The Roger Oscar talk (would this finally be his year?) started in July, when the “Blade Runner 2049” trailer dropped three months before the film’s release. From just two minutes of footage, it was clear that Denis Villeneuve’s reimagining of the Ridley Scott’s visionary world 32 years into the future could finally provide a sufficiently stunning showcase for the subtle, “naturalistic” cinematographer.
But during the long awards season, another narrative came into play. Deakins’ recognition may be long overdue after 14 nominations, but there was also an entire gender that had been previously overlooked. This was the year that Rachel Morrison’s stunning work on “Mudbound” received the first-ever Oscar nomination for a female cinematographer.
The result is a front-page level of attention for a below-the-line category. Deakins likes to preach that DPs’ work should go unnoticed, but that’s not to be this year. “I’m really happy working on this film ‘The Goldfinch’ right now,” joked Deakins in an interview with IndieWire last Saturday morning, following a late-night shoot on director John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s novel for Warner Brothers and Amazon. “That’s my focus.
“Sure, it’s nice of people to see your work and appreciate [it] – I don’t know really,” said Deakins, pausing to collect his thoughts. “I just move on and I like shooting films. I mean, okay, it’s such a weird, weird thing when a film gets ignored or a film gets talked about. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Some of what I consider my best work and some of the best films that I’ve ever worked on, kind of disappear without a trace. There’s no accounting for it. Something connects or something doesn’t.”
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While he reportedly has an aversion to the awards circuit, Deakins is more than happy to talk shop. Unlike other great DPs like Emmanuel Lubezki or Mark Lee Ping-bing – who have difficulty putting their instinctive approaches into words – Deakins is happy to break down, in great technical detail, how he achieved virtually any shot. Maintaining his own website, rogerdeakins.com, he logs on – even after a long day in production – to answer young filmmakers’ questions with concrete specifics and a clear description of his lighting and camera philosophies. While he is careful to constantly repeat “there are no rules,” his demystification of creating amazing imagery carries the underlying message that good cinematography isn’t magic; it’s a skill and a discipline.
Deakins has been recognized with multiple awards from his peers in the ASC; his lack of Oscars ultimately says more about the Academy than it does his legacy. Traditionally, the Best Cinematography Oscar is tied to Best Picture. Since 1989 (when the British Deakins began working in America), only four Best Cinematography Oscar winners did not also receive a Best Picture nomination; more often than not, the two awards go to the same film. Of Deakins’ 14 nominations, only five of those films also received a Best Picture nomination. Part of Deakins’ awards problem (if you want to call it that) is he is often drawn to character- and director-driven scripts that often receive critical acclaim, but remain on the periphery of Best Picture consideration.
In 2008, the one year a film he shot won Best Picture (“No Country For Old Men”), Deakins was a double nominee: His work on “No Country” was in direct competition with what many consider his masterpiece, “The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.” Robert Elswit, who won both the Oscar and ASC Award for “There Will Be Blood” that year, was likely only half joking when he suggested a special category: “Films shot by Roger Deakins.”
As for the visual playground of science fiction, Deakins loves the genre. Andrei Tarkovsky’s films are some his favorite films of all-time, while shooting Orwell’s “1984” put him on the map. However, he avoided sprawling fantasy films after a bad experience on his first big Hollywood film, “Air America,” in 1990. The film – which Deakins said at one point had three different production units – never lived up to its original conception. “The scale and the amorphic nature of working on it was something I didn’t care for, and it was so disappointing in terms of not living up to the expectation I had. The script was smart and subversive, I thought.”
Over 25 years later, as one collaborator recently told IndieWire, Deakins requires a level of control that would place the cinematographer in an “absolute personal hell” if he were ever to shoot a studio superhero movie. With Villeneuve, a collaborator who is every bit as visually specific as Deakins, “Blade Runner” was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. For Deakins, who admits he “absolutely obsesses” about creating unified look for a film, “Blade Runner 2049” would be an enormous challenge with its incredible diversity of visual worlds.
Luckily, it was a world he could conceive from the ground up. Villeneuve was pressed for time, and would need to start conceiving the visual world while he was still editing “Arrival,” so he brought Deakins up to Montreal. “My way to put my foot on the gas to make things happen faster was to create a dialogue with Roger very early on,” said Villeneuve. “I would be in dialogue rather than dreaming alone, which can take a very long time in my case.”
