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The Essentials: The 15 Best-Shot Roger Deakins Films

The Essentials: The 15 Best-Shot Roger Deakins Films

Here’s a fun bit of trivia. What do these eleven films have in common: “Legends of the Fall,” “The English Patient,” “Titanic,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Inception,” “Life of Pi,” “Gravity” and “Birdman“? Answer: These films won the Best Cinematography Oscar in their respective years and which prevailed over nominated films from peerless cinematographer and all-round class act Roger Deakins. Deserving as many of those awards might have been, it is, to put it politely, getting a little bit ridiculous. Over the past twenty years since his first nod for “The Shawshank Redemption” back in 1995, Deakins has managed a dozen nominations (even netting two in one year) but zero wins. This week’s “Sicario,” from director Denis Villeneuve (read our review), is so startlingly well shot, especially for a procedural crime movie, that it could well bring him his thirteenth nod, though whether it can necessarily convert to his first win is entirely another question.

It’s hard to say exactly why he’s had this run of great/bad luck with the Academy, but we’d suggest it’s because traditionally the Academy has a habit of awarding the prettiest, showiest cinematography, and while Deakins can churn out such shots in his sleep, it does not seem to be where his heart really lies. As he told Thompson on Hollywood last year, he’s not a fan of “ostentatious” camerawork: “Sometimes a shot becomes too clever for its own good. It draws attention to itself. Sometimes, you watch a film and you see a big elaborate shot and think, ‘I wonder what that would look like if you played it on a close-up and a reverse.’ You know, a close-up on an actor and a point-of-view. It would have had more power.”

But that’s not to say he’s in any way begrudging his peers —in fact, you’d be hard pressed to find any Hollywood professional so unceasingly admiring of his fellow cinematographers and supportive of aspirants too. He’s even a vocal supporter of digital, despite having worked so long and so lovingly with film, saying firmly: “When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter what you record the image on. It’s the image you’re recording that’s important. It’s the framing, the way you move the camera, the choice of shot, the lighting within the scene. I think this argument is a little irrelevant actually.”

There are maybe a hundred reasons to admire Roger Deakins; here are just 15 of them.

“1984” (1984)

Before Denis Villeneuve, before Bond, before the Coens and before his twelve Oscar nominations, Deakins broke through into features (after mostly working in the documentary world) in a bigger way with this neatly-timed adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian classic. Directed by Michael Radford, with whom Deakins had worked frequently in the non-fiction sphere, and starring John Hurt as unlikely rebel Winston Smith, Richard Burton (who died only weeks after shooting wrapped —“I will always remember working with Richard Burton,” Deakins told The Telegraph. “Richard was lovely. On the first day, he called the whole crew over to his trailer and said ‘I just want to thank you for one of the nicest days filming I’ve ever had. When I came on set first thing this morning and saw all these young faces, I was absolutely terrified, but it’s been the most wonderful day”) as sinister party member O’Brien, and Suzanna Hamilton as Julia, it’s a solid version, elevated in large part by Deakins’ superb photography. The film was acclaimed for its special effects (though everything was done in-camera), but the film’s greatest legacy came from a subtler technique: to fully portray Orwell’s bleak, hopeless vision, Deakins desaturated the color using a process known as bleach bypass, where the silver is retained in the print, giving a washed-out look. The technique had been invented for Kon Ichikawa’s “Her Brother” in 1960, but Deakins was the first Western cinematographer to apply it, and it became enormously influential: films like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Seven” would go on to deploy it memorably.

