less than a foot from the lens, in focus while the camera and subject were in constant motion and the depth of field was frequently being altered (because of the substantial stop pulls). “The focus pulling on this movie is by far the most difficult I’ve ever seen,” says Lubezki. “Honestly, I don’t think a lot of people could have handled it, with all the elements that were in constant flux, and we never used any marks.”

Connor, who was among the earliest adopters of remote focus units such as the Preston (used here) and of using monitors in the focus pulling process, worked with a 7-inch SmallHD High Bright monitor and followed along with the shots as close as he could get to the action. His attention during a take would always be jumping from the peaking function on the monitor to the image on the monitor, which came through a LUT that To designed with extra contrast to help find focus. All of this technical data was supplemented by his years of experience anticipating the moves of actors and the responses of operators.

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Leonardo DiCaprio and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Photo by Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox.

"I brought my years of experience to this movie,” Connor says. “You really need to have a feel for [focus pulling] in a situation like this. It has to just come naturally. As the subject and lens get closer, you have to move faster, and the opposite when [camera and subject] move apart. And the closer you are, the more critical focus is. On most movies, the subject is outside 3 feet, but most of this movie we were focusing on someone inside of 3 feet. It was really an amazing setup, with wireless video going to me and to camera and to the DIT, and all of us on headsets so Arthur could tell me ‘we’re at T-2.8’ and me telling Chivo when he’s close to focus.”

Lubezki liked the system of having key crewmembers on headsets because he could oversee the cinematography, but “I don’t want the actors to have to hear us talking,” he says. “I don’t want Leo to be aware of all this geeky shit happening around him.”

What matters in the end is capturing the performances and the atmosphere. For Lubezki, it was worth all the hardship to go out and do it in the real environment rather than, as some have suggested, trying to replicate the environment through visual effects. “We wanted to feel what the characters feel. You see Leo sweat. You see his heartbeat in his neck. You see his breath. Nothing will take the place of really capturing the complexity and feeling of nature.”