Director Alejandro Iñárritu's multi-award-winning film "The Revenant" is an immersive cinematic depiction of a journey into the uncharted American wilderness of the early 1800s, based on true events. After being attacked and badly wounded by a grizzly bear, fur-trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is left for dead by members of his own hunting party. In a desperate quest to survive, Glass endures unimaginable hardship to find those who abandoned him. Cinematographer Emmanuel 'Chivo' Lubezki ASC, AMC worked with ALEXA XT, ALEXA M, and Master Primes, as well as ALEXA 65 large-format cameras and Prime 65 lenses for selected sequences.
Shot in remote parts of Canada and Argentina over many long months, "The Revenant" captures the stunning beauty of the vast landscapes, as well as the emotional intensity and sometimes horrific violence of the events. The film crew struggled with grueling conditions: freezing temperatures, snow and icy rivers, and the darkness and short days of a northern Canadian winter.
Although they had initially wanted to shoot mostly on film, Iñárritu and Lubezki decided to entirely forego film acquisition and use only digital cameras after conducting tests on location with the actors. "To our surprise...we were much more happy with the digital cameras," Lubezki told "Indiewire." "They were allowing us to shoot with very low light levels and make the movie more immersive, which was our main goal. So during prep we sent all the film back. That's an easy thing to simply say, but for a middle-aged filmmaker who's been using film for many decades, it was kind of a shock to suddenly say, 'You know? Digital is better for our movie.'"
With the ALEXA XT and ALEXA M as his main cameras, Lubezki was able to shoot at very low light levels and create the immersive, visceral experience Iñárritu envisaged. "We used very wide lenses that allowed us to show all the context, all the environment, at the same time as we can show emotion and be close to the actors. So the relationship between the environment and the actors is always present," the cinematographer explained in an interview with "ScreenDaily." Operating the ALEXA M handheld, Lubezki often walked alongside the actors, responding to their movements and conveying a heightened sense of their presence in the landscape.
Significant portions of the film were shot with ARRI Rental's ALEXA 65 large-format system, which was brand new and only just ready in time for the production. "We were lucky that ARRI was coming out with their new ALEXA 65," Lubezki told "Deadline." "The great thing about the camera is that it has much more resolution than any other digital camera. It truly captured what I was feeling when I was there into the screen, and that was kind of wonderful. The digital cameras allow us to shoot in this very dark environment, but also to shoot in a way that looks more naturalistic--without grain or anything between the audience and the character. So it's a little bit like a window into this world, and that's what I like about the digital camera. The camera didn't have any problem because digital cameras run warm, so they actually like the cold. But the monitor did freeze a couple of times, and cables froze, and the batteries would last a very short time compared to what they would last in other places. But it was not really a big issue with the gear. We had the best crew in the world, and they kept the gear running all the time."
Speaking to "Screen Daily," Lubezki commented, "A lot of cinematographers talk about grain as texture. I always find it as the downside of film, because it's this layer between you and the subject. These digital cameras didn't have any noise or any grain. It's like watching through a clean window as opposed to a window that has dirt. This [ALEXA 65] camera really transports you to this place. It's the first time I've shot with a camera that translates into images what I'm feeling when I'm on set. It's a beautiful, beautiful image."
The ALEXA 65 was so new that its lack of official testing meant the production's insurance policy would not cover any problems that might arise with the system on set. Presented with this dilemma, the filmmakers had to weigh up the benefits against the potential issues, but were swayed by ARRI's reputation for durable, reliable equipment, by ARRI Rental's high service and support standards, and by the ALEXA 65's staggering image quality. As Lubezki told "ScreenDaily": "We sat down with the studio, we watched the dailies and everybody said... 'We have to do it. We have to shoot with this camera,' because it's even more immersive than we had before."
An in-depth article in the January 2016 issue of "American Cinematographer" describes how... in one extraordinary sequence, an avalanche occurs in the background during a key moment between Glass and his nemesis Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). This was not achieved through CGI, miniatures or any other kind of movie magic. With the cooperation of Canadian authorities, a helicopter dropped explosive charges into the snow on cue. "We had the ALEXA 65 on a little crane arm with the 24 mm lens to get a close-up on Leo and incorporate the landscape in the background," Lubezki told "AC." "We knew we had only one chance, and we didn't want to blow it. The digital camera let us shoot at 1,200 ASA for more depth of field, keeping Leo and the mountain sharp. The detail in the background is exquisite. We could never have done that with a film camera."