“Sid & Nancy” (1986)

A far cry from the likes of “Unbroken,” the punkish, blow-it-all-up energy of “Sid & Nancy” was perhaps more than any other the film that helped to push Deakins’ talents towards the U.S. Alex Cox’s film tells the story of Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman, in a performance that also proved a breakout), his American girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), and their heroin-addled, ultimately tragic romance, neatly capturing the raucous energy of the punk scene as well as the deep sadness of their story. Deakins’ approach is a little more verité than we’re used to from him these days —his early documentary work still shines through— with a loose, handheld feel to much of the photography (“So much of that was made up as we went along,” Deakins would later tell Hitfix). But the film is also embellished with an almost magic realist quality that elevates the story to almost mythic levels. The recreation of the video for Vicious’ “My Way” captures the spirit of the original but with touches like a sort of neon-soaked Powell & Pressburger or Bob Fosse, while in one of the most iconic images the DP’s ever shot, the title characters passionately make out in silhouette as garbage rains down in slow-motion around them (“Alex said, ‘we want it down and dirty, but it’s poetic… but we don’t want it too pretty. What if there’s maybe bins and heavy things falling down as well?’” Deakins would later recall).

“Barton Fink” (1991)

If there’s one association more indelible than any other in creating the mythos of Deakins as our greatest working cinematographer, it’s his frequent collaborations with possibly our greatest working directors, the Coen Brothers. Their partnership started back in 1991 when the Coens approached him to shoot eventual Palme D’Or winner “Barton Fink.” It marked a stylistic change up into more experimental territory for the Coens as well as a moment of rejuvenation for Deakins, who told Vulture that immediately prior to hitting it off with the brothers, “I had kind of soured on the industry, I suppose. I’d done a big movie that I wasn’t happy with …” Looking at the film in retrospect after 11 films together, and the 12th, “Hail Caesar” on the way, you are struck anew at how many different visual styles this one creative collaboration has spawned, but certainly “Barton Fink” is shot with the verve, texture and creativity of a man falling in love with his job all over again. If each one of Deakin’s team ups with the Coens has its own distinctive look and feel, “Barton Fink” is the one that oozes —it is slick with sweat and globs of wallpaper paste, its clammy walls and carpets practically reeking of mildew and rot. And it also contains perhaps the first utterly unforgettable Coens image: John Goodman charging down that infinite corridor, as it progressively bursts into flames, showing us “the life of the mind”. “”They’re notorious for storyboarding everything” Deakins said of the Coens, “and my world was documentaries…To combine those two approaches, I think that’s probably what changed the way I saw things.”

“The Shawshank Redemption” (1994)
Both critically and commercially, the initial response to Frank Darabont’s “The Shawshank Redemption” was muted —it barely recovered its production budget, and that was only after a theatrical re-release tied to its seven Oscar nominations, one of which was for Deakins. But as underwhelming the initial reaction might have been with this now-beloved classic, it’s always looked wonderful, and perhaps it’s partly the glowy, late-afternoon timlessness of the images that have seen its appeal grow year after year. An elaborate homage to the kind of prison movies Warner Bros. produced in the ’30s and ’40s, the film indicates more than a hint of nostalgia to Deakins’ work, with every shot just slightly more honeyed than strictly necessary. But since the story is concerned with finding glimmers of hope, freedom and beauty in the bleakest of places, and is itself unashamedly sentimental (and damn effective), the cinematography is entirely complementary. The ease and sweetness of the images also belies the difficult, taxing shoot, but as Deakins told Hitfix, he took it as a compliment that the result, which involved large numbers of complex lighting set-ups, looks so effortless: “[At the time] nobody knew me. Why would they? There was a conversation going on with a couple of very well-known cinematographers, and one was saying to the other, ‘Yeah, ‘Shawshank,’ it’s wonderful photography. But I wouldn’t vote for it because it’s all natural light. I would vote something that’s been lit.’ And I thought, ‘Natural light?? Jesus!’ I just laughed. As I say, it’s probably the biggest compliment anybody’s ever paid me.”

