The good folks at Cinephilia & Beyond have dug up a vintage 45-minute interview with famed cinematographer Roger Deakins, who shot the Coens’ existential noir “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001) in black-and-white. It’s a fascinating look back at this unsung masterwork of light and shadow. (And I think at one point he mispronounces Werner Herzog as “Werner Herzburger.”)
More recently, Deakins shot Angelina Jolie’s upcoming “Unbroken,” and back in January we talked to Deakins about the film and the digital vs. 35mm debate. Below is an excerpt from that interview, which you can read in full here.
Anne Thompson: Tell me about Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” which you’re shooting right now. What are some of the challenges on that film?
Roger Deakins: We’ve shot for four weeks. Every film is a challenge in a different way. The film is about Louis Zamperini. He was taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II on the water and spent two-and-a-half years in a prison camp.
Of the Coens’ films you’ve shot I’m particularly fond of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” You were innovating something that hadn’t been done before in terms of the digital master.
We were shooting in Mississippi in mid-summer and the Coens and I wanted a dry, dusty look but obviously, it was a very lush environment. We also wanted a kind of feeling of a painted postcard, and we experimented for quite a long time. Digital finishing was starting, people had been using digital technology to do effects work and we thought, “Why not try and do the whole film like that?” We made some tests and figured that by the time we finished shooting and were in post-production that the technology would be advanced enough that we could do it. It was a bit of a struggle, but that’s what we did.
Do you prefer film or digital?
It’s hard to say. There are so many advantages to digital capture. The first one is that now there’s no film lab in Australia or New Zealand, so if we were to process film we’d have to send it to LA or London. So the biggest advantage for us here is that we know what we’ve got. We see the image onset and that’s it. We don’t have that week of processing the negative and getting the dailies in return. There are lots of advantages in the shooting as far as I’m concerned, in terms of the flexibilities of digital technology as opposed to film. I say that but I’ve shot film, obviously, for many, many years and I love the process. But one can’t be nostalgic. That’s the way things are going.
Most people now, even those who shoot in 35, they finish the movie digitally. What’s going to be lost forever with your generation is people who know how to process 35.
When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter what you record the image on. It’s the image you’re recording that’s important. It’s the framing, the way you move the camera, the choice of shot, the lighting within the scene. It’s not what you record the image on. I think this argument is a little irrelevant actually.
The 35mm advocates would argue that the digital cameras, while they are improving every year, they still don’t beat the quality of the image you can achieve on 35.
Frankly, I totally disagree. I don’t know what a better quality image is or how to describe it, but I didn’t start shooting with a digital camera until I felt the image was superior to what I could get on film for what I wanted to achieve. Other people have different ideas on that. I understand that and accept their opinions, but I don’t agree with them.