This tremendous year for cinematography also might be a historic one for two directors of photography whose careers cross paths this Oscar season. In his fourth decade of image-making, with films from The Shawshank Redemption to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford under his belt, 11-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins brings a vibrant and lush look to Angelina Jolie’s World War II drama Unbroken, an ambitious biopic shot over 14 weeks in Australia on sets replicating 1920s America, 1936 Berlin, the vast and unforgiving Pacific Ocean, and two Japanese prison camps. Meanwhile, 37-year-old up-and-comer Bradford Young (Pariah, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) is making his first Oscar splash in two richly lensed collaborations with fellow Sundance alums, the 1960s Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma for Ava DuVernay and J.C. Chandor’s crime drama A Most Violent Year. Can either cinematographer make history—the seasoned veteran with his first Oscar win, or the upstart newbie representing a new generation of D.P.s?
Back to Basics
For Unbroken, the true tale of Olympian-turned-prisoner of war Louis Zamperini, Deakins and Jolie agreed the film’s presentation should be straightforward and classical—no embellishments or heavy stylization. “We wanted to tell the story in a matter-of-fact way,” he says. “I’ve never understood the blurry, sepia look of ‘nostalgia.’ ”
Shadows and light play heavily into Unbroken’s theme, as Zamperini endures a litany of challenges, starting with surviving a B-24 airplane crash in the Pacific and then spending 47 days adrift at sea. “I sailed around the world once while making a film,” he says. “There’s a certain beauty about being in the middle of the ocean with an endless horizon, but it’s terrifying at the same time. You have to try to juxtapose the look of the image with the terror of the situation.
“Unbroken is an intimate portrait of this man’s life, but you also have to show the scale of it—especially at the prison camp Naoetsu, this hellish black world he’s put in,” Deakins continues. “Light and dark was definitely a theme in the script, and we tried to blend into it as much as possible.”
A shared touchstone between Jolie and Deakins was Sidney Lumet’s black-and-white 1965 film The Hill, which starred Sean Connery. “We didn’t want to do the handheld documentary approach,” Deakins says. “The Hill was a specific reference—that film is so powerful and it’s so much about composition and light.”
As for challenges, the biggest was made all the more difficult by Unbroken’s long shoot and many exterior shots: keeping continuity. “When you’re controlling something with light, interiors are easier,” he says. “But to photograph in daylight is probably the hardest thing, especially in Australia, where the light was changing all the time.”
Deakins, 65, operates the camera himself and calls on his early training as a documentary filmmaker, a skill that keeps him locked intimately into the action onscreen. “I get a tingle down my spine sometimes when the shot has captured the performance. That’s why I live for this,” he says.
Young won the Sundance Film Festival Cinematography prize in 2013 for lensing Mother of George and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, proving beautiful images could be made on a budget. This year he upped the ante, teaming with J.C. Chandor for A Most Violent Year. “I wanted it to to show a certain amount of elegance, maturity, and growth,” he says of the saga of an ambitious businessman (Oscar Isaac) in 1981 New York.
Chandor and Young agreed on the visual tone early on, drawing on street photography from the time as inspiration. “We all had one photographer in common: Jamel Shabazz,” Young says. “His photographs from the ’80s, the yellowish creamy tone, the decay of the look of the film—there was so much beauty embedded within.”
Young’s camera captures sprawling vistas of a bygone NYC in decay. He chose to shoot with the Alexa camera using Zeiss Master anamorphic lenses. “They were not aggressive at all, very elegant—they barely flare,” he explains.
Just two weeks after wrapping A Most Violent Year, Young began on Selma. “I was tired, but I wasn’t gonna be tired for Ava,” he says of DuVernay. Inspiration for the rich and velvety texture of the film came from the work of photojournalist Paul Fusco, who photographed people on the roadside stops of the Robert F. Kennedy funeral procession.
“Texturally, this film needed a patina,” Young says. Selma was shot with the Alexa using “very aggressive” Hawk anamorphic lenses. “The philosophical perspective was that this film was about a real horizontal movement—people who wanted just to hold hands with their comrades,” he continues. “So a lot of our framing sensibility had to be able to hold bodies horizontally. Marches, people holding hands. We didn’t care about space in terms of height.”
Selma explores King’s decisions and doubts during a crucial period in the civil rights movement. Re-creating some of the decade’s most troubled times called to mind current unrest in places like Ferguson, Missouri, although even the quieter moments came to haunt Young. “We shot the jail scene between Martin Luther King Jr. and Abernathy on our first day. It’s tight quarters; it felt like the bowels of a slave ship, and I lit it that way. I woke up one day feeling very emotional about that scene. I called Ava, and we discussed how those words spoke to our battle to be mindful filmmakers. Once you put a camera on my shoulders it becomes more weight, in the literal and the figurative sense. But it’s no more than what my ancestors took on so I could be here today. That’s the counterpoint. We’re living very privileged lives.”