Interview: Cinematographer Matthew Libatique Talks “Noah” and Working with Darren Aronofsky

Photo credit: Niko Tavernise
Photo credit: Niko Tavernise
Photo credit: Niko Tavernise

Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique is best known for his collaborations with Darren Aronofsky. I got the chance to speak with him recently about the duos most recent film, “Noah,” and where he stands in the digital vs. film debate. This is an edited version of our conversation.

AC: “Noah” is probably the biggest film you’ve worked on with Aronofsky, what was your approach going into filming?

Matthew Libatique: Both of us went after naturalism, something that would communicate a reality… we needed to make sure the film was grounded atmospherically in a reality. At least specifically for me, from a cinematography standpoint, I didn’t want to get too fantastic with the light.

If you look at “The Fountain,” for example, which was the biggest film we had done before that, it was a complete departure from that approach because we wanted the audience not to feel like it was a “Lord of the Rings” type epic, it was something grounded in reality.

Photo credit: Niko Tavernise
Photo credit: Niko Tavernise

AC: What was it like shooting in Iceland?

ML: Well it was interesting because Darren is used to having a lot of control. Most of our films have been on stages or locations and interiors where we could control the light. It was actually interesting to watch him work in a scenario where we were beholden to nature. In terms of light, it was probably the most beautiful place we ever shot.

At one point, there’s a shot in the film that’s at sunset where Noah realizes he has been spoken to by God through his visions… that was shot at a sunrise at 2 a.m. The sun never went away, it was just beautiful. We would be able to work odd hours, we’d start at noon and go until two o’clock in the morning and the light would be in that position. It’s a cinematographer’s dream to be able to work in that kind of scenario.

AC: What would you say was the most difficult scene in the film to shoot?

ML: When Tubal-cain takes humanity and charges after the ark to take it over and the rain began, that battle scene was the hardest thing. It was hard because… ultimately it was trying to create the illusion it was a stormy day.

What’s interesting is the harder scene was the preceding scene where Logan Lerman’s character finds a girl, he’s running through the forest and he’s being chased by all the hordes and she falls into a trap. That scene took over four days to get right because of nature, sun issues and trying to create the illusion it was a rainy sky. So we would pick parts of day that would work for the light and it was just miserable. But technically, the battle scene was the hardest.

AC: What was the process – planning and mapping it out – for the creation scene?

ML: That was ultimately a collaboration between the visual effects team, Darren and myself. In the evening we would go out and shoot stills. Each frame in that is a single frame cobbled together to look like live-action. The planning of it was just scouting locations and taking a 5D and going from place to place in Iceland and marking the places we wanted to use for the journey of evolution. Execution was fairly simple after we found all our locations, I think finding our locations was the most difficult part.

Photo credit: Niko Tavernise
Photo credit: Niko Tavernise

AC: This is your fifth collaboration with Aronofsky, what do you enjoy most from your collaborations?

ML: When I first met him I thought he was a brilliant filmmaker. Watching him evolve and watching myself evolve, I feel very fortunate. He’s one of my best friends. You see somebody who’s with you in life learning things as they go along… and then when we collaborate together on a film we learn from each other. Ultimately it’s like growing up with someone. We met when we were twenty, twenty years of working together and being friends. It’s sort of like a marriage. He said it was a bad marriage in an interview once. He said he’s the battered one. I feel like I am.

AC: Well, there are always two sides to every marriage.

ML: Yeah, exactly. But I can’t say enough about it. The fact that people recognize the relationship that we have is an honor, actually. I’m very proud of it.

AC: “Noah,” like all your movies with Aronofsky, was shot on film. You have worked on digital, though. Where do you stand in that debate?

ML: At the beginning I was dead set against digital. But as times evolve it is what it is. It’s here. It’s here to stay. It’s not going anywhere. I think I have a responsibility to learn it and try and master it and to help it move forward in a way that is conducive to filmmakers and cinematographers. I don’t think it’s a debate.

I just finished my third digital film, “Straight Out of Compton,” recently and I had a great time and I’m still learning. If you take the attitude that you’re a cinematographer and you’re still learning because it’s an ever-evolving craft then you just embrace it and you try and figure out how to make the format work for you.

AC: Would you say you have a preference?

ML: I’m always going to love film. It’s like the one that got away. There’s no replacement of it to me. I felt so fortunate I started my career at a time I was a film shooter. I feel bad for filmmakers who don’t have the opportunity to do it. There’s something just more mystical and magical about it, it’s like everything cinema is. This emotion that you photograph on and it creates an image and you manipulate that image and it’s so simple, it’s chemical, it’s sensitometry. Digital is ever manipulated in post-production where a cinematographer has the ultimate control because you manipulated it at the point of exposure.

“Noah” is currently available on Blu-Ray and DVD.