“Fargo” (1996)

Deakins can do romantic, nostalgic, lush visuals that look like they’re dipped in honey. He can do sweeping vistas and epic widescreen cast-of-thousands shots. In other words, he can do the kind of beauty shots that bring to mind the word “cinematic.” But his versatility is such that his prettifying instincts often take a backseat to the storyline and tone of voice of the specific film. “Fargo” is maybe the greatest major example of how Deakins dramatically modifies his aesthetic, chameleon-style, to suit the story —it’s hardly what one would call beautiful, but the bleak, droll, snowblinded simplicity of the images is an indivisible part of what makes the film so evergreen. In fact, there needs to be an element of the prosaic to the pictures to give the story its off-kilter naturalism —just as the Coens faked the “based on a true story” myth, the images almost fake a true-story, verité style. It’s an impulse they had intended to push even further, according to this interview with Deakins: “There are a number of times I’ve started a film and had a conceptual plan… when we started “Fargo,” Joel and Ethan and I thought the film was going to be more observational. We would shoot it more with a static camera —a little bit more like Ken Loach would approach it, and pan more often on a longer lens than anything else. It’s so funny —we discussed it for a long time, and I do think the film does have that quality to it to a degree. But I remember the first day, the first thing we set up was a hundred and twenty foot tracking shot. You create these rules in your head, but they’re there to be broken.”

“Kundun” (1997)

Director Martin Scorsese‘s sole collaboration with Deakins, 1997’s “Kundun,” is a biographical film depicting the life of the 14th Dalai Lama that upon release hardly anybody saw. This is a shame, considering the overwhelmingly beautiful images Deakins conjured for the film, captured largely in monastic golds, yellows and reds —from clouds rolling across the Himalayas, to candlelit scenes of a young Lama picking out the objects that belonged to him in a previous life, to footage from “Henry V” playing across a character’s face. Then at other times “Kundun” takes on the scope of a David Lean movie: a single, widescreen shot of a caravan of monks travelling with the young Lama away from his village, or a cluttered frame where a group of fallen monks creates a ghastly tableau, or a helicopter shot gliding across a placid lake. Deakins’ images, coupled with Phillip Glass‘ unrelenting (but never oppressive) score, help to create one of the more overwhelmingly sensual movies Scorsese has ever made (and the use of fades in and out makes for an almost kaleidoscopic feel). But Deakins himself humbly suggests that it was a different quality that made Scorsese choose him for the 103-day Moroccan shoot: “I think he asked me because of my documentary experience. Because ‘Kundun’ was a film where we were basically working with non-actors. So I think he just wanted that somebody that could react to them and fade into the background, maybe. It was a very particular film.” It’s arguable how much Deakins’ work fades into the background here, as it did net him yet another Oscar nod. Sadly, the home video release of “Kundun” is improperly formatted, so Deakins’ crisp, passionate visuals are a little neutered.

“O Brother Where Art Thou” (2000)

Deakins’ fifth movie with the Coens earned him his fourth Oscar nomination, and “O Brother Where Art Thou” is, along with “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” arguably the most immediately visually distinctive film he’s made with Joel & Ethan, not least because of another technological breakthrough he helped pioneer. Reframing the story of the Odyssey as a Preston Sturges-esque Depression-era comedy about three dimwitted chain-gang escapees (George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson), the film’s yellowish palette, like a slightly faded photograph, was always intended by the Coens, but in light of the film shooting in the summer with too much green foliage around, Deakins knew he’d have to tinker with the look in post-production. After fruitless attempts to recreate it photochemically (as he’d done with “1984”), Deakins decided to go the digital route, scanning the negative, which would enable him to do anything he wanted with the image. Other movies had gone this route before —“Pleasantville,” “The Phantom Menace”— but mostly because they needed visual effects elements, but Deakins was the first to do it for purely artistic reasons. The gorgeous results, a Steinbeck fever dream of sorts, were initially controversial among cinematographers (“I thought that was a pretty stupid argument,” Deakins told Vulture. “It’s the final product that matters. The look of the film, however it’s done, it still the cinematographer’s vision in my mind”), but these days, almost every movie will undergo the same process.

