In Praise of Roger Deakins

By: Cal Parsons

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Still from No Country for Old Men

Roger Deakins is one of the most admired and distinguished cinematographers to have ever used a camera. His portfolio is a myriad of award-winning films such as FargoShawshank Redemption, and No Country for Old Men. With such a plethora of great films, he has been nominated for 13 Oscars for his cinematography, and, yet, he still hasn’t won one. It’s safe to say that Deakins is the “Leo” of cinematographers.

In case a refresher is needed on what a cinematographer’s job is, a cinematographer (or director of photography, DP for short) is the leader of the camera crew on a film set. A DP is in charge of lights and camera operation, including lenses, filters, and other camera settings. The director of a film expresses what they want the shots to look like to the DP and the DP makes it happen. The cinematographer has one of the most important jobs on a film set, as they are in charge of making the movie look good, and some can do even more than just making a movie look pretty.

 

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert FordSource

 

Roger Deakins is one of a select few cinematographers that can communicate pages of a screenplay into a single shot using framing, lighting, and angles. His skills can be seen across all of his films, dating all the way back to 1984, with the film 1984, directed by Michael Radford. In 1984, Deakins uses very dramatic lighting that exaggerates contrast in lights and darks, creating an ominous and gritty tone. And then, 7 years later, the Coen Brothers found him and hired him for their writer’s block film Barton Fink, and thus began a perfect director-cinematographer pair that continues to work together to this day.

Deakins and the Coen Brothers have worked together for many of the Coens’s films, including The Big Lebowski, True GritO Brother Where Art Thou?, and their most recent film in 2016, Hail, Caesar!. Their work together is discussed really well in this video highlighting how the Coens (and Deakins) make use of shot/reverse shot. Deakins uses specific camera lenses and angles when shooting actors’ close-ups, and, as the video shows, is an innovative way to exaggerate emotion and movement.

Deakins is a mastermind of cinematography. His ability to use existing light and artificial light to create beautiful imagery is mindblowing and makes for great film to look at. In his latest works, he has been outdoing himself on many occasions. His most recent DP work includes Skyfall and two of Denis Villeneuve’s films, Prisoners and Sicario. He is also the DP in Villeneuve’s upcoming sequel to Blade RunnerBlade Runner 2049, which I could not be more excited to see.

 

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Soldiers walking to the mission in SicarioSource

 

This shot of soldiers walking in the dunes during sunset is one of the more famous shots in Sicario, and perfectly encapsulates the mastery Deakins has acquired from his years with a camera. The silhouetted figures and the beautiful orange and blue backdrop is still talked about and brought up when Deakins’s name is heard. It’s truly a beautiful scene.

I’m not saying that Deakins needs an Oscar to be verified as a great cinematographer, but it’s crazy to me that after thirteen nominations, Deakins has walked away without a trophy, and without, what I would expect, to be a great acceptance speech about his career. But like I said, Oscar or not, he will always be known as one of the most accomplished and masterful cinematographers in film history.

Here’s his IMDb.

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5 Responses to In Praise of Roger Deakins

  1. mediaphiles says:

    Yes! It is crazy that Roger Deakins never got his Oscar after thirteen nominations. I hope he can get one soon with a truly stunning film. I believe he is part of the reason that Denis Villeneuve’s movies look so amazing. I think Arrival loses some of the charm because the DP is no longer him. Bradford Young has already done a great job, only to make me miss Roger Deakins more.

    -Kevin Yu

  2. mediaphiles says:

    I unfortunately have not watched the movies your selected photos are from, but I am blown aware by their simple, yet magnificent cinematography. It is true, the lighting is so vital to the story telling of a movie and can communicate to the audience through lighting, framing and angles. The shot from No Country for Old Men is quite staggering with its deliberate use of shadows. There is such depth and energy in the shot just by the lighting and positioning of the camera. Similarly, the cinematography in the shot from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford creates a tone of mystery and wickedness by its dramatic usage of shadows and smoke.

    -Sarah Holt

  3. mediaphiles says:

    Also being an Art History major, composition, light, proximity etc. are always on my mind. Thus, just like you, I’ve always been fascinated with the work of the cinematographer when talking about film. No matter how great the acting or wonderful the writing, the cinematographer is really the one to bring it all to life and set the tone for the entire movie. While it’s disappointing to see that Deakins’s work has not been fairly awarded, I’m sure that having passionate fans (like yourself) and getting to work on some amazing projects makes it all worth it in the end.

    – Lydia Geisel

  4. mediaphiles says:

    I agree. I think Deakins is one of the most underrated people and is one of the main reasons the Coen Brothers films are fantastic. I’ve seen No Country for Old Men and O Brother Where Art Thou and believe both films were visually stunning.
    -Jordan Hansgen

  5. mediaphiles says:

    Everyone here needs to watch the films Cal mentioned. Pretty much every film Roger Deakins has touched is a cinematography masterpiece.

    Russell Lawrence

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