Roger Deakins looks back on ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and the days of cinema alchemy

It seemed this year that if any artist was due for the retrospective treatment, it was “Unbroken” cinematographer Roger Deakins. While I of course did not address all of the 50-plus films he has shot throughout his illustrious career during a recent extended interview, I settled on a few in particular that I think represent a nice cross-section of his work. Each of them – “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” “Sid and Nancy,” “Barton Fink,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Kundun,” “The Man Who Wasn't There” and “The Village” – will get their own space in the next few days.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins knew director Michael Radford from their film school days. They cut their teeth together in 1983 on their theatrical narrative debut, “Another Time, Another Place,” which caused a stir at the Cannes Film Festival and led to Radford being presented the opportunity to tackle a dream project: an adaptation of George Orwell's pivotal 1948 novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Today, looking back, Deakins puts his work on the film on a very high pedestal.

“I wouldn”t honestly say anything I”ve done since is any better than 'Nineteen Eighty-Four,'” he says. High consideration for a guy responsible for some of our most indelible modern cinematic imagery. But when Deakins thinks back on the project, you quickly discover that there's a touch of nostalgia there, a longing for the days when cinematography had a touch of alchemy, when practical wizardry truly made a film set another world to behold.

“It was in a time before we had a lot of CG, so we did everything for real, in camera,” he says of the film's effects aesthetic. “I don't think there were any optical effects in that. We did all the playbacks in camera. We even did a wide shot of a big telescreen with, you know, the big playback on it. A little thing of walking through this deserted area with a couple of tower blocks. And we actually did a glass shot. We set the camera up and this artist painted, on a piece of glass, the frame of the telescreen, and then we projected the image on a piece of glass. It was so much fun, you know?”

He recalls around the same time a commercial Ridley Scott directed that was very “'Nineteen Eighty-Four-ish'” in its design, big screens littering the frame. But that was all done with blue screen and after effects. “He was surprised we did it all live,” Deakins says. “It was fun but it was also cheaper to do it live. And the actors always had something to relate to. The big scene where the guy is being hanged and it was being shown on the screen, everybody could relate to what was there. It was quite shocking to actually be there filming it.”

He misses that ingenuity, he admits. But he also recognizes the industry as an ever-changing beast. He famously made the jump to digital photography with Andrew Niccol's “In Time” in 2011, a moment akin to Bob Dylan going electric, and has said he doesn't like a lot of bells and whistles cluttering things. But “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” for all its old school, longed-for processes, certainly has a place in the progression of cinematic technology, too.

“It was the first time anybody had done bleach bypass on a European or American film,” Deakins says. “We did that on the print. That was a technique probably invented by Kazuo Miyagawa, who shot color stock film for one of his later films, and he called the process 'silver tint,' but it was probably something similar. He never told anybody what he did because he'd started life as a chemist, I think, and he had actually developed the process himself.”

Deakins did three films with Radford. They were good friends but fell out of touch eventually. It would be interesting, though, to see them come together on another project, since their work together bore such fruit in the early days. Come what may, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” remains a stand-out piece of work in Deakins' filmography, both aesthetically and thematically.

“The film and the book was very much about language,” he says. “If you take away language, do you take away people's ideas? Their thoughts? If they can't express themselves, maybe that reduces the kind of things they can think about. I thought it was very faithful to the book.”

Don't forget to read our “Unbroken”-centric interview with Deakins here.