“The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001)

Deakins’ collaborations with the Coens have all been exemplary, but perhaps the most pictorially show-offy is “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” a film that seems summoned into being solely to show off its experimental, black and white imagery. The effect was achieved after the fact — indeed, they were contractually obliged to produce a color version for foreign markets, so there’s a further layer of control and consideration, as they took color footage and could push the high-contrast chiaruscuro even further in post-production. The results are graphic images of hard-edged shadows, silhouettes and ultra-directional lighting that seem almost like black-and-white etchings: light seeping into an empty department store; James Gandolfini pressing Billy Bob Thornton against a plate of glass, so it looks like the camera lens itself is cracking; blood running down a man’s throat like black oil; a UFO uncannily peeking out from behind a prison wall (computer-generated, but looking like a stop-motion Ray Harryhausen creation). There isn’t a lot of camera movement in “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” and the stillness allows you to drink in the images, many of which remain long after you’ve forgotten the film’s thin narrative; one remembers Tony Shalhoub‘s lawyer standing in a cell, talking with only the bottom half of his face illuminated for a lot longer than you remember what he was talking about. It’s ultra-noir of course, but the style feels non-derivative, despite fitting into a well-worn category, which Deakins accounted for by telling Hitfix: “It wasn’t ‘doing noir.’ … If it looks film noir, it’s just because I was playing with the lighting and what felt right at that moment…I didn’t have references or anything. I just approached it thinking, ‘What should this scene feel like?'”

“The Village” (2004)

“This one, really?” wrote our editor when it was suggested that we include “The Village” among our essential Deakins picks. And it’s certainly understandable —how can you leave out several Coen brothers movies in place of M. Night Shyamalan’s much-derided ‘period’ chiller? But strip away the narrative of the director’s decline, and “The Village” is both an underrated film and an atmospheric thriller mixed with an unexpectedly tender romance, topped with a twist that comes across as less “Twilight Zone”-y once you know it’s coming. It’s also one of Deakins’ best-looking films. Telling the story of an isolated Pennsylvania community surrounded by woods that contain cloaked monsters, the film has a kind of Gothic fairy tale feel to it, and an approach to the look both classical and quietly experimental: “Night definitely has a different idea about shooting, and it’s very minimalist. Often we weren’t even in front of an actor when he or she was talking, and sometimes you don’t even see the actor who’s talking… It’s much more of an abstract, impressionistic view of a scene,” Deakins told American Cinematographer. He would admit to Hitfix that Shyamalan’s approach, which adheres very closely to the storyboards, was “a little bit restrictive,” but he clearly still enjoyed the experience, and the work reflects that: it’s a great-looking movie, unfolding in careful, long takes, and taking advantage of “Barry Lyndon”-ish lighting for its nighttime scenes and startling use of the colors red and yellow to symbolize the monsters, and what will supposedly scare them away….

“Jarhead” (2005)

When Sam Mendes was looking for a cinematographer to replace his previous collaborator, the late, great Conrad Hall who had shot both “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition” for him, and came knocking on Deakins’ door, “It made me very nervous, really,” Deakins admitted to American Cinematographer. “Connie’s work inspired me so much when I was starting out.” It was not necessarily a natural fit, as the more recent work Deakins had done had been in a more classic mode, whereas Mendes wanted his Kuwait war film to be shot handheld. But the result is quietly stunning to look at, with the handheld aesthetic used not so much to create a Greengrass-y immediacy as to present a fluid, slightly woozy “lost” feeling to the images, which are as much about the boredom and inaction of modern warfare as they are about tremendous drama. In fact, it’s possible that the film itself does not quite live up to Deakins’ pristine photography, with its daytime desert scenes washed out like bleached bones, giving way to shockingly orange sunsets and army grunts silhouetted against oilfields on fire at night. Deakins is remarkable for making his pictures serve the story; “Jarhead” is one example of the pictures almost becoming the story in a subtle and typically humble way. As Deakins went on to say: “I really dislike the flamboyant style of camerawork you see in many war films, where the camera soars above the battlefield or tracks behind a falling bomb. That’s just war seen as a video game, and “Jarhead” is certainly not that.”

