Lensing "A Star Is Born"; The Delicate Balancing Act Of "Free Solo"
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique (l) and director/co-writer/producer Bradley Cooper on the set of "A Star Is Born" (photo by Clay Enos/courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)
Insights from Oscar nominees for Best Cinematography, Best Documentary Feature
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While shooting Mother! in Montreal, Matthew Libatique, ASC got “word out of the blue” from the film’s director, Darren Aronofsky, that Bradley Cooper was coming by to meet him. Cooper wanted to discuss the possibility of Libatique lensing A Star Is Born (Warner Bros.). 

It turns out Mother! actress Jennifer Lawrence--Cooper’s co-star in Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and Joy--recommended Libatique to the actor who was prepping for his feature directorial debut.

“I owe a debt of gratitude to Jennifer,” said Libatique. “She’s the reason Bradley and I first connected.”

Though he still had to be sold on serving as cinematographer for A Star Is Born after that initial meeting, Libatique recalled that he found himself drawn to Cooper’s energy, resolve and vision for the film. A follow-up get-together between the two in Los Angeles moved Libatique closer to accepting the gig. He ultimately did, drawn to his shared vision with Cooper for the film, the chance to work with Lady Gaga and the creative challenges the movie entailed.

Libatique was clearly up to those challenges as reflected in his Best Cinematography Oscar and ASC Award nominations for A Star Is Born. They were his second career Academy Award and ASC nods, the first coming in 2011 for Libatique’s lensing of Aronofsky’s Black Swan.

For Libatique, a prime challenge posed by A Star Is Born involved “creating authenticity for the stage shows--to make Jackson Maine (portrayed by Cooper) feel like a real character in a real world, starting with his stage persona. Bradley’s performance of Jack as a human being takes care of itself. But creating that public persona in front of an audience was needed to show an important side of that character.” Libatique noted that lighting and color motifs deployed for those stage performances also showed the regression and progression of the characters--the descent of Jackson while Ally’s (Lady Gaga) star ascends.

Libatique was also a first-hand witness to Cooper’s ascent as a director. “It’s the responsibility of the cinematographer to ‘read the room’ so to speak and understand who you’re working with...how a person sees the camera, performance, the process of editing.” Libatique was deeply impressed with Cooper’s dedication and open-mindedness. “He had a mind towards how he was going to cut the film while we were shooting, which was astounding,” said Libatique of Cooper, adding that the director left room “to improvise and create,” to make happy discoveries along the way. “He has that ability as a director to shape each and every moment. For a DP, that’s a joy.”

Libatique opted for ARRI Alexa Mini cameras coupled with anamorphic lenses, helping to capture what he described as a blend of “cinematic value and an air of modernity.” The small ergonomic footprint of the Mini provided a measure of flexibility and mobility.

Looking back on his A Star Is Born experience, Libatique shared, “I left it with a sense of appreciation from a life perspective. Hearing Lady Gaga sing live was special. When you encounter an artist in painting, visual art or music, you can’t help but feel inspired and it fuels you. You translate that into your working experience. I was inspired by two people who not only multi-task but multi-task in the most creative way. Bradley is acting and directing at the same time, working on music at night, editing. Then with Lady Gaga, she’s acting and singing. I’m listening to this incredible voice six feet away from me. They are both creative forces. I’m thankful to have been around them.”

In this vein, Libatique said of his Oscar nomination, “I’m prouder of the film than my individual achievement I share it with my crew, my director, the cast. I’m proud to have shared the camera with Bradley and thankful for having gotten the chance to work on this film.”

Libatique’s nomination is one of eight earned by A Star Is Born; the others being for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay (Cooper, Eric Roth, Will Fetters), Lead Actor (Cooper), Lead Actress (Gaga), Supporting Actor (Sam Elliott), Sound Mixing (Tom Ozanich, Dean A. Zupancic, Jason Ruder, Steven Morrow) and Original Song (“Shallow”)

Free Solo
Nominated for this year’s Best Documentary Feature Oscar, Free Solo (National Geographic) marks a cinematic and storytelling achievement that literally and figuratively entailed a delicate balancing act, chronicling Alex Honnold as he tried to become the first person to ever free solo climb Yosemite’s 3,000-foot-high El Capitan Wall. With no ropes or safety gear, he completed a major feat in rock climbing history.

While the literal aspect of keeping one’s balance is obvious from a physical/athletic standpoint as well as in terms of navigating a slew of daunting production logistics, the figurative challenge was centered on an inherent moral dilemma. The wife and husband team of directors/producers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin had to capture their friend Honnold’s ambitious journey--which could go terribly wrong. Honnold’s quest put him in great peril and making a documentary about him, said Vasarhelyi, was “scary,” “terrifying” and full of “ethical implications,” with the real possibility that the filmmakers could bear witness to his demise. Vasarhelyi and Chin agonized over the decision to proceed with the film but ultimately they were swayed by the inspirational value of Honnold’s story and the extraordinary nature of the potential communal experience for the audience.

Ultimately Vasarhelyi and Chin did justice to that experience as not only their first Oscar nod but also a DGA nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary would attest. This marked Vasarhelyi and Chin’s second career DGA nom, the first coming three years ago for their documentary Meru, a breathtaking story about two difficult ascents of the Himalayan peak.

Chin said the ethical quandary cited by Vasarhelyi required much soul searching but ultimately was decided by his and her trust in Honnold. “I’ve seen Alex climb for 10 years,” related Chin, a skilled rock climber himself. “I’ve worked with the best climbers for almost 20 years. Alex is truly phenomenal at what he does. I’ve seen how he approaches every solo climb. It was really helpful to have that confidence in him and to believe in him not just as an athlete but also as a human being.”

Free Solo also gave viewers access to Honnold’s humanity, which made him all the more relatable to them. “His is a really inspirational story,” said Chin. “Everyone can relate to the fear that Alex felt, seeing that for him it was less scary to go climb alone than to ask someone to be a partner. He continually pushes himself in the face of fear to overcome those fears and improve who he is. He’s always in that headspace. People understand that and his vulnerability helps people to connect with him.”

At the same time the special connection between Chin and Vasarhelyi, along with the complementary nature of their skills, helped to bring Free Solo to fruition. “This film couldn’t have been made by just one of us,” assessed Vasarhelyi. Jimmy has 20 years in the vertical world. He brings this technical and artistic expertise to film and to climbing. He brings an insider’s knowledge to the subject matter, understanding the risk, empathizing what Alex is going through.”

Chin meanwhile said of Vasarhelyi, “Chai’s background is in serious nonfiction filmmaking, This is her sixth feature documentary, coming from an intense journalistic, nonfiction mindset. She has a strong sense of narrative structure and what you can do and how you can solve problems in the edit room. You’re always faced with structural questions and issues. How she figures them out is almost amazing. She gets you to the finish line, having a much needed objectivity about the subject matter. I don’t have that same objectivity. I can serve questions and issues up to Chai and she can tell me this is important to the narrative--or it has nothing to do with the narrative. 

Chin and Vasarhelyi have also teamed to journey along a shorter form narrative path via Nonfiction Unlimited, a production house which specializes in bringing noted documentarians to the commercialmaking/branded content arena.

This is the 15th of a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. The 91st Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 24, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif.,and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network.  The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

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