Oscars: 'Birdman' Cinematographer Reveals Secrets Behind Movie's Ingenious "Single Shot" Look

BTS Single Shot Look Birdman - H 2014
Alison Rosa

BTS Single Shot Look Birdman - H 2014

This story first appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Alejandro G. Inarritu's Birdman pulls off one of the great cinematic magic tricks of all time. The entire 119-minute movie — about a fading movie actor, played by Michael Keaton, trying to jump-start his career by appearing on the Broadway stage — looks as if it were shot in one extended take. Of course, that would have been impossible. However, Inarritu, determined to maintain the illusion behind the $18 million film, has instructed his editors not to discuss how long each individual take was and how many cuts, in some cases disguised by ingenious visual effects, were stitched together to make it appear seamless.

Read more Golden Globes: 'Birdman' Flies Above the Other Film Nominees

But his cinematographer, Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, 50, who won an Oscar in March for Gravity, reveals to THR that the longest take in Birdman actually lasts about 15 minutes, and most are in the 10-minute range. That still involved a lot of sleight of hand on the part of Lubezki, who shared camera operating duties — mostly a combination of Steadicam and handheld shots — with Steadicam operator Chris Haarhoff.

Birdman mostly was filmed on a mazelike set, with additional location work at Broadway's St. James Theatre. Before filming began, a proxy set was built in Los Angeles, where Inarritu and Lubezki blocked out every shot. "We had the drum-driven score going, because the drums were like the heartbeat of the character — it helped the actors get in the mood and the camera to get the rhythm," says Lubezki. "We created the transitions by rehearsing; for the more difficult ones, we had to have visual effects."

Lighting each scene was the most difficult trick: "That is because, for instance, the light that is lighting Michael at his makeup mirror will create a shadow a minute later if we move around the room. So we had to time all of the lighting changes, making sure you don't see shadows."

Lubezki gives kudos to his lighting team for keeping those changes looking natural: "We were moving lights; we were moving diffusions. There were grips moving with me. Every time you see a shot, there were eight people moving with me. It was like a ballet — that's what made it truly exciting."