Unsung Heroes: Roger Deakins

skyfall deakins

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride – once again, and for an incredible tenth time, Roger Deakins has been nominated by The Academy  Of Motion Picture Arts for best Cinematography (for Skyfall) and failed to take home a little gold fella. Just who does he have to f**k in Tinseltown to be recognised for his incredible body of work?

The passing over is not without controversy, and other nominees could feel aggrieved too. Ang Li’s Life Of Pi picked up the cinematography award, for which his VFX team (honoured in their own right) at now bankrupt Rhythm And Hues felt aggrieved (as well as at Li’s remarks that he wished the work could have “been cheaper”). In an open letter they said, among other things:

Incidentally, those were the same gorgeous sunsets and vistas that your DP Claudio Miranda took credit for without so much as a word of thanks to those artists. And the same animated performances that helped win you the best director statue. Nice of you to mention the pool crew, but maybe you could have thanked the guys and gals who turned that pool in to an ocean and put a tiger into that boat?”

Roger Deakins would have been sure to mention them had he won; he is one of the most open and generous of film-makers, a true collaborator. Check YouTube and you will find numerous posted interviews where he discusses his craft and influences. He works closely with his directors and set designers to find the best possible camera placement, the perfect way to light a scene. One of his favourite moments in True Grit is the audience and Mattie’s first proper look at Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn holding forth in the court room, back lit by the sunlight through the window.

true grit

Deakins went to Art College and discovered photography there, which led to documentary film-making, gradually moving by the mid-eighties into film drama, such as Sid And Nancy and 1984. He is probably best known for his long-term collaborations with the Coen Brothers, and his recent run with Sam Mendes.  One thing he isn’t tolerant of though is an actor’s vanity. He’ll gently guide them to his way of thinking. “I think a big part of a cinematographer’s job is creating a space where the actor feels comfortable to do their work. You do the best for them, there’s trust both ways.”

To get back to the Life Of Pi, his own work isn’t without some digital tweaking: for O Brother Where Art Thou? he digitally recoloured the landscape a dusty golden autumnal shade. He can also now add a “Visual Consultant”  feather to his cap, after working with Andrew Stanton and the Pixar crew on WALL-E.  Deakins advised them on how the camera interprets the feel of live action, and on how to light the rubble strewn landscape. He did much the same thing for Dreamworks, working with the How To Train Your Dragon team for 14 months. “The first thing we did was do some reference sequences in terms of lighting…what candle light would look like, what a foggy day exterior would look like, what a night moon would look like and how that would relate to the dragons and how flame would light the set and stuff.”

Back to live action, and one of his trickiest and most emotionally engaging moments is on True Grit again, when Rooster is taking the snake bitten Mattie  to help on her pony little Blackie, riding hell for leather beneath a star strewn night sky. He laughed thinking back on it, a black horse against a black sky: “What else can you throw at me?”

An outstanding sequence in No Country For Old Men is when  Josh Brolin, on returning to the scene of a drug deal gone bad, is chased by the returning drug dealers and their dog throughout the night into early morning. Deakins had a real challenge with various light levels over several days.

no country

He has a soft spot for westerns, so it was a delight to work on Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. He said “It’s a much more melancholy, sort of contemplative piece about this bandit, this bank robber, whose time had kind of passed. I love that film, and I love the challenge of doing something that had this much more sort of poetic, melancholy kind of feel to it.”

Deakin’s isn’t hidebound by choices, either. Skyfall is his second film (after In Time) to be shot digitally. He says “I’m not nostalgic for a technology. I’m nostalgic for the kind of films that used to be made that aren’t being made now.”

Skyfall is the first James Bond film to be shot digitally, on an Arri Alexa, a camera he finds to be very versatile. Although he still loves film (and could never envision having ever shot True Grit digitally), he can’t see himself ever going back. He loves the Alexa’s sharpness of image and adaptability to harsh and low-light spectrum. One only has to watch the Skyfall lodge sequence, or Bond’s entrance to the Macau Dragon casino (via the Pinewood water tank!), or the amazing Shanghai neon drenched scrap. Originally that was to be shot in China in a  real building, until the crew decided they’d have far more control of all the various elements on a sound stage, capturing floating neon signs and light reflections that would have impossible to replicate practically and cost effectively.

skyfall shanghai

And of course, returning to his love, what else is Silva’s gang cresting the Skyfall lodge gates in the moody twilight, than another western gang of baddies?

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