Since commercials aren’t followed by credits, the craftsmen behind these commercials are often ignored, unless they’re some big-time movie director with a distinct style (see: Anderson, Wes). This means that the work of so many talented behind-the-scenes folk is left to be half-watched even by those who would go gaga over those people if they were involved on a feature film. I would say that there’s a chance you’ve seen plenty of TV ads that were shot by two (most likely soon-to-be three)-time Academy Award winner Emmanuel Lubezki, but there’s really no chance of you not having seen them, unless you turned off your TV in 2000 and kept it off. He cut his teeth doing commercials and is still doing them to this day, long after one might have expected him to stop (he’s stated the reason he keeps returning to commercials is “that’s the best workshop to keep you from rusting, and for trying new equipment and experimenting”). I’ve talked about some of these ads, but the “talk” was pretty much limited to “Huh, isn’t it weird that he shot these?”. Well, since I must leave no Lubezki rock unturned in the wake of The Revenant going into wide release, I shall atone for those sins with this, a genuine analysis of his ad work (well, the ones that I could analyze; I’ll link to some more at the bottom and see if you can draw your own connections).
“Write the Future”, Nike
While Emmanuel Lubezki technically only began his collaboration with Alejandro González Iñárritu on Birdman, the two had worked together on many short-form works prior, including this. This epic, three-minute Nike ad (created for the 2010 World Cup) is not only a masterclass in advertising (and a sign that AGI can work wonders loosened-up and freed from messaging), it’s also the best thing the two men have ever done together (that would be controversial said literally anywhere but this site). This alone seems to back up Lubezki’s statement about commercials letting him experiment, with seemingly every second of the video bringing about a new style. The meat of the ad is in the central soccer match between various modern soccer legends, the lightning-fast movement of the players (occasionally clarified with slow-motion) proving an ideal showcase for Lubezki’s love for frantically capturing movement. And yet the ad doesn’t get full Lubezki until the first set of cutaways to the results of one player (I apologize for not knowing their names besides the obvious/directly mentioned in the ad)’s perceived victory, the shots of various townsfolk yelling at their TVs (shot handheld, in at least a good simulation of natural light) being pure Lubezki. From there, Lubezki and AGI recreate many disparate visual mediums, from cheesy, shot-on-video TV specials to newsreel footage to sports biopics to YouTube videos. It’s clear that everyone involved (AGI and Lubezki, plus guest DoPs Rodrigo Prieto and Janusz Kaminski) was having the time of their lives making this ad, and it’s exhilarating stylistically and otherwise to even the least attentive of TV viewers. Honestly, on some days, I’d call this one of the very best things Lubezki has ever shot.
“One Hour Photo”, American Express
This ad from American Express would be a mini-masterpiece if the photography was merely functional, because the central joke is so good (Martin Scorsese treats looking at the snapshots he took of his nephew’s birthday like he got back some terribly disappointing dailies), but Lubezki’s contributions here really help lift it even further than the joke will take it. The ad is a series of tableaux which, other than some insert shots of the disappointing photos and the “money shot” of the American Express card, are low-angle medium shots of the “characters”, each with a greatly excessive amount of negative space in the frame, with the characters tucked away into odd corners of the frame. It’s such a hilariously fussy, uber-cinematic presentation that it seems to take part in the joke of treating even minor, amateur photography assignments like prestige pictures (I want to believe Tom Hooper saw this ad and was deeply inspired). And Lubezki manages to fit in one of his pet obsessions here (seriously, look for it in almost any film he’s made since the 2000s and you’ll find it), every shot angled so that the viewer can perfectly see the fluorescent lighting supposedly being the only source of light in the ad, Lubezki’s equivalent of a magician showing that he has nothing up his sleeves.
“Individual”, American Airlines
Perhaps no ad Lubezki has shot to date so perfectly and concretely combines his established style with areas new to him than this American Airlines ad, starring Kevin Spacey. The gimmick of the ad is that the airline treats its passengers like an individual, just as an actor treats each of their performances like they’re individual people, so Spacey plays three characters in entirely different circumstances boarding an American Airlines flight. Lubezki shoots all three characters in entirely different manners, with the balding Spacey in the tweed jacket being pretty much exactly what Lubezki has been doing for the past 15 years; handheld intimacy in entirely natural light (notice how all of the light in those sequences seems to come solely from the windows). The dad version of Spacey, meanwhile, is seen going through domestic routines with his kids in clean, well-lit tableaux, and the blonde, rich Spacey traverses through his mansion as the camera glides with him, every inch being impeccably-lit with cool light (as Spacey gets lower down in class, the light in his house becomes warmer) coming from who the fuck knows where. It’s an amusing ad, no doubt (and it probably has better performances from Kevin Spacey than any other piece of art in a long time), but Lubezki treats it like he would any A-picture, and the result is a little technical marvel for those paying even the slightest attention.
