The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
Return to Table of Contents
Return to Table of Contents January 2011 Return to Table of Contents
Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC
Page 2
Page 3
Page 4
True Grit
Short Takes
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up

Typically, five weeks are allotted to preproduction, during which the storyboards continue to evolve as the filmmakers secure locations and discuss ideas. By the time the Coens and Deakins are on set, there’s little need for them to talk. “Their sets are very quiet,” says the cinematographer. “They don’t do a lot of takes. They know what they want, and they know when they’ve got it. They work very economically.”   

Deakins’ input continues during production. “From shot design, to lighting, to how and when you move the camera, Roger is brilliant at bringing some extra dimension that changes the entire feeling of what you’re doing,” says Joel. “Even when he’s shooting inserts, he’s always looking for a more effective or idiosyncratic way to shoot. For example, in No Country for Old Men [AC Oct. ’07], we were shooting just an insert of a watch — it’s when Llewelyn [Josh Brolin] is waiting for that wounded guy to die under the tree — and Roger framed it in such a way that it was as much about the landscape as it was about the watch.” Ethan notes, “We cut our own movies, and as an editor, you think, ‘Oh, it’s an insert of a watch,’ or you think about the information that has to be relayed: it’s an hour’s passage. You think [the shot] is about the watch face. But instead of framing it against the ground, which is how we both thought of it, Roger put it against a big landscape with the trees.” Joel adds, “And in a movie all about landscapes, that’s kind of interesting and important.”   

In addition to marking the start of his collaboration with the Coens, the 1990s were significant for Deakins for other professional reasons. He moved to the United States in 1992, settling in Santa Monica, Calif.; he became an ASC member in 1994, after being proposed for membership by John Bailey, Allen Daviau and Steven Poster; and he earned his first Academy Award nomination and won his first ASC Award for 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption (AC June ’95). He shot another dozen films that decade, including the Coens’ Fargo (AC March ’96), which showed the brothers’ more naturalistic, observational side, and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (AC Feb. ’98), which told the story of the Dalai Lama. For the latter film, Deakins’ documentary background was key. He recalls, “There weren’t any professional actors in the movie, just Tibetans [re-enacting] their own heritage, so Marty was concerned about the relationship between the cameraman and subject,” he says.    

The following decade was equally busy. Deakins completed 19 features, including two technically pioneering films for the Coens, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (AC Oct. ’00) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (AC Oct. ’01). O Brother quickly gained fame for being the first U.S. studio feature to be digitally color-corrected in its entirety, and Deakins spent almost two months on the process, using the technology to drain every trace of green from the lush Mississippi landscape. For The Man Who Wasn’t There, the goal was luminescent black-and-white imagery, but the filmmakers were contractually obligated to create a color master for foreign markets. In a novel solution, Deakins shot on color stock and printed on Kodak 5269, a black-and-white stock designed for film titles. He won his second ASC Award for The Man Who Wasn’t There.    

In addition to his ongoing collaboration with the Coens, Deakins’ recent credits include several features with new creative partners, including Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind), Vadim Perelman (House of Sand and Fog; AC Jan. ’04), M. Night Shyamalan (The Village; AC Aug. ’04) and Paul Haggis (In the Valley of Elah), as well as forays into animation as a technical consultant on Wall-E (AC July ’08) and How to Train Your Dragon.   

It’s diverse work, to be sure, but his résumé has some underlying consistencies that can be traced back to his roots in documentary filmmaking. First and foremost is the fact that he always operates the camera. (To satisfy union requirements, he hires an operator, but he often picks a new member of the local, essentially providing an apprenticeship.) He has repeatedly stated that composition is the most critical part of the cinematographer’s job. “It’s much more important than lighting,” he told AC. “The balance of the frame — the way an actor is relating to the space in the frame — is the most important factor in helping the audience feel what the character is thinking.” Shooting documentaries no doubt honed Deakins’ skills, but, as Joel Coen says, “Composition in movies is often an on-the-fly, instinctual thing. You either have it or you don’t. We’ve worked with a lot of operators, and Roger is by far the best.”   

Deakins has also maintained his interest in “people within their environments,” and that documentary leitmotif carries over into his dramatic work in subtle ways. He prefers Super 35mm over anamorphic for widescreen movies because “I like being close to people, and I like to feel somebody’s presence in a space. I don’t like the distortion of anamorphic or the depth-of-field. I don’t like backgrounds being out of focus.”   

Because he operates, Deakins tries to pre-rig lighting as much as possible. “I don’t want the lighting to get in the way of operating,” he says. “I want to be able to say, ‘Okay, I’m lit,’ so I can then concentrate on the framing and what the actor is doing. By the time we come to shoot, I’ve got a whole file on every location, and scene breakdowns and lighting diagrams for everything. Not that I necessarily stick to those plans, but they’re a good place to start. I’m one of those people who believe that the more organized you are at the beginning, the more freedom it gives you to play around when you’re on set.” Gaffer Christopher Napolitano recalls that on House of Sand and Fog, “Roger handed me a stack of notes, I rigged everything to his notes, and nothing ever changed, which seemed really unique. He had everything down to exactly how many lights he wanted somewhere, and he used every one of them.”   

That kind of precision is possible on a single-camera production, another common thread in Deakins’ work, along with his preference for prime lenses. “[Shooting with primes] forces you to move the camera and think about where the camera needs to be,” he says. Filming only with zooms, he contends, is “a sloppy way of shooting.”   

<< previous || next >>