The Cinematography of Roger Deakins

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A cinematographer is also known as a director of photography. They’re the guys that make the movies we watch look how they look. It’s their photographic eye that we see. And they don’t get too much recognition for the work they do, with most of the attention going towards the director and actor already. I wanted to write about a few good ones and see if it can become a weekly thing if you guys are into it. You probably know the work these guys have done, so I’ll cover what they did to get the shots that we see on the big screen.

If this is going to be the first out of more to come, I’ll start it off with a bang by focusing it on Roger Deakins.

Roger Deakins

You’d probably have called him a purist; Roger Deakins’ preferred medium was film, until around 2011, when he stepped into the digital world when the Alexa cameras caught his eye.

“I prefer Super 35 because it allows you to use short focal-length lenses. I also like the scale of that format — the intimacy — and the texture of the film grain. In some cases I find anamorphic to be almost too clean, too grain-free and pristine.” (AC Magazine, October 2007)

Regardless of what he uses, he uses it to its fullest potential. If you’ve seen The Shawnshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James, Skyfall or even How to Train Your Dragon, you’ve seen his work. The guy’s got a resume, and it’s a wonder that none of his work has placed him an oscar yet. Here’s how a few of his most iconic shots were done:

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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The Assassination of Jesse James opens with a train robbery. This scene was being filmed entirely at night, in a town called Edmonton. The train they had was supposedly a bit small (the director started calling it Thomas the Tank Engine), and they didn’t have the budget to bring a bigger train. Deakins assured the crew that with the right camera work, it wouldn’t be a big deal at all. After attempting to calm the crew down, Deakins gave the set another scare with his approach to how he’d film the scene: with just one source of light coming from a lamp set on the train.

The Assassinaion of Jesse James train robbery

Considering this was being done with a night shot, everyone was rightfully pretty uneasy; what resulted, however, was possibly the film’s most iconic moment. The smoke present that night illuminated the lamp’s light within itself, and the silhouettes that resulted made this take come out absolutely amazingly in the final cut. What started off as a crazy idea ended up becoming better than anything else the crew could have tried, all because they decided it was worth taking the risk.

No Country for Old Men

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For No Country for Old Men, Roger Deakins and the crew approached the cinematography from more of a bare, naturalistic perspective. This resulted in a good amount of contrasted night and day shots; one of them ended up being a scene that Deakins considers one of his career’s most difficult to shoot.

“I put huge blue lights on the horizon shining up into the sky to look like the first dim light of dawn. Then I coordinated the shooting schedule for each element of the sequence to match the light from my dawn with the light from the real thing.” – Roger Deakins (Edinburgh International Film Festival)

The chase sequence in this scene involved shooting the sunrise as the events of the film were happening. This gave Deakins and the team a 20 minute window in which they could complete the shot they wanted. Though Deakins himself wasn’t 100 percent happy with the shot (as would any perfectionist not be), it proved to be another masterfully executed sequence; it’s not easy to do this when you’ve got a schedule to be on at the same time.

Skyfall

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Whatever opinions we may have about the movie itself, it’s hard to argue that Skyfall isn’t the best looking film out of the Bond franchise. This is one of the first few films Roger Deakins heads into with a digital camera (the Arri Alexa), and it definitely helped out with the extra test shots they needed for the Shanghai skyscraper fight. The amazing thing about this scene is that it wasn’t filmed in Shanghai at all; it was done in a studio. They had glass everywhere, and then put LCD screens in the back. With how precise everything has to be under Deakins’ control, it was only sensible that the set was in a studio, rather than at an on-location site. The final result is a fight sequence that puts the Hong Kong fight scene from The Dark Knight to shame.

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You know what? Here’s another shot from the movie just to show how much work the crew put into scenes from the movie filmed on set. The action sequence after the mansion fire was filmed entirely in Longcross Studio’s largest stage.

“We built a tapered rig of 32 Dinos gelled with ¾ and ½ CTO, using each Dino bulb like a pixel on an LED screen, so we could program in images of fire and the lamps would mimic it. Roger had us make this rig very hot in the middle and then fading out toward the edge. We started running the Dinos at up to 80 percent, with the flicker, and then as the fire goes out, we dropped that off. We also filled the set with smoke because the weather was meant to be foggy. The effect was very eerie.”

- Higgins (AC Magazine – December 2012)

Deakins is one of the few cinematographers out there that can make the photography another fully-fleshed out character in its film. The films under him are known specifically for their achievements in cinematography. Hopefully, learning about what kinds of techniques DP’s such as Deakins use for their shots, you can find a way to implement them into your own work as a photographer or filmmaker. It’s easy to get surprised when you realize just how well a real looking picture can be captured when you set your stage up right.

  • Lyle

    Very educational. I vote for more in the series. Thanks for the ideas.

  • Andre

    Great post, very inspiring food for thought.

  • http://julieannemooresphotography.ca/ Julie Anne Moore

    Very interesting to think about the behind the scenes. I’d love to see more post like this.

  • https://www.facebook.com/FindMyShoot FindMyShoot

    Very cool!

  • Nathan Ortiz

    more please, great info

  • Benhamine

    Why no examples that aren’t silhouette shots?