If it occurred with a feature film, the collaboration of David Fincher and Emmanuel Lubezki would likely ruin many a film fan’s good pants. As is, all we have of the two working together are two football-themed Nike ads (I’ll talk about the second ad further down). The first follows the parallel rises of Troy Polamolu and LaDainian Tomlinson, and here, Fincher’s typical ruthlessness is dealt with primarily in the ad’s structure, right up to the final meeting of the two. The visuals are a good deal looser than we’ve come to expect from Fincher, and that’s where Lubezki comes in. Polamolu and Tomlinson are depicted here are being constantly in motion, from the womb to the field, and that goes perfectly with Lubezki’s “always moving, always following” aesthetic. There’s, at most, three shots here where the viewer gets to take anything resembling a breath, but there’s always a grace to the handheld camera movements, never jerky, just trying to keep up (maybe Fincher had more influence on Lubezki going hog-wild with the camera than I might have expected). This kind of movement is reminiscent of Lubezki’s work on his one “sports” movie, Ali (whose director, Michael Mann, also did a Nike ad for this exact same campaign), a style that’s the same on paper, but provides radically different results on-screen.
“Open Summer”, Coca-Cola
I saw this commercial (which Lubezki directed in addition to shooting) for two straight summers before every movie I saw then, and yet it took until probably a year after that to recognize the identity of who was behind the camera. In retrospect, I probably should have; this is a gorgeous soft drink commercial, with shot after shot here seemingly straight out of Terrence Malick’s recent work. This obviously goes for the numerous shots of ably-bodied young adults having good times at magic hour, but there are some shots outside of that (I’m thinking of the dual shots of a large set of red-curtained doors opening and the shadow of the woman opening them appearing across the wood-paneled floor) that I probably might’ve mistaken for footage from The Tree of Life if they were shown to me out of context. Add those shots to the vivid color scheme on display (sun-kissed, full of pure reds on various objects), and you have a commercial that’s so much more aesthetically pleasing than the soda it promotes.
“Your Verse”, iPad Air
I’ll admit something; I recall this ad playing during the Oscars where Lubezki won for Birdman, and despite that and the fact Birdman star Edward Norton narrates the thing, I did not draw the connection (I’m beginning to feel like I’m the pretentious fraud here; someone who proclaims to know everything about this guy but who couldn’t spot his work in the wild to save their life). Looking back, I really, really should have, ’cause this the most Lubezkian thing Lubezki has ever done for TV (he also co-directed the ad, so I guess no duh on that). It cribs from both of the major collaborations Lubezki had had up to that point, with the stunning landscape shots and sun-kissed, lens flare-filled imagery of his work with Malick, mixed in with the more visceral, less dreamy “you are there” stuff that he perfected with Cuaron and would go onto use with AGI. It’s as good a starter’s guide to Lubezki as one can get in 90 seconds.
Here we have an ad that follows Lubezki’s aesthetic… from the 1990s. For all the films he shot in that decade, Lubezki was preoccupied with creating the lushest possible image, and here we have a wonderfully lush-looking ad. The story of ad is a fantastical little tale showing a boy “capturing” the wind for use by his grandpa to blow out his birthday candles, told entirely in pastoral locations that make the viewer nostalgic for something they haven’t actually experienced. From the impossible green of the grass and impossible blue of the sky to the golden fields which the boy passes through to get to his grandparents to the omnipresent sunshine to the warm, nourishing light of the birthday candles on the grandfather’s cake, there’s not a moment in this ad that isn’t postcard-beautiful.
