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Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) saw a limited release in US theaters on Friday, treating the public to Alejandro González Iñárritu's exploration into the psyche of a washed up movie star. The film follows Riggan Thomson (played by Michael Keaton) as he tries to stage a career-salvaging Broadway show, all while his own ego, in the physical form of the titular Birdman character, threatens to bring it all crashing down.
Though Keaton's performance has earned rave reviews, it's the cinematography that sets Birdman apart. The bulk of the film takes place within the illusion of one single, massively long tracking shot. Woven together by the expert director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, many of the film's tantrums, verbal (and physical) brawls, and dream-like theatrical sequences are all merged into one another using clever camera tricks.
A monumental amount of work went into arranging every second of every scene to ensure that all of the transitions looked seamless. "All the camera work, all the blocking, all the lighting was pre-designed months in advance," Iñárritu revealed during the post-New York Film Festival premiere Q&A. "There was no improvisation. Everything was precise." He also said that part of what helped keep the crew mobile was their reliance on available light, eschewing standard lighting tricks.
The result is a testament to Iñárritu's own skill as a writer and director, but also to Lubezki's talents as a director of photography. "Watching the team of Alejandro and Chivo [a.k.a., Emmanuel Lubezki], is really something to behold," Michael Keaton told the audience. "He has this uncanny way of shooting a shot that that helps just move the story."
Not only is the Oscar-winning cinematographer the go-to for Cuarón's movies, he has a relationship with enigmatic filmmaker Terrence Malick, and has moonlighted as the Coen brothers' stand-in for Roger Deakins. In order to prepare your soft, gray matter for what is arguably the most ambitous cinematic trick of Lubezki's career, here are a few of the mind-melting long takes which paved the way for the movie magic you'll see in Birdman.
Lubezki filled Gravity with tracking shots to amplify the detachment and disorientation that astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) felt while flying through space. The heart-pumping two minutes where she first begins falling through Earth's orbit is a shining example of Lubezki's abilities. Even after screening the film on multiple occasions, the sheer weight of those few minutes is undeniable.
Children of Men (2006)
It's been said, "War is hell"—which is how we imagine Lubezki and Cuarón felt after shooting the six minute-long "Uprising" scene from Children of Men (watch it in full in 24:24 in the supercut above). To create it, the cast and crew had to run through simulated explosions, gunshots, and the destruction of a building (all to the cheerful sounds of a screaming baby), which makes it all the more impressive that the shot worked out on the first try.
As Reverse Shot points out, part of the beauty of the take is an accidental splatter of blood on the lens. "The blood still sits there, reminding us that the camera is rolling and that we haven't seen a cut." In the same article, author Chris Wisnewski proclaims, "Years from now, when critics look back on his work here and with Terrence Malick on The New World, Lubezki will be regarded as one of the era's great film artists."
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
The first of Lubezki's long shots during Y Tu Mamá También starts about 16 minutes in: a gorgeous, nuanced, (though not quite adrenaline-pumping) depiction of Julio and Tenoch's initial flirtations with the curious stranger, Luisa. In the single shot, Lubezki sequentially tightens and widens on the subjects to define the scene's transient mood. He closes in to capture the trio's intimacy, and steps back as Luisa's husband approaches, demonstrating their to-be-revealed distance.
"Y Tu Mamá También was a little bit of a reaction to our previous film, which had been incredibly planned and overstylized," Lubezki said in an interview with Vulture. That reaction is still evident in the naturalism Lubezki maintains in Birdman, regardless of the outlandish, often otherworldly subject matter.
The Birdcage (1996)
Lubezki's introduction to the titular bar in The Birdcage also serves as the film's opening, a mile-a-minute crane shot over a nearby body of water that smoothly transitions into handheld inside the bar. The shot quite literally sets the stage for the fast-paced comedy of the film, beginning with a sweeping vista worthy of a Homerian epic, and ending with an amazingly choreographed drag show to "We Are Family," by Sister Sledge.
The concealed cut you may or may not see above is Lubezki's bread and butter throughout Birdman. If you can find the moment he transitions from crane to handheld in The Birdcage, then maybe you'll have a shot at spotting the cuts in Birdman. Good luck.
Which Lubezkian long take is your favorite? Let us know in the comments!