Speaking in Images: Matthew Libatique on Building a Cinematic Language and the Future of Film
As mentioned during the “Philippe Le Sourd on Set with Wong Kar Wai“‘s article, here is Matthew Libatique‘s take on the cinematographer’s life. Libatique has been mentioned more than once on mentorless, from his debut at AFI to his collaboration with Darren Aronofsky in the trenches and more specifically on Black Swan.
Last February he was invited, along with Philippe Le Sourd, to talk at the Berlinale Talent Campus about his work as a cinematographer, and more specifically his collaboration on Black Swan with Darren Aronofsky for whom he shot 5 films out of 6.
Libatique belongs to the generous and honest group when it comes to talking about his art & craft. Here are some of the highlights:
About the Cinematographer/Director Relationship with Aronofsky vs. Other Directors
“I like to say it’s more of a friendship than a working collaboration because we can discuss things without having to make an appointment. Sometimes you get on a movie and you meet a director, you don’t really know them, and they are so busy with casting and dealing with producers and maybe meeting with a marketing person, that you literally have to go to their assistant and say ‘I’d like to have one hour with them.’ With Darren it’s like ‘Let’s meet for coffee and take the train together, and we’ll go to the office.’ So it’s much more comfortable. It’s just more social.”
About Defining a Cinematic Language for Each Film
“His idea as he approach a film is to simplify the language of it, cinematography wise. Not necessarily simplify it so it’s blend, it’s just that he wants to simplify the parameters so there is a language. He is a big believer in creating a visual language and something that we both develop together. And I try to take that in other films as well, I try to deconstruct the movie to build something out of it so I first myself have a set of parameters when it comes to the composition, the light and colors. Darren is so focused on subjectivity, he is very focused on the character’s subjectivity. Most of his films are about one character. And even in Requiem for a Dream where it’s about more than one character, he treated each story like it’s about the one person. So the camera language is all directed toward subjectivity, so [the language] is born out of that notion and I just sort of light the frame.”
About Building a Cinematic Language for Pi
“[Building the language] started on Pi. We didn’t have any money so out of necessity we went for black & white, because we couldn’t afford gel. We couldn’t balance daylight and tungsten because I couldn’t afford HMI. It was simple things like that where we had to say “Ok, we’re gonna shoot B&W.” And then we watched Let’s Get Lost, smoking out in his apartment, and I’d say “I think they shot reversal.” And then we knew somebody who knew Bruce Weber and they said “Yeah they shot reversal! So we’re gonna shoot reversal!” And then we found the lab that Bruce Weber processed Let’s Get Lost, it was Bono in Virginia, and we’d say “We’re gonna use that lab!” These ideas are just enthusiasm but also necessity. To this day [Darren] has a little bit of that kind of youthful exuberance.”
About Finding Black Swan’s Language Through Prep
“So much comes from the notion of reflection. We did most of our prep about choreographing the dance on the stages because we were terrified that we were just going to blow it. And we had to get a sense of it.
Darren is very prepared. He likes to be completely prepared. When I first met him he used to draw everything on storyboard but he can’t draw, and he’d do his own diagram, and he still does, his own overhead diagrams that I am the only one who can understand because he can’t draw. So instead I said ‘Why don’t we take the 5D and we’ll shoot everything the choreographer does with her and then we’ll just watch it. And then we’ll go back tomorrow and we’ll do it again.” And because of that we were able to find the rhythm of the movement, and that sort of spoke to [Natalie Portman]’s movement and how we followed her. And the notion of reflection… we got so much out of the dance space while we rehearsed. I would see myself and I’d go ‘But I can see her. Well it would be great if I didn’t see me.’ It just became more and more of an idea and the idea that she is another person. It’s very literal and it’s pretty obvious but it worked.”
About Clint Mansell’s Key Contribution
“I always realize when I watch a film after making it with Darren, that so much… they talk about my collaboration with him but Clint Mansell, the composer… the images are not complete until he is finished. Because the pace and the rhythm of the shot is not completely finished without the punctuation of his music. And everything goes together for the rhythm of the shot.”
About Directors and VFX
“Directors are so unfazed by VFX now. It’s just become something where it’s easier to paint out. I’ve had directors just say ‘No, I refuse to put up a green screen. Let them roto[scope].’ They make it harder for the VFX people because, rather than spend the time on set, that costs a lot of money, they make somebody who has a cappuccino machine do it.”
About Creativity and Shooting Blockbuster Movies
“You’d think you would have more creativity on a bigger film with resources but you actually have less time to be creative because you’re managing so many things.”
About the American Film Industry
“You have to remember, America is an industry. It’s a factory. Iron Man was made in a factory of many people and it’s the antithesis of what Philippe is talking about, which is, a large-scaled film made in a personal way. This is just a factory with a board of directors that just go to meetings and nobody is listening to each others.”
About the Future of Film and the Separation Between High Art Cinema For Social Commentary vs the Factory Cinema to Entertain People
“When I say it’s a Factory, it is a Factory. I mean big budget films are a Factory if you look at what they are making, yes. But because it is accessible to so many people, and because the way films are financed and made now is so different than the way they were made ten/fifteen years ago, you have that opportunity to make High Art. Or you have the ability to entertain with social commentary. This is why this Talent Campus exist, it’s because the opportunity exist out there to be able to find people to finance your film, to find other creative people to connect with. With the DSLR and the Digital World, like [Philippe] said, a 15 years old can shoot their own home movies but you go on YouTube and you see the level of sophistication of people making films that are not quote-on-quote professionals… They are learning from the ‘Factory’ and they can take the technique of the Factory and give it an independent sophistication that has not been seen. So the potential is there and I wouldn’t go as far as to be as pessimistic to say that it is impossible to be artistic and strive towards social commentary.”
I hope you enjoyed Libatique’s wisdom. If you want to listen to the full talk, you can click here. (Fair warning: the video is jumpy, can’t be embedded and doesn’t have a proper timeline. A poor user-experience for a video about filmmaking, ironically)
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