“No Country For Old Men” (2007)

The film that finally won Joel & Ethan Coen the Best Picture Oscar (not that they care, probably), “No Country For Old Men” was perhaps the darkest thing they’ve ever made, sometimes quite literally, bringing out work in Deakins that’s perhaps the closest thing he’s done to that of Gordon Willis. The film was adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s bleak neo-Western novel about an ordinary man (Josh Brolin) who locates money from an ill-fated drug deal and finds himself pursued by Javier Bardem’s borderline-Satanic killer —Deakins says that he was on board even before the script was written. In marked contrast to the artificiality of ‘O Brother’ and “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “No Country’ is mostly in naturalistic territory: Deakins allows the spectacular Texan landscape to do the talking most of the time (unlike some earlier pictures, hardly any color-correction was done during the DI). But it’s in darkness where the film looks particularly special. Much of the film plays out at night (including that staggering chase sequence, running through dawn as Brolin’s character is pursued by killers, and their fearsome dog, which Deakins says is “one of the most difficult sequences I’ve ever done”), and Deakins always keeps things coherent without losing the atmosphere. Just as great are the chiaroscuro shadows and silhouettes, which bring a sense of noir to the Texan setting, most notably in the impossibly tense sequence where Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff enters a hotel room he believes contains Bardem’s killer. “You get this really fractured, odd image,” Deakins told NPR. “I love light! When you see something like that, you get high, if that makes sense. It’s the little things in life…”

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)

Right from the start of Andrew Dominik‘s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” we see Deakins’ masterful hand at work: the nighttime train robbery is one of his most amazing sequences, visualized largely by means of a single light traveling through the dark woods. Rippling through the trees and illuminating the criminals in their sackcloth hoods, the camera then hooks the front of the train, while in silhouette, Jesse James steps into its path. Deakins used a bleach bypass process to enhance the blacks and wash out the color, and worked on something he called “Deakinizers,” which gave a “pinhole” look to some of the images, with the center of the shot being crisply focused but the borders looking frayed and blurry. As he told American Cinematographer magazine: “Most of those shots were used for transitional moments, and the idea was to create the feeling of an old-time camera. We weren’t trying to be nostalgic, but we wanted those shots to be evocative. The idea sprang from an old photograph Andrew liked, and we did a lot of tests to mimic the look of the photo,” The results add a haunting layer to the nostalgia-tinged naturalism of the movie, which even extend to the perfectly anticlimactic assassination, which Deakins shoots with such stillness and simplicity that you scarcely want to breathe throughout. ‘Assassination’ feels like some kind of antique treasure, and a lot is down to Deakins’ timeless photography, which netted him yet another Oscar nomination.

Skyfall” (2012)

Deakins had worked with Sam Mendes twice before, on “Jarhead” (see above) and period melodrama “Revolutionary Road” before being drafted in to make sure “Skyfall” looked different (and frankly better) than any other James Bond movie ever. Deakins, shooting digital for only the second time after Andrew Niccol‘s “In Time,” was if anything liberated by the format’s potential. The backlit fight in Shanghai (captured largely in a single shot); Bond riding in a gondola surrounded by Chinese lanterns; the reveal of Javier Bardem’s desolated island stronghold; the climactic, dark showdown at Bond’s ancestral home: that he captured these pictorialist images within the dynamic context of an action film (though we can argue about just how actiony “Skyfall” really is) all operate as more or less an advertisment for the Arri Alexa camera he used. Even Deakins himself, previously a film doyen, was utterly converted, telling Film School Rejects: “I get a lot of flack when I start talking it up so much, but I don’t really see much in terms of downside anymore… We shot for 128 days with the camera, and I can’t remember one problem… the low-light night stuff in the Shanghai set [and] on the other side of the spectrum, we’re shooting the bright sun on the Mediterranean. That was unexpected. I thought shooting in such extreme, bright sunlight would have had problems, but it didn’t. The camera behaved as well or better than it would have on film.” For his efforts, Deakins was nominated for the Oscar for the tenth time (and again failed to secure the award). Still, has any other $1 billion blockbuster ever looked this good?

