Cinematographer Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC departs from traditional methods on Joel and Ethan Coens O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, using digital wizardry to lend the Depression-era jailbreak tale a customized look.
Someday industry aficionados may look back on Joel and Ethan Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou? as a landmark film that began to redefine the cinematographer's role. Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC originally photographed the film in the standard manner at practical locations in Mississippi, but then retooled the film's color palette with the latest digital technology, fine-tuning the look and image quality until it closely matched the Coen brothers' vision.
Well-received at this year's Cannes Film Festival, the picture is slated for U.S. release in December. Its title pays homage to Preston Sturges's 1941 film Sullivan's Travels, in which a successful movie director who is tired of churning out mindless entertainment decides to make a "serious" film called O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The Coens set their story in rural Mississippi during the 1930s, and it follows three convicts who escape from a chain gang and embark upon an odyssey filled with misadventures. One of the trio, Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney), convinces the others (John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson) to help him escape by promising he will share loot he has hidden away from a bank robbery. McGill claims that the area where the money is hidden is about to be flooded, which lends the escape a sense of urgency. As the story unfolds, however, the audience discovers that McGill is lying. The truth is that his ex-wife (Holly Hunter) is about to marry another man; he only needs the other convicts to escape with him because they are literally chained together.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is not the first time an entire motion picture has been digitized and then converted back to film for distribution. Gary Ross did it on Pleasantville (shot by John Lindley, ASC see AC Nov. '98), and Jon Shear color-timed Urbania, a Super 16 film, in a digital suite (photographed by Shane Kelly see AC May '00). George Lucas digitized The Phantom Menace (shot by David Tattersall, BSC see AC Sept. '99), but his purpose was to integrate visual effects and live-action components in literally hundreds of shots.
Although O Brother, Where Art Thou? contains a number of visual-effects shots, those scenes were incidental to the decision to digitize the film. In fact, the Coen brothers saw the computer as just another tool for extending the art and craft of cinematography. There is more than a little irony in that decision, however, since neither the Coens nor Deakins think of themselves as digital mavens. In fact, the Coens still edit on a traditional flatbed console because they feel that it gives them more tactile control of the film.
Writer/producer Ethan and writer/director Joel began making movies in 1984 with the acclaimed thriller Blood Simple (which was recently rereleased in theaters in a special "director's cut"). Their films typically explore the dark side of humanity and feature characters who stick in viewers' memories long after the last flickering images have disappeared from the screen. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is Deakins' fifth collaboration with the brothers, following Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo and The Big Lebowski. (He is currently shooting the sixth, The Barber Project.) Other notable credits in Deakins' body of work include Sid and Nancy, Thunderheart, Stormy Monday, The Secret Garden, 1984 and The Hurricane. He earned a 1994 ASC Award and an Oscar nomination for The Shawshank Redemption, as well as both Academy and ASC Award nominations for Fargo and Kundun.
"Before I read the script [for O Brother, Where Art Thou?] Joel and Ethan told me they had a film they wanted to shoot in the South," Deakins recalls. "They imagined something dry, dusty and very hot." Texas was initially chosen as the primary location, but the filmmakers eventually switched to Mississippi. "I've worked in Louisiana and Alabama [on Passion Fish and The Long Walk Home,] so I knew that the region would be wet and the foliage would be various shades of lush green and about half the picture would take place in exteriors."
The filmmakers briefly considered changing locations again, but Mississippi's unique delta landscapes drew them back. "It would have been a different scenario if we had been shooting in the winter or if we'd been able to take in fall colors, but our film was scheduled for a summer shoot," Deakins recalls. "I had to find a way to desaturate the greens and give the images we were going to shoot the feeling of old, hand-tinted postcards, [which was the look] favored by Joel and Ethan."
To prepare for the production, the filmmakers shot some footage at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, where the trees were particularly green and therefore similar to those they were about to be surrounded by in Mississippi. This footage was then subjected to a series of tests by Beverly Wood at Deluxe Laboratory. According to Deakins, tests such as bleach-bypass and ACE produced interesting desaturation but could not be applied in a selective way. The most promising option was a bi-pack system combining a black-and-white panchromatic dupe with the original color negative. Deakins notes that although this technique provided a great deal of control over saturation, it was not selective enough. "I remembered that some years ago, when we shot 1984, we'd had a similar problem," he says. "We originally wanted to shoot in black-and-white, but the project's backers wouldn't allow it. Instead, we decided to go for a harsh, desaturated look using a bleach-bypass system at Kays Laboratory in Great Britain, where the staff was performing tests for us. The challenge was to create the very golden, colorful looks for the scenes that required them as a counterpoint to the starkness of the main body of the film. On those few scenes, we wound up using very heavy filtration to counteract the bleach-bypass."
While doing tests at Deluxe for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Deakins began to consider the new digital technology at his disposal. He was aware of Lindley's experience on Pleasantville and knew of Cinesite in Hollywood, which handled all of the film scanning and recording on that project. He thought that if he could scan the entire film into digital format, he would have infinite control over the look in the digital suite, but he wasn't sure it would be affordable. Deakins discussed the concept with the Coen brothers, who were familiar with the technique, and they asked him to conduct more tests.
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