The 11-time Oscar nominee describes photographing scenes from Louie Zamperini lost at sea on a raft to a night raid at a prison camp
Guests on hand for the opening of the exhibit — presented by Unbroken studio Universal and running through Jan. 8 — included Norman Jewison, Haskell Wexler, Joel and Ethan Coen, Dean DeBlois, and Brad Pitt, who was there representing Jolie, who came down with chicken pox. (Pitt starred in the Deakins-lensed The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford).
Deakins saluted his collaborators during brief opening remarks. “What would I shoot if there wasn’t a director with a vision?” he said with his usual quiet humility, and appearing genuinely moved by all the attention.
He's widely considered to be among the greatest cinematographers of his time, having created iconic images for films including The Shawshank Redemption, The Man Who Wasn't There, No Country for Old Men (which starred Brolin) and Skyfall. His accolades include three BAFTAs, three American Society of Cinematographers Award for features, and the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award. Some are wondering what it would take for him to bring home the elusive Oscar statue and hoping, perhaps, that it’s Unbroken.
Teaming with Jolie to tell of the heroic story of Louie Zamperini (played by Jack O’Connell) meant creating varied looks and feels, including at the Olympic runner’s childhood home, participation in the Olympics, and service during WWII during which he was lost at sea for more than a month and endured life as a POW in Japan.
“The film has films within the film,” Deakins said, adding that to get started, he and Jolie “had a lot of conversations and looked at a lot of references and we gravitated toward a more classic style of storytelling. It’s about compositions and the action happens within the frame. We both felt the story was so strong, we didn’t want to embellish it; we didn’t want to do a handheld runabout approach.”
He said the template they used was Sidney Lumet’s The Hill. “One of Angie’s favorite films,” Deakins revealed, “the work is deceptively simple, it’s about strong compositions and allowing [the camera] to quietly tell the story.”
Shot with an Arri Alexa, Deakins' photography elicits different claustrophobic feelings in scenes that depict Zamperini’s ordeal during WWII; a particularly tricky scene was one during which he is lost a sea on a raft “We wanted to shoot as much as we could on open water [in Australia], and some scenes we were going to do in a tank because they were so complicated. But there were practical limitations — the wind would make it not only dangerous, but impossible to film — so we ended up doing more in the tank than we intended.”
He explained that different water conditions were created for each scene, and then he shot plates off Catalina to match the look, which we married with the footage that was shot in the tank.”
Deakins wanted to convey not only a feeling of “isolation and heat, but also the claustrophobia of being out in the middle of an ocean with nothing around you.” It was a feeling that the cinematographer had experienced, having sailed around the world while filming documentary Around the World with Ridgeway. Deakins recalled, “There’s nothing more isolating that being 2,500 miles from the nearest land and seeing this endless horizon. We really wanted to get that feeling, it’s almost claustrophobia, because it’s always the same day to day.”
Another scene, during which Zamperini is in isolation as a POW, takes place almost in darkness, in a 4x4 cell. “The claustrophobia is created by the sense of the camera being close and using a wide lens,” Deakins said. “And it's very much about the darkness. He’s in a dark space and the light he is seeing is through the cracks in the door. It’s about creating the mystery of what was outside, he didn’t know.”
One of the most technically difficult scenes to film was a night raid at the Omori prison camp. “The guys go up on the roof to put out the fires near the camp, and some of it, the planes, were CG, but everything else was shot in camera."
“We had a layer of smoke that we blew through the near background," he continued. "And we had probably 50 Maxi Brutes [and other lights] lined up in the back on dimmers to backlight the smoke to give the effect of the fire light outside the prison camp perimeter, so that I could silhouette the guys on the roof. The side shots became the light on their faces, and we could play with the intensity of the light depending on the angle we were shooting at. And we added some searchlights, which were 20K Molebeams, and there were practical lights around the prison camp. It looks so naturalistic, but it was a huge job. We shot it over two nights, I don't think they were even full nights.”