Prisoners” (2013)

Another brilliant example that great cinematography often has very little to do with pretty pictures or widescreen landscapes, Denis Villeneuve’s child-abduction thriller “Prisoners” is told largely in nighttime rainy mid-shots and gray and low-contrast exteriors. It is the definition of unshowy and clever, rather than beautiful, filmmaking. In fact, our overall pick for the single greatest shot of 2013 came from this film — while you may not remember it, you doubtless recall how it made you feel. “Prisoners” proves how Deakins is concerned with creating an effect in the viewer through photography, rather than with the photography itself. Deakins and Villeneuve seem to have a real meeting of minds, something he acknowledged in this Thompson on Hollywood interview: “I feel every shot, every camera move, every frame…all those things are really important on every shot. [Denis] really gets that. He really understands that the subtlest change from 25mm to a 32mm, or a push-in as opposed to a pull-back, or a track as opposed to a static wide shot —they all have an impact on the audience…I don’t like a shot or scene to stand out of a film; I like the whole thing to work as a piece. Denis gets that every shot is valuable, not only in what you do in that shot to represent what’s within the frame, but the way all those shots fit together to make a whole. It has to be seamless, otherwise the audience is suddenly taken out of the story.” There aren’t too many director/cinematographer pairs that could have us anticipate rather than dread the “Blade Runner” sequel, but Villeneuve/Deakins is one.

“Sicario” (2015)

It’s early days, but the relationship between Denis Villeneuve and Deakins looks to be one of the major ones of the cinematographer’s career, with “Prisoners” followed by this week’s breathless, tangled drug-war thriller “Sicario.” Following FBI agent Emily Blunt, who’s borrowed by a mysterious government task force for operations across the border, the film returns Deakins to similar landscapes and similar themes as “No Country For Old Men,” but with a very different end result, blending realism and abstraction. Inspired by the photography of Alex Webb, and with clean, saturated colors that are an entirely different palate from “Prisoners,” it probably laps even “Skyfall” as Deakins’ best digital work to date (it was shot on the Arri Alexa), effectively capturing the chaos of Mexico City and the emptiness of the desert. Perhaps most memorable of all is a late-in-the-game nighttime infiltration sequence in which Villeneuve and Deakins steer into the night-vision clichés familiar from elsewhere in this genre —rather than chasing Kathryn Bigelow-ish verisimilitude,they turn it into something nightmarish, abstract and almost alien. The film is proof that handheld verité style isn’t the only way to go with a real-world action movie, and Deakins revealed a rather more classical influence to the AFC, saying “One of the most notable influences on our choices of camera placement, framing and lighting was the style of Jean-Pierre Melville. He’s able to attain a sort of simple yet stylish realism… we tried to stick with that spirit in filming Sicario, with an economy of means that in English we refer to with the expression ‘less is more.’”

Honorable Mentions: As with actors, cinematographers sometimes get nominated for movies that aren’t necessarily their very finest. While we included nine of Deakins’ Oscar nods, he also picked up nominations for “The Reader” (co-shot with Chris Menges), “True Grit” and “Unbroken.” “True Grit” nearly made the list, while the other two are rather anonymous for such a fine DP, though still handsome-looking pictures.

Beyond that, we’d also highlight his work on “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “Dead Man Walking,” “The Big Lebowski,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “The House Of Sand & Fog,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Doubt,” “Revolutionary Road” and “A Serious Man.” And though he wasn’t officially DoP, Deakins was ‘visual consultant’ on animated films “Wall-E” and “How To Train Your Dragon,” and was instrumental in making them some of the most beautiful CGI-animated films ever made. Any other Deakins works you think deserves a mention? Let us know in the comments.

— Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor

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