Cinematographer Matty Libatique on Cowboys & Aliens
Anamorphic Lenses, Film Stock, and Classic Western Style
Pi won the Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and Libatique’s feature film career was off and running. Fifteen years later, Libatique was nominated for ASC and Academy Awards for Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, with whom he had also teamed on Pi, as well as on numerous other projects in the interim. Black Swan was also shot in Super 16, rare for an Oscar nominee in the cinematography category. A few more of Libatique’s memorable credits are Gothika, Requiem for a Dream, Miracle at St. Anna, The Fountain, She Hate Me, Iron Man and Iron Man 2. He has ongoing working collaborations with directors Spike Lee, Joel Schumacher and Jon Favreau, in addition to his work with Aronofsky.
“We saw it partly as an opportunity to pay homage to the films of John Ford,” says Libatique. “We wanted to create a disciplined Western language, guided by imagery like Conrad Hall’s work on The Professionals and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Our study of the form grew out of our enthusiasm for the films, and it turned out to be one of the best parts about this project.”
Leaning Away from 3DThe production team initially envisioned Cowboys & Aliens as a 3D movie, and spent much of the prep time investigating the possibility of shooting it in a stereo format. But the grit and sand of the desert locations threatened the 3D mirror elements, and the preponderance of bright day exteriors in the desert made a digital format seem unwise. The cumbersome camera rigs were also a consideration, as was the fact that polarizing filters – often used on the big vistas that are important elements in the classic Western – are potentially problematic on a 3D rig.
“We knew we’d have a lot of day exteriors, and I’ve always been averse to shooting digital in day exteriors,” says Libatique. “Shooting film is going to be better then trying to struggle with a format that clips in the highlights. I think some of these problems have been mitigated, but they still exist.
“The more we learned, the more we felt that 3D might hurt the film as a film,” he says. “I felt that anamorphic 35 mm would work better with the way Jon handles performance and coverage. But the main reason we came to a consensus was that anamorphic allowed us to adhere to Western cinematic language.”
Extending the Film Grammar of Classic WesternsThe script takes audiences into a Western world in the first act, and then slowly introduces science fiction elements as the story proceeds. The filmmakers wanted to establish this Western world using the visual grammar of the classic Western, and then introduce the fantastic visual effects elements into this world.
“In my imagination, I saw a Western made with today’s technology and today’s film stocks,” says Libatique. “We tried to keep the camera more patient. We didn’t do a lot of intricate gymnastics with the camera. I think we did a pretty good job of incorporating the Western influence while giving Jon what he needed editorially.”
The classic Western influence extended to composition. “We had conversations about how to frame people wearing hats, and where to place the horizon line for dramatic effect,” he says. “With a lower horizon, you’re getting more of the sky, and you’re silhouetting your characters. It’s a different dramatic effect. Sometimes, we would put the horizon higher in the frame, because what was interesting was the foreground — for example, if we wanted to see the horses riding through the plains. It’s more of an aesthetic choice than a symbolic one.”
Libatique used Panavision cameras and G and C series anamorphic lenses. “For me, the anamorphic format is that unmistakable depth of field,” he says. “The softness that you get behind the plane of focus on an anamorphic lens separates it and gives it texture beyond anything that spherical can ever achieve. I think that’s why Westerns are so painterly.”
In night exterior situations, Libatique chose Kodak Vision3 500T 5219. In day situations, he generally used either Kodak Vision3 50D 5201 or Kodak Vision3 200T 5213.
“I have always loved 5201, and I wanted to get the best resolution out of day exteriors in Santa Fe that I possibly could,” he says. “I have done so much stock manipulation in my career. Here, I wanted to get the optimum fidelity possible from a film stock. I wanted a tree to be a tree. I wanted to see the gradations on stones.”
Libatique went with 5213 in situations where fickle weather made its flexibility more attractive. He also used Kodak Ektachrome 100D 5285 for scenes that depict the main character’s memories. He cross-processed the reversal film to create a striking look that features more saturation and contrast, and surprising colors.
Staying in Control“I know what to expect when cross-processing,” says Libatique. “But there are always happy accidents. That has happened throughout my career. If you are aggressive, you are going to keep discovering things by accident. Frankly, that is something that is lost with digital formats – the organic happy accident that happens because of karma.
“That may sound ridiculous, but making a film is such a creative venture,” he continues. “To actually come up with good ideas, and then apply those ideas to technical knowledge, and then execute those ideas – and then something happens that is weird. And that weird thing becomes magical. That doesn’t happen in digital. When you’re trying to get a look out of digital, it often ends up looking manipulated.”
The digital intermediate was done at Efilm with colorist Steve Scott, whom he cites as a key collaborator. Libatique was pleased with the results, and he says his role is to insist on maximum image quality all the way through to print. “I don’t use the DI as an opportunity to explore,” he says. “We shoot films with precision, with intent. I’ve already explored when I was thinking about how to shoot the movie. I have already made all the choices. The DI is a great tool, and I don’t want to disparage it in any way. But I have a love/hate relationship with it. Those of us who remember what film is meant to look like need to monitor the situation, and demand the best.”