Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Artistry of Roger Deakins

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Roger Deakins, Director of Photography

In my recent post on the Coen brothers' True Grit, I asked the question "Is there a more accomplished cinematographer working today?"I then went on to note the low light photography Deakins employed for this story and his desaturation of color in the outdoor scenes that perfectly suits the film's mood.

I also predicted Deakins would receive an Academy Award nomination for his work on True Grit; while hardly a bold estimate on my part, this has happened, making this his ninth Oscar nomination. He also received a nomination for his work on this film from the American Society of Cinematographers; he is one of five up for the society's Outstanding Achievement Award for the past year's films. He has won this award twice in the past for The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). In February, he will be honored by the ASC with their lifetime achievement award.

Think about the films on which Deakins has been employed as Director of Photography and you can't help but recall the amazing visuals. A short list includes several remarkable movies from the Coens, including No Country for Old Men (2007) and 2000's O Brother, Where Art Thou? (he has been the regular cinematographer for the Coens since 1991's Barton Fink) as well as work for other directors including The Shawshank Redemption (1994 for Frank Darabont); Kundun (1997 for Martin Scorsese); A Beautiful Mind (2001 for Ron Howard) and Revolutionary Road (2008 for Sam Mendes).

No Country For Old Men

I've always been interested in cinematography and how these craftsmen work; I am a still photographer and have always been fascinated by visuals. I thought about attending film school at a prestigious university when I was young, but nothing ever came of it. So my expertise on cinematography is somewhat limited, as I have to rely on how the visual look of a film affects the way I react to it. As you would imagine, that reaction is quite strong; only music can match those emotions for me in movies.

Take a look at the image at the beginning of this post, for example. Could this image of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) be more iconic? We know of the near mythical accounts of James' life and instantly, we are given that identity in this one shot. Look at how James in his dark outfit stands tall against the muted browns and greens with an ominous, cloud-filled sky overhead (desaturation is a common visual in Deakins' works - it is on display throughout True Grit). It is as though this man is one against nature, a man who literally rises above nature, giving him a timeless quality, one that defined this man's actions against society. Clearly this image takes what we know about Jesse James and then surpasses those sensations.

Lest you think I am giving Deakins more credit than he deserves when I discuss this particular (or other images in his portfolio) as compared to the film's director, consider this excerpt from an article in the  January, 2011 issue of American Cinematographer magazine:

He (Deakins) has repeatedly stated that composition is the most critical part of the cinematographer’s job. “It’s much more important than lighting,” he toldAC. “The balance of the frame — the way an actor is relating to the space in the frame — is the most important factor in helping the audience feel what the character is thinking.”

This article is an excellent overview of Deakins' experiences as well as how he goes about his craft. I recommend it wholeheartedly; it can be found at this link.

Low light photography is a feature of much of Deakins' work; this is of course, in keeping with the themes explored by the Coens in films such as Barton Fink or True Grit or by Andrew Dominik in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). The above photo, from this last film, is part of a brilliantly lit and photographed train robbery sequence that is among the finest moments of Deakins' resumé. You don't have to know exactly how he did it (he used a number of techniques to make the train and surrounding landscape appear brighter than they were during the actual shoot), but it is a mesmerizing visual moment that heightens the drama. While Deakins may have a few tricks up his sleeve (like any accomplished cinematographer), he uses them to aide the look and feel of the film and not to draw attention to his own talent.

Not every film Deakins has worked on has featured low light photography. Look at the above image from Revolutionary Road and note how he has used natural light in this shot (even going so far as to show two unlit overhead kitchen fixtures). Here the bright, sunny hues of this scene serve as an ironic counterpoint to the ever increasing marital problems of the main couple. It's a completely natural look and it's what director Sam Mendes wanted and what Deakins delivered.

For several years now, Deakins has authored his own blog, answering questions (often very technically oriented) about what sort of lens or light he used to achieve an image. Sometimes the answers are less technical, leaning toward his philosophy of lighting and framing a scene. Here is one of my favorite quotes from Deakins, in reply to a budding cinematographer asking him for advice:

"Study light and color - every painting, photograph, and film scene that makes you feel "I want to do that" - figure out how you might replicate it - not just light, but overall tone, saturation, color, and even composition. Look for the meaning or metaphor, look for the "story" in every scene - learn to think like an artist AND a technician."

The Roger Deakins forum can be found at this link. It's a fascinating site, especially for anyone interested in cinematography and Deakins is happy to share some of his secrets (he reveals, for instance, that the memorable scene of Rooster Cogburn giving Mattie a horseback ride under a star-lit sky in True Grit was so difficult to film that it had to be filmed both outdoors as well as on an indoor stage, using a green screen for certain closeups.)

Roger Deakins

Deakins' work has truly been among the very best in films over the past 25 years; I've written about a few of my favorites in this post, but there are many more I simply don't have room to mention, such as the marvelous tonal range of The Shawshank Redemption (various hues of blue, gray and brown) and the stunning black and white photography of The Man Who Wasn't There, which in reality was shot on color film and then printed on black and white stock.

Congratulations, Roger on your Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers - well deserved! Now wouldn't it be something if the Academy Awards finally recognized him with an Oscar for his sublime work this past year on True Grit?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for helping me care about Cinematographer. I never gave them much thought before.