The Revenant won three Academy Awards (including Best Cinematography, which is Lubezski’s third consecutive win). They shot in with natural light, only lighting the low light sequences. Lubeski wanted a naturalist look and chose to achieve that through cutting light, rather than adding light. He used wide lenses for the film and the camera is almost always moving. This dynamic movement was achieved primarily through handheld, SteadiCam and Technocrane.
Cinematographer – Emmanuel Lubezski, ASC
Camera & Lenses – Arri Alexa XT & Alexa 65, Red Epic Dragon cameras, Summilux-C, Master Prime, Hasselblad, Angenieux Optimo lenses
Acquisition – Arriraw, Redcode RAW
Aspect Ratio – 2.35:1
The whole film has a bluish/cyan look throughout it. This is more dramatic in the day or afternoon scenes in the woods. The night scenes primarily have an orange look to them, which is from the firelight, but also have a the blue look if it’s lit with moonlight. Lubezski is not afraid of darkness and brings the shadows way down in the grade to an inky black. It looks like he exposes for the highlights, which cause the shadows to go very dark. The snow tends to be far from white and has the bluish look, as does the skin tones. The look adds an eerie, chilling vibe, which is perfect for this survival story.
Too often cinematographers fight the existing light. Emmanuel Lubezski chose the opposite approach for this film. He uses little manmade lights, only lighting about 20% of the film (the low light fire sequences). Lubezski chose to cut light rather than add lighting units to recreate the sun. Why not use the sun as the sun? The all naturalistic approach also showcases the advantage of shooting at the right time of day and power of blocking.
The story is dark and the cinematography reflects this by keeping most of the film under 80IRE. The only moments which are higher than 80IRE are when a light source in the shot. The highlights are kept safe and placed around 80-95IRE in the grade.
Skin tones average 25IRE, but typically range from 20-40IRE. There are moments near the end in which skintones are very bright, but it works within the story since they are the only interior scenes and he's finally 'safe.'
The whole film was shot on focal lengths ranging between 12mm to 21mm, but primarily on the 12mm and 14mm. This lets the environment (which is stunning) engulf the characters. The close-ups are even shot on wide lenses. As an audience, we can feel the camera is physically close to the characters. There’s definitely distortion in some shots, but it rarely draws the eye to the cinematography.
As I was prepping this study, I found a documentary that was shot simultaneously with the movie. It tells the story of why they made the film. It's definitely worth a watch.