Roger Deakins has won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography thanks to his virtuoso work filming Sam Mendes’ “1917,” the World War I drama that is filmed to look like one single continuous take (similar to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” which also won its cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki the Oscar in 2015). Deakins’ “1917” victory is the cinematographer’s second Oscar win in two years following his prize for Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049.” Deakins, one of the most widely acclaimed cinematographers of his generation, spent decades waiting for his first Oscar. The DP earned 14 Oscar nominations over 23 years and lost every single time until “Blade Runner 2049” at the 2018 ceremony. Now Deakins has won two Oscars in two years.
Prior to winning for the first time with “Blade Runner 2049,” Deakins was Oscar-nominated for the following titles: “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Fargo,” “Kundun,” “O Brother, Where Are Thou?,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “No Country for Old Men,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” “The Reader,” “True Grit,” “Skyfall,” “Prisoners,” “Unbroken,” and “Sicario.” Several of these films are directed by Villeneuve and the Coen Brothers.
For “1917,” Deakins worked closely with Mendes and editor Lee Smith to ensure the film moved as if it was one continuous take. The team decided to shoot when it was cloudy outside in order to maintain continuity, but that meant waiting around for hours in order for the sun to disappear and only having limited time when the natural lighting was just perfect. The cast and crew would rehearse repeatedly so that when the natural light was right they could execute the filming of the scenes without error. While “1917” is presented as one shot, it’s actually a series of several one-take shots of various lengths seamlessly edited together. Last year, Mendes spoke to IndieWire about why Deakins was integral to the project.
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“[“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 chose the Alexa Mini LF camera to film “1917” because he wanted a large-format image but needed a lighter weight camera so that he would have the flexibility to move through the production space as freely as possible to keep up the one shot perspective. ARRI accelerated through development of the Alexa Mini LF camera just so Deakins could use it to shoot “1917.”
Deakins told IndieWire about the film, “When Sam and I first talked about it, we said we’re not going to think about why we’re doing it but how we’re doing it. What is it we want the audience to see? The trick was to make it feel like it was one camera move. Only after, did we start looking at all the ways we could shoot it and all the techniques we could use. We whittled them down to four different rigs and each had a specific use for a specific section of the film. We used a Steadicam, the Trinity [the three-axis hybrid stabilizer], a cable wire [remote-controlled from a vehicle], or hand-held with a stabilized camera.”
While the production of “1917” was a monumental undertaking, Deakins told IndieWire that it was never not a thrill ride to film. “I love my job,” the cinematographer said, “but it was a great thing to do these takes that were so long and get it all right. Because you can’t say, ‘That all works, now cut away…I’m going to come back to it.’ You have to do it all the way through, so that’s a hell of a lot of pressure on everybody.”
“1917” was one of two 2019 films Deakins shot, the other being John Crowley’s adaptation of “The Goldfinch.” Deakins has yet to announce a follow-up project. The film marked the latest collaboration between Mendes and Deakins after “Jarhead,” “Revolutionary Road,” and the James Bond adventure “Skyfall.” Prior to winning the Oscar, Deakins picked up Best Cinematography honors from the Critic’s Choice Awards, the BAFTA Film Awards, and the American Society of Cinematographers.