Oscars 2019: How Alfonso Cuaron made history with Roma, by cranking camera for his directorial
Alfonso Cuarón thought it would be better to trust his own self to translate his vision unto the screen, hence the decision to shoot Roma himself
Nearly every filmmaker dreams of forming a creative partnership with a cinematographer that would go down in history as one of the all-time greats. Yet, most directors, at some point in the course of making a film, nurse an aching desire to just pick up the camera and shoot the damn thing themselves. Alfonso Cuarón has not only managed to do both with great élan, but has also managed to create history by becoming the first person in the history of the Academy Awards to get nominated for Best Director and Best Cinematographer in the same year.
The Oscar-winning director, who won the Academy Award for Best Director for Gravity, was ‘forced’ to shoot Roma himself as his longtime cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, bowed out of the production due to scheduling conflicts. Cuarón thought it would be better to trust his own self to translate his vision unto the screen, hence the decision to not go with an English-speaking cinematographer to shoot a film that was inspired by his own life.
Cinematographers transitioning into full-time directors is as common as directors moonlighting as their own director of photography, or editor. However, the one significant difference between the two is the former tend to make a clean shift — Jack Cardiff, Nicolas Roeg, Barry Sonnefeld, and Jan De Bont, to name a few — while most directors who tend to double up as a cinematographer choose to not advertise it. Steven Soderbergh and Paul Thomas Anderson have been known to operate their own camera but they often credit others, at times even use a pseudonym. The Coen brothers formally credit a certain “Roderick Jaynes” as the editor of their films even though it is common knowledge that they are, in fact, Roderick Jaynes. The two had even won an Oscar nomination for Fargo (1997) and No Country For Old Men (2008).
Then, Cuarón’s achievement as the cinematographer of Roma becomes more significant if seen in the context of being the first one to notch up a double Oscar nomination. The film has already been the talk of the award circuit and has bagged the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival and the New York Film Critics Circle Award, where Cuarón was also judged the Best Cinematographer. The autobiographical period drama set in the politically turbulent 1970s’ Mexico City is a frontrunner for the Best Director Academy award, which would make Cuarón a two-time winner, and the film’s lyricism owes a lot to the monochromatic camerawork. Cuarón shot the film in colour on the Alexa 65 mm camera and finished the film in black and white, thereby heightening the tonality and contrast to a level that the contemporary audience is not used to. Cuarón collaborated with Technicolor consultants and used the available technology to such an extent that he controlled every minute detail.
Although he did not shoot the film, Emmanuel Lubezki, a three-time Oscar winner, served as consultant to the project and helped Cuarón realise his vision. In an interaction with Cuarón, Lubezki said he was awed by the naturalistic and moody lighting in the film and was particularly impressed with the depth that the images had. Lubezki pointed out a specific scene where the camera is aimed at a cinema screen behind the actors and a classic film is being projected. Cuarón used LED lights on the screen to generate the right amount of illumination for the space so that the 65 mm camera could capture the image and later replaced that element of the shot in post-production with the movie being projected.
With a record four nominations for Roma, Alfonso Cuarón has equalled the record for most personal nominations for one film with the Coen Brothers and Warren Beatty, who achieved the feat on two occasions. One reason why it made sense for Cuarón to shoot Roma himself was also that barring him and Lubezki, no one had read the full script, not even the actors. The intimacy that Cuarón wanted to preserve in terms of the visual quality of the film was similar to the storytelling aspect and by shooting it himself he could maintain that.
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