With more than 30 features under his belt, Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC is one of the world’s master cinematographers.
While Deakins has collaborated with some of today’s top moviemakers, including Martin Scorsese (Kundun), Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) and Sam Mendes (Revolutionary Road), he has enjoyed an especially fruitful relationship with Joel and Ethan Coen, with whom he has worked for nearly two decades.
Born and raised in a small town on the coast of England, where fishing and boating were the main endeavors, Deakins showed an early flair for painting and still photography, and was an avid movie fan as a youth.
After graduating from the National Film School in London, Deakins began his career behind the camera shooting documentaries. He segued into narrative moviemaking in 1983, when he shot Another Time, Another Place for England’s famed Channel 4.
Whether the setting is a wintry landscape or a scorching desert, a director can always depend on Deakins to bring a stylish sense of atmosphere to every scene he shoots. As such, he is the recipient of the 2011 American Society of Cinematographers’ Lifetime Achievement Award.
Will True Grit, Deakins 11th collaboration with the Coens, finally garner the eight-time Academy Award nominee a much-deserved win? We’ll know soon enough. Here, Deakins shares some of the moviemaking lessons he has learned during his years behind the camera.
1. THERE ARE NO RULES. •
I look at classic films for inspiration, but there are no rules for things like which lens to use, how much the camera moves or doesn’t move, how close it is to the subject or how high or low the angle is. Every film defines its own look. Sometimes a story calls for a close-up on a character’s face; their eyes and expressions can speak louder than words. Other times it’s about the reactions of other characters in the frame and how the environment augments the story.
2. IT ALL BEGINS WITH UNDERSTANDING THE STORY. •
I don’t think you can just sit down with a director, get into his head and come out of that meeting knowing what he or she wants the film to look like. The first time I read a script, I don’t think about the cinematography or the way the film should look. I am more interested in what the story has to say and how I relate to the characters. Once I have a feeling for the story and characters, I read the script again and think about how the visuals could help to draw the audience into the story. Then, through discussions with the director as well as location scouting with the director and production designer, I gradually build a picture of the story in my head. It’s quite an organic process, which continues until the day of the shoot.
3. MOVIES CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE. •
I was influenced by [documentary-style films] like Cathy Come Home, which Ken Loach directed and Tony Imi shot for the BBC… It made a huge impact on the social system in England. Not every film can do that, but that was my goal. I wanted to make documentaries like the ones produced by Frederick Wiseman, Ricky Leacock and Ken Loach… Shooting documentaries teaches you to work instinctively, quickly and quite simply. You concentrate on the key elements because there’s never a second take.
4. ENTERTAINING FILMS CAN ALSO MAKE YOU THINK. •
I don’t think there is anything wrong with entertainment, but it can be more interesting when films are provocative and make you think about something that isn’t purely fantasy and escapism. I like to go to a cinema and feel I am looking into another world, like when I study a painting. I loved The Wild Bunch and other films from the 1960s and ’70s that had breadth and variety. They sent us home entertained, but also thinking about important issues.
5. MAKE THE AUDIENCE FEEL WHAT THE CHARACTER FEELS. •
Jarhead was based on a memoir written by a Marine veteran. It was a reflection of his experiences during the Desert Storm invasion of Kuwait in 1990. In our first discussion, Sam Mendes said he wanted the audience to get inside the main character’s head and give them a sense of what he was feeling about what was happening around him in the bleak, desert environment. Framing the film in widescreen aspect ratio was an obvious choice. We also decided to cover some scenes with a handheld camera for a more intimate feeling with a visceral sense of immediacy.
6. PAINT WITH COLORS. •
Joel and Ethan [Coen] told me they had a film they wanted to shoot in the South before I read their script for O Brother, Where Art Thou? About half of the picture was daylight exterior scenes. They envisioned a dry, dusty and very hot environment. The locations were in Mississippi. I had worked in that part of the country during the summer, so I knew the region would be wet and the foliage would be various shades of lush green. I had to find a way to desaturate the green tones and give the images the look of old, hand-tinted postcards. We were one of the first pictures to use digital intermediate technology. The film starts with a desaturated look but slowly the colors seep back in. The greens were suppressed and the landscapes given brown and yellow hues, while the skin tones remained unchanged.
7. SUBTLETY CAN HAVE A STRONG IMPACT. •
During my first conversation with Ron Howard about A Beautiful Mind, we agreed to create subtleties in the look which reflected both the period and the main character’s state of mind. Russell Crowe played a brilliant mathematician who goes insane. The early scenes were set during the mid- to late 1940s. I pre-flashed the film with a coral-colored light, giving it a golden orange tone to
help transport the audience back to that time and place. When the mathematician is suffering from his worst
hallucinations, the images become subtly more contrasty. It came as a surprise to the audience when the story revealed that characters he saw didn’t actually exist. When he recovers and goes back to work, the world and the look returned to normal.
8. STORY MATTERS MOST. •
I love experimenting with new technology; it’s like being an explorer and seeing how far you can go. But it is only a means to an end. You are trying to tell a story with images that enable people around the world to share an experience. The story is what is important. I don’t consciously think about the responsibility that goes with being a filmmaker, but it is always there in the back of my mind.
9. MOTHER NATURE HAS A MIND OF HER OWN. •
We were on a very tight schedule while shooting True Grit and didn’t have the luxury of waiting for perfect light on exterior scenes. One of the advantages of storyboarding is that you can structure the day for the way the sun travels across the sky. But you have no control over the weather. Even with good weather, it’s not always possible to predict when the sky will cloud over. Consequently, we sometimes had to shoot different parts of the same scene in both cloudy weather and sunlight. DI timing allowed us to blend those elements of scenes by slightly altering saturation and contrast.
10. YOU NEED TO FIND YOUR OWN WAY. •
When young filmmakers ask me for advice, which they do all the time, I tell them to stick with what they feel is right and find their own way of doing things. The most important thing is knowing what you want to achieve and not just the techniques for getting there. In the end, it comes down to your ability to collaborate with the director, the cast, your crew and everyone else, keeping in mind that they all have different personalities. MM