The “Get Rid of Cable” campaign, DirecTV
Perhaps the most ubiquitous of Lubezki’s ads, this campaign revolves around the awful chain of events that will occur in the event that one has cable instead of DirecTV. The reason these ads didn’t get old for many is their complete absurdity, backed by a surprisingly sturdy, clever structure, and there’s where Lubezki comes in, more than with the images themselves (although there are some lookers in the bunch; my favorite is the shadowy hotel room where an unlucky cable user ends up reenacting scenes from Platoon with Charlie Sheen). The ads seem like they were designed as the result of a contest; fit the most amount of story in the least amount of images into 30 seconds, and we’ll air the results. Given the utter ridiculousness of what occurs in them, the ads are actually pretty spare if you think about it, with the number of shots needed to convey the story cut to the bare bone (we don’t see the thought process that leads one guy to decide to attend his funeral as a white-haired gentleman named Phil Schiffley, nor anything between another guy meeting Charlie Sheen in a Turkish bath house and them reenacting Platoon, nor another guy shaving his hair to get money from a wig shop). It must have been grand storytelling practice for Lubezki (as always, wallflower put it better than I could; ” they’re little masterpieces of storytelling, showing just how much information and how many events you can cram into 30 seconds”), allowing him to streamline his visual storytelling, just as long takes had served to do earlier and later (it’s worth nothing that the Lubezki long take had been MIA for a while in the lead-up to these ads, and in the years following these ads, it’s come back with a bang).
This is another one of Lubezki’s commercial collaborations with Alejandro González Iñárritu, and it’s also about soccer, and it also shows AGI letting his hair down for once (if this ad was one of his films, more than having their soccer ball taken away, these kids probably would have died cruel, unfortunate deaths as a direct result of the negligence of others). Compared to some of these other ads, this one is all Lubezki, all the time. It’s shot entirely handheld, for one, and the only identifiable light source in the ad is the sun, which gives the ad a lushness that’s more reminiscent of Lubezki’s 90s films (I don’t think the sun even bothers to rise in Children of Men), befitting the ad’s story of kids finding a way to have fun even after the meddling of authority figures and finding others willing to join in. It shows Lubezki mixing and blending elements from both aesthetics he’s honed in his career, creating something unique to both while perfectly retaining his identity.
Eat your heart out, Leviathan (the fishing-doc Leviathan, for the record), Lubezki got there before you and in 45 seconds. Here, the style of the ad is crucial is selling its punchline, with Lubezki using his typical style (handheld, washed-out in terms of colors, cloudy as all hell) to sell the “realism” of this look at fishermen preparing for a big haul, only to turn that on its head when the ad reveals that their haul is entirely water bottles, any fish thrown back. The style exists for the pay-off, but it works on its own, with the shots bobbing in and out of the water and following the mass of seagulls surrounding the boat being genuinely great stuff. This is one of a few ads that made his show reel, and it’s easy to see why; it’s distinctly his, while being his in a totally unique way.
Much has been made about the fact that Lubezki shot The Revenant entirely in natural light. This would be more impressive if natural light hadn’t been Lubezki’s main MO since 2000, with it even getting a workout in this commercial. Perhaps even more than that Coke commercial, this seems to share a lot with Lubezki’s work on The Tree of Life, particularly the very start of the ad, the camera gliding through and exploring a scene of suburban bliss (the sun peeking out from behind the trees), which is merely setting up the ad’s central gag, that something as small as a child’s lemonade stand will become multinational in the future. It’s such an idyllic scene that not only does it depict catering towards a world market, it wholeheartedly recommends it, even just on a lizard-brained “if it looks so good in the ad, it must be good for us in the real world” level. And to think Lubezki’s movies with Malick are thought to not have reached normal audiences.
“Trail of Destruction”, Nike
This is Lubezki’s second Nike ad with David Fincher, and oh, what a different beast it is. While the first ad seemed to suggest that football is a destiny for its players, this ad goes in the complete opposite direction, painting football as something bordering on blood-sport, so full of brutality that only those who are literally more than human can withstand it. In addition, Lubezki totally switches up styles for this one, in more ways than just shooting in black-and-white this time. He keeps the camera totally locked down, following Adrian Peterson as he storms his way to the endzone with straight, fluid motions, no jerkiness to be found. This fits the change in perspective; Lubezki’s camerawork since the 2000s often has a “warmth” to it as a result of the camera seeming like an active, open participant in the story, following the characters just as intently as we are, and noticing things they don’t. There’s no feeling behind the camera here, no rush as the camera follows this hostility (not just brought about by the actions of the players, but by the layers of fog and snow Lubezki and Fincher shoot through), and it’s kind of terrifying. It’s the closest we’ll get to Lubezki in Patrick Bateman mode.
(Yes, he really shot that Snickers ad with Betty White.)