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Influencers: Already Legendary, Roger Deakins Breaks New Ground

The "1917" cinematographer is one of IndieWire's craftspeople shaping the art of cinema today.

Roger Deakins on the set of "1917"

Roger Deakins on the set of “1917”

Francois Duhamel

Roger Deakins doesn’t believe his cinematography has a style. While that may be true, his images are instantly recognizable. With the compositional sense of a still photographer and the natural feel of a documentarian — the two early paths that led Deakins to cinematography — there is an incredible precision to his frames. There’s also a graphic nature to a Deakins-shot film, the way we peer sharply and unencumbered into even his darkest frames, where depth is often created through strong contrast. There’s an elegance to the way light falls off his subjects or the how color is pulled forward, but often within a tasteful desaturated palette.

Like his camera movements, there’s something naturalistic about Deakin’s cinematography, but too perfectly controlled to ever register as being found or improvised —  in the switch to digital, his approach only became more refined. Yet what’s fascinating is how his restrained elegance and compositional mastery translated to two recent epic projects with heavy VFX and extreme technical demands that would, on the surface, seem to upend the cinematographer’s approach.

In “Blade Runner 2049” the line between Deakin’s cinematography and the world building of the film’s visual effects and composited backdrops are inseparable – the antithesis to the painted-on visual effects plaguing so many franchise films. We see the power of both Deakin’s preparation and the intense nature of his collaborations with visionary directors and other top-of-their-field department heads.

“I created a dialogue with Roger very early on so things would shift into gear because I would be in dialogue rather than dreaming alone,” director Denis Villeneuve told IndieWire. Villeneuve conceived of his “Blade Runner” in terms of light — that orange sulfur haze, the silver winter light, the amorphous liquid light of Jared Leto’s lair, the endless little pockets of light that give depth to vast noir exteriors.

Deakins served not only as co-dreamer, he also helped execute these distinct looks from prep to post, working with other department heads to coordinate the lighting and color of his cinematography. His collaboration with production designer Dennis Gassner was in particular impressive, as so much of the his lighting came from practicals built into Gassner’s sets and often appearing stunningly in frame, while each of the VFX background plates perfectly complements the image shot during production.

This level of rigorous preparation and planning with a director is on display again in “1917,” which Sam Mendes conceived as one continuous shot. Mendes told IndieWire it was only possible to pull off the precise look and feel of the World War I epic in the long, continuous moving shots by storyboarding the most difficult scenes with Deakins four or five times.

“[“1917”] has the movement of feet, breathing, and steps, a soft handheld feeling at times, very subtle, and other times the frame is very still and composed, so it never felt arid and bloodless, we never wanted it to feel like it was being controlled mechanically, and I think one of the things I feel most delighted about with the film is that Roger found a way to do that that was pleasing to both of us, and yet keep control over it which was remarkable,” Mendes told IndieWire. “That is in large part the particular mixture of the rigs that Roger selected, and the fact that he himself was operating them remotely.”

Deakins’ early involvement and disciplined preparation on “1917” once again meant a next-level collaboration with Gassner, who built the battlefields and trenches to accommodate the demands of the frame and Deakins’ camera. The end result is images that maintain Deakins’ striking precision inside one of the most technically demanding shooting environments in recent film history.

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