Deakins echoed that. “A film that’s of that scale, it was kind of an open book,” he said. “You have to have some starting point. You got an army of people waiting for you to move forward with all the things that they have to do and it’s like, ‘Where are we gonna even shoot?”
Deakins and Villeneuve travelled, walking around cities and landscapes, and quickly got on the same page about wanting to visually ground their 2049 dystopia in a recognizable reality. Drawing inspiration from the brutalist architecture of London, the smog of Beijing, the shipyards of Bangladesh, and the red dust storms of the Sahara, Deakins describes their concept as, “what would feel possible based on what is already happening today.”
There’s a misconception that, because Deakins favors lighting that looks naturalistic, he is a cinematographer who works with natural light. Rather, he plans, tests, and sketches pages of hyper-specific lighting setups, which his gaffer follows like a blueprint. Working closely with production designer Dennis Gassner, Deakins built his lighting schemes into the sets to make them look like they are lit by practicals.
Deakins had an element of control over almost everything that appeared on screen . “There’s some things that you might not think were effect shots that are actually in camera,” said Deakins. “Everything was done first unit, and most of the film was shot single camera.” The black landscape seen flying into Sapper Morton’s farm was based on plates Deakins shot of the landscape in Iceland. The aerial shots of the cityscapes were done in Mexico City in exactly the right light.
There’s also an assumption that Deakins created the bold colors of “Blade Runner 2049” in post. It’s a misconception that likely stems from famously becoming the first DP to fully digitally color-correct a film; on “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, he spent two months pulling the greens from the film. However, his switch to digital cinematography only made him more determined to do everything in-camera, without manipulating the image in the DIT or color-grade. For example, to create the now-famous red of Villeneuve’s Las Vegas, Deakins actually mixed different colored lights to perfect the scene.
“It’s not just red, it’s got two sets of colors – higher up in the interior, there’s a kind of yellower light percolating through and down where it’s more dusty and there’s less light, it’s more red,” said Deakins. “The way those lights combine, and the way the light flares through those windows and that gel, you can’t do it in post. It looks artificial. You might not be able to point to it and say, ‘Well, that’s what’s wrong about it,’ but there’s just something about it. It doesn’t feel right. It’s the same as any effects shot against something that’s been done in camera. It’s those little things reality has that you can’t create in a computer. I’m sorry, you just can’t. It’s as simple as that.”
For Deakins, the biggest change with digital cinematography has been his reliance on the monitor to see precisely what he is getting. From there, he tweaks his lights to get the color right. “With Denis especially, he’s so specific,” he said. “The reference photo for the silver winter light was his backyard in Montreal – it’s more fun to show the director and say, ‘Well, this is what I’m thinking,’ and work from there.’”
Deakins, who is known to spend Saturdays with his crew pre-lighting for Monday, relies on preparation to allow himself to be creative on set as the camera operator. With Deakins, who cut his teeth in documentary, the one piece of magic he can’t break down is his incredible sense of composition and ability to make every frame more dynamic. Even if his style changes to some degree from film to film, his eye for arresting images is distinctive.
Deakins has admitted before that, back in the 1990s, while he was still building his reputation, an Academy Award would have meant something to his career. Now, at age 68, his ability to consistently work on his own terms — the same tight-knit crew, operating the camera himself, and picking scripts from the few director-driven films with a mid-size budget — is its own reward. It’s a niche he’s well aware is practically extinct.
He also has perspective that while the industry puts a great deal of attention on Academy Awards, film history is another matter. Pointing to cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth’s groundbreaking work on the original “Blade Runner,” Deakins calls attention to how what he considers some of the greatest cinematography never even got nominated. “Well, you think Jordan deserved one?” Deakins asks rhetorically.
“It’s such a sort of particular [film that gets focused on],” said Deakins. “There’s so many films from around the world, I emphasize, that are so beautifully photographed, but they don’t get the recognition. Kazuo Miyagawa, who used to shoot for [director Akira] Kurosawa – I mean, hey, just go and look at any of the films he shot.”
And of course, over 50-60 years later, the films Miyagawa shot for Kurosawa (“Yojimbo,” “Rashomon”), along with his collaborations with Kenji Mizoguchi (“Ugetsu”), are held in the pantheon of the greatest films ever made, regardless of awards. It’s a humbling group of filmmakers to think about, even for the great Deakins, but it keeps other’s preoccupation with his lack of Oscars in perspective.