The American Society of Cinematographers

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ASC Theatrical Nominees
Roger Deakins
Janusz Kaminski
Ed Lachman
Emmanuel Lubezki
John Seale
ASC Close-Up


Cinematographer: Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC


The crime thriller Sicario marks the 14th ASC Award nomination for Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC. He has won the award four times, for The Shawshank Redemption, The Man Who Wasn't There, True Grit and Skyfall.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, Sicario follows an idealistic FBI agent, Kate (Emily Blunt), who joins a team on special assignment to track down a Mexican drug cartel. She quickly learns that her colleagues operate off the books, toeing a thin line between just and unjust measures to get their man.

The film opens with a scene in which Kate and fellow FBI agents raid a home in Arizona in an attempt to rescue hostages from a drug lord. The action takes place on a bright, sunny day. Noting that he shot the picture with the Arri Alexa XT open-gate, Deakins told American Cinematographer, “The first thing people say about digital cameras is that they can’t handle day exteriors. That’s a rather old attitude. I was concerned about that myself until Skyfall, where we did some scenes with very bright sunlight that worked out really well. That settled the issue for me.”

The scene was a combination of practical location and set built onstage in Albuquerque, N.M. The stage was smaller than the production needed to match the size of the practical location, which was used for exteriors only. So, production designer Patrice Vermette used forced-perspective to fit the location to the stage. “There was an exterior garden, which was basically desert, and a false-perspective wall in front of a print backing, which was a photograph of the location,” said Deakins. “So we could actually shoot out the living-room windows, and there are a couple of shots where you see a character outside.”

Deakins use Arri T12 Fresnels to provide hot beams of sunlight through the set windows. “The T12 gives you almost as much light as a 20K, and it's a smaller bulb and smaller Fresnel lens, so it's very hard, very sharp and very white.”

He also made extensive use of Blonde 2Ks. “I use Blondes a lot; they’re simple, open-face lights that give a wide, smooth spread. They're a very efficient light, and they're very controllable if you want to bounce or go through diffusion.” He often uses multiple Blondes bounced into a single 4’x8’ polystyrene (beadboard) bounce. “If you bounce five Blondes onto a long white reflector, you can make it hot at one end and trail it off at the other. You can control where your main heat source is coming from.”

To expedite coverage, Deakins chose to light the set interior entirely through the windows, with no fixtures inside. “We had a lot of shots to do, so I wasn’t going to put lights inside the rooms. And if I’d brought a source inside, it would have spilled everywhere. I was really using the windows as cutters so that the light was coming through naturally and was shaped by the window. That way you get soft light on an actor, but the back wall is down a bit.”

After going along with the team on its first operation, which results in a bloody firefight, Kate confronts the team leader (played by Josh Brolin) outside an army base. The scene plays out entirely in a super-wide shot. “That’s why I love Denis,” said Deakins “We did that shot, and then I said, ‘Should we go in and do overs?’ and Denis said, ‘No, I think we should move on.’ I thought that was really good, to have the courage and the presence of mind to know that you've got the scene because it plays out in that particular shot. We didn't waste what could have been another three hours shooting. When you're on a tight schedule and budget, it's fantastic to have a director who really knows what he wants.

Sicario’s got action and interesting visual sequences, but in the end, [the drama] basically comes down to a conversation in a kitchen that’s played in two close-ups,” Deakins said. “That, to me, is the essence of a great movie: when you get to that moment when it’s all about the characters and their relationship with each other. That’s what I love about cinematography, really: looking into an actor’s face.”

Excerpted from the October 2015 issue. Original reporting by Benjamin B.


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