Utilizing Oswald Morris’ work on Sidney Lumet’s 1965 “The Hill” as a searing benchmark for World War II melodrama, Deakins achieves a classical look, packing the frame with intensity. From the ethereal opening of Zamp’s B24 ascending the clouds to the bleached out claustrophobia of surviving 47 days in a raft in the Pacific, to the agonies of enduring POW torture porn in the Omori and Naoetsu camps, Deakins creates a masterful dance of light and dark that serves as the primary metaphor of miraculous survival and spiritual transcendence. The contrast between the two camps, for instance, couldn’t be more visually striking: the wooden Omori has a warm, dustiness while Naoetsu is draped in black coal and snow.
“I liked doing hand-held work, which I did a lot of with Sam Mendes in the war film, ‘Jarhead,’ but the script, as I saw it, was not that kind of movie,” Deakins suggests. “We wanted the images to speak for themselves, in a way. You’re not trying to enliven the action with the camera. It’s what’s actually in the frame.”
The original script opens with the voiceover of the pastor, and as the sun rises, the B24s come out of the darkness. “Well, that changed in the edit, but that was the original intent of the whole piece where you start with this idea of light and dark.I always like playing with light and using a lot of silhouettes and stuff and I kinda think that’s what I do anyway. It’s definitely there but you don’t want to make it too heavy-handed.”
The dogfight in the clouds is exquisite, yet Deakins would’ve preferred less clouds (which resemble the gnocchi Zamperini keeps referring to in recalling his mother’s cooking). “I had all of these [reference] images of different seascapes and all of these images of different skies and so the opening was going to be this perfect sunrise without any clouds. But when we came to shoot the sunrise, of course, there were clouds. It was just after a hurricane down in Australia. So we were shooting what we could get.
“It was all elements: we had a 70-foot B24 without wings on a stage and a series of gimbals and a huge lighting rig and manipulating sunlight on a crane flying across the set to give it some motion and all the rest. It’s a very big effects shoot. And having it match and giving it a tonal consistency is the hardest thing on any film but especially on a film like this.”
For the Olympics of 1936, production designer Jon Hutman found an Olympic track in Australia that was the same size as the real stadium in Berlin. “We put a wall around the track to mimic the one that was in Berlin and the backgrounds are put in [by Industrial Light & Magic]. And we were incredibly lucky to have five days of this even, soft, almost foggy sky, which is exactly what the weather was in Berlin.”
The sight of the yellow raft against the blue water that seems to go on for infinity for 47 grueling days is another of the movie’s iconic images.”We had three situations for the shots on water. We shot some of it on a spud barge anchored in the bay and we shot a lot on an exterior tank and then we shot quite a bit on an interior tank, which I lit for different situations.
“I sailed around the world when I was a lot younger and there’s nothing more claustrophobic than being as far as possible as you can be away from land. It’s very surreal. It’s so much about the faces — we’re not shooting the landscapes. Same with the running. We’re tracking the runners going around the track. You’re not observing some event: you’re actually in there.”
The Omori camp was built on an empty space outside Brisbane. And the Naoetsu prison camp was one of the major reasons they were in Australia. “This one location called Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbor is now a museum but was a World War II Navy dockyard where they built torpedo boats and destroyers. So these two dry docks and these amazing cliffs where these warehouses were period to the Second World War. So that was a fantastic opportunity for a location that really matched the description of the real prison camp in northeast Japan.”
Jolie was very specific about visually conveying beauty and contrast, and there is no better example of contrast than during the Naoetsu sequence: the coal black faces of the prisoners set against the snowy white landscape.
Deakins, however, also singles out the transition between camps when the prisoners leave Omori and travel through Tokyo, which has been devastated by the fire bombing. “It’s a completely wasted, blackened landscape and then you’ve got the snow in the mountains they cross to get to northeast Japan, and they basically come to this factory where they’re dealing with the coal every day on these barges.”
They actually considered shooting on film but went digital because there was a lot of VFX work from ILM and, more important, there were no available film labs. Plus the resolution and the amount of data you get with the Alexa is supeiror to film, according to Deakins, which he learned on “Skyfall.”
But the cinematographer is back shooting on film here in LA for the Coen brother’s “Hail, Caesar!” The 1952 Hollywood.comedy has plenty to offer, including musicals and roman soldiers. Deakins says it’s all very funny, but looks forward to getting his hands on the new 6K 65mm Alexa for large-format opportunities.
When he’s inevitably nominated, will the 12th time be the charm for Deakins? He’s long overdue for an Oscar after being especially overlooked for “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “No Country for Old Men,” “The Assassination of Jesse James,” and “Skyfall.”
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