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'Gravity' Cinematographer Reveals How He Got Those Astonishing Shots

This story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The five films nominated for the Academy Award for best cinematography travel from Greenwich Village during the 1960s to the edge of outer space. For the five cinematographers responsible for capturing those images onscreen, that meant opening their eyes to the imaginative possibilities. Here, they describe how they shot their favorite scenes.

Next Page: Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity

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Gravity

Emmanuel Lubezki

"The only thing that Alfonso Cuaron requested was that he wanted to start with a brightly lit Earth, and that when we see Earth and the shuttle, we are not telegraphing that something nasty is going to happen," says Lubezki of Gravity's opening shot, created using mostly virtual cinematography and CG. "The light is friendly in the beginning of the movie, and during that shot it becomes more complex and more threatening and more dynamic. It starts to change when the camera goes into her helmet, and you see dusk and sunset. When we designed it, I thought about one of my favorite cinematographers, Vittorio Storaro, and how he used lighting changes in his movies."

Next Page: Roger Deakins, Prisoners

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Prisoners

Roger Deakins

In the movie's final scene, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) goes back to the crime scene, where the tech crew is wrapping up for the night, and he hears a faint whistle before the screen goes black. "For the night scenes, I never wanted to do a moonlight scene; I wanted there to be a light source somewhere to generate light," explains Deakins, who shot the film with an Arri Alexa digital camera. "This scene was a challenge -- how could I justify light without doing moonlight? We created a back porch for the house with blue-white fluorescents, and then since there would be work lights at night, we put up these simple work lights. When they are going off at the end, the lights die, then the sound goes because the generators are turned off, giving Loki a chance to hear the whistle that Keller [Hugh Jackman] is blowing from inside the pit."

Next Page: Philippe Le Sourd, The Grandmaster

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The Grandmaster

Philippe Le Sourd

A key fight sequence takes place on a snow-covered train platform as a locomotive passes. "Wong Kar Wai loved the idea of a strong 'character' like a locomotive, and he thought we should use it as an element in the fight sequence," says Le Sourd. "The idea was to bring in the visual element of the train to feel the fear and danger. We used strong light in front of the locomotive when the train is coming to increase the drama."

Next Page: Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska

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Nebraska

Phedon Papamichael

For Papamichael, the final scene in Alexander Payne's black-and-white film is a hopeful one. "Woody's [Oscar nominee Bruce Dern] dream is finally, if only partially, realized. It sums up the journey father and son have undertaken together," he says of the film, lensed with an Alexa. "Woody gets to drive down Main Street in his own truck. With his hands firmly grasping the wheel, he takes in the last impressions of his past. We chose an extreme close-up on Woody. The various characters of his past drift by, and Woody shares one last, meaningful moment of eye contact with each person. The strongest moment comes from his old love, the newspaper lady. The camera rotates into her close-up: one last moment of unfulfilled love."

Next Page: Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis

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Inside Llewyn Davis

Bruno Delbonnel

The Coen brothers' movie opens with the title character (Oscar Isaac) performing at a folk music club in Greenwich Village in 1961. "We wanted to have this almost black-and-white image, which could be the two sides of Llewyn Davis himself -- one side is lit, the other is dark," says Delbonnel, who photographed the movie on film. "His two personalities was something I was looking for. It added to the atmosphere of the scene, being in a folk music club, with smoke. Llewyn Davis is black and white; he's a very strange person."