"Gravity"

Director Alfonso Cuaron and Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki on the set of "Gravity." (Murray Close / Warner Bros. / May 19, 2011)

Anyone who has seen director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki work together might think they spend all of their time arguing like an old married couple, the squabbles punctuated by all manner of Spanish swear words.

"They are very intense," said David Heyman, a producer of "Gravity," their Oscar-nominated and most celebrated collaboration. "They are both perfectionists and unrelenting in their pursuit of that perfection."

But like some old married couples, underneath their disagreements rest a deep and abiding trust and respect.

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Friends from their Mexican childhood — "We went to parties together as teens," Cuarón said — Lubezki and Cuarón collaborated on five previous features: "Love in the Time of Hysteria," "A Little Princess," "Great Expectations," "Y Tu Mamá También" and "Children of Men."

"It's like we're on the same frequency. Things happen naturally," Lubezki said of working with Cuarón. Both are favorites to win Oscars on Sunday night.

Cuarón, 52, calls the 49-year-old Lubezki his "co-director," a professional relationship dramatized by how one of "Gravity's" signature scenes came together — Sandra Bullock's slowly rotating in her underwear inside a Russian space capsule as if she were a baby in a womb.

As first pictured by Cuarón and even photographed by Lubezki, the scene had an almost engineered look, Bullock lit by the harsh fluorescent lights in the capsule. "He wanted the feeling of the scene to be totally different — much more industrial," Lubezki said. But the cinematographer thought Cuarón's approach was a little misguided, and went off with visual effects supervisor Tim Webber to rework the sequence.

Thanks to the power of visual effects, Lubezki over the course of several weeks was able to add a window in the capsule door, thus redirecting the light source away from inside the cabin to outside it, so that Bullock was lit not by bulbs but by the sun, its light pouring through the porthole and framing her as if she were being reborn.

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When Lubezki took his version to Cuarón, he was not optimistic. "My guess is you're not going to like it," Lubezki told the director. But Cuarón, knowing a great shot when he saw it, promptly ditched his own interpretation of the scene.

"He said we needed a glimpse of nature and he was right," Cuarón said. "He understands the difference between the conceptual and the emotional. Because sometimes I get carried away with the conceptual."

Small choices like that often separate a great work of art from the mediocre masses, and Lubezki's attention to detail is not limited to his collaborations with Cuarón.

Earlier this week in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Lubezki was working as the cinematographer on the low-budget independent film "Last Days in the Desert," where time was fleeting and a creative solution essential.

Because the biblical allegory from writer-director Rodrigo Garcia, due out later this year, unfolds a few decades after Jesus' birth, it was critical that no modern references intruded into the frame. So Lubezki flipped open a pocket knife, knelt in the sand and sawed off swatches of muslin from some set dressing. With gaffer's tape, he wrapped the fabric around the waffle-soled hiking shoes of Steadicam operator Colin Anderson, so that Anderson's footprints wouldn't contaminate the image.

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Lubezki now divides his time among a small handful of filmmakers: Cuarón, Garcia, Alejandro González Iñárritu (Lubezki just shot his "Birdman," due later this year) and Terrence Malick. Lubezki, known as "Chivo" (Spanish for goat) to everybody he works with, was the cinematographer for Malick's "Tree of Life" and "To the Wonder." He also shot the director's upcoming "Knight of Cups" and another untitled Malick film.

"I try to listen to and understand what the director is trying to do," Lubezki said. "How they want to shoot the movie and express the emotions."

Yet the cinematographer's closest working relationship is not with a camera or a lens but with fellow Mexican-born filmmaker Cuarón, with whom Lubezki conjured up "Gravity" even as everyone told them the movie was impossible.

While most media attention has focused on Cuarón's membership in Cha Cha Cha, a production company composed of the "three amigos" of Mexican directors Guillermo del Toro ("Pacific Rim") and Iñárritu ("Babel"), his relationship with Lubezki has been far more fruitful.