The Cinematographer's Job Is Not to Create Amazing Images: Roger Deakins on Shooting 'Sicario'

Roger Deakins on Shooting Sicario
With the latest film to feature Roger Deakins behind the camera making its way through theaters, the legendary cinematographer recently sat down with Variety to provide some insight into how he shot it.

First up, in case you haven't seen it already, here's the Sicario trailer:

And here's the Variety Artisans featurette, in which Deakins talks about his approach to shooting the film, working with Dennis Villeneuve, lighting A-list actors, and quite a bit more:

There are a few really useful tidbits of cinematography knowledge in this piece, as there always seem to be whenever Deakins gives an interview. Perhaps the biggest one here is his aversion to creating amazing images simply for the sake of creating amazing images. Of course, many of us who aspire to work in feature film cinematography are driven to create beautiful images that are infused with meaning. That kind of ethos just comes with the territory. However, it's important to remember that the job isn't necessarily about creating beautiful images, so much as it's about creating images that are in service of a larger purpose.

The idea behind this is that amazing, stunning, gorgeous images aren't always the best choice to support a particular script and its characters. If an image is so beautiful that it distracts the audience and pulls them from the story, then the cinematographer has failed to do their job, even despite creating a fantastic image. The same goes for images of poor quality. If they don't serve the story and they distract the audience, the cinematographer has failed. Ultimately, it's all about striking a balance between aesthetics and function.

Sicario BTS

Another fascinating tidbit from this interview is the insight into how Deakins' documentary background has deeply influenced the way he shoots narrative features. In essence, it's all about being able to shoot what you find, capturing everything in the most engaging way possible. Having an adaptive mindset helps to make you flexible on set, and it allows you go with the flow, adapting to the many challenges and hurdles of production.

Last but not least, Deakins talks about his approach to working with A-list actors (there are quite a few of them in Sicario). As you might expect, his approach doesn't change. Whichever way he feels a scene needs to be shot — based on his conversations with the director and his extensive pre-production work — is how he shoots the scene, regardless of the star-power of the actors. Apparently, as he mentions in the video, this non-preferential treatment may have gotten him in hot water once or twice throughout his career.

Here's a quick video with the stars of Sicario sharing their thoughts on working with Deakins.

If you're interested in reading more about Deakins' technological approach to shooting Sicario (which is actually really interesting, especially the work he did with infrared imaging), head on over to this written interview on Variety's site.

What do you guys think about the idea that the cinematographer's job isn't necessarily to create amazing images? Also, if you've seen Sicario, be sure to share your thoughts about its cinematography down in the comments!     

You Might Also Like

Your Comment


Roger is a friggin living legend.

October 1, 2015 at 12:57PM

Oren Agami
Creative Director, SAP


October 2, 2015 at 3:18AM, Edited October 2, 3:18AM

Gene Nemetz
live streaming

No disrespect, but I respect you bro,,,,

October 2, 2015 at 7:47AM


I do believe the term "original gangsta" applies.

October 2, 2015 at 10:37AM

Samu Amunét

Sicario was absolutely fantastic and the cinematography was haunting. It felt like the camera was this nameless character kind of floating along the story and experiencing the nightmare first hand. Deakins has an incredible way of just inserting the audience into the action.

October 1, 2015 at 1:04PM

Oscar Stegland

I thought it was so very interesting the way Emily Blount first entering into the tunnel at night was shot. There were several interesting shots throughout the movie. Such a great movie.

On a side note, I have many friends from Mexico. All of them I asked have said the movie shows what is really happening. One even said it is worse in real life than what the movie showed.

October 2, 2015 at 3:20AM

Gene Nemetz
live streaming

My friends have family there as well.

October 2, 2015 at 7:26AM


Mr. Deakins (along with Roger Ebert and Nicolas Winding Refn) is one of the reasons I love and appreciate film and cinema today. His films were the first I ever took notice of because of lighting and composition.

October 1, 2015 at 1:14PM

Emerson Shaw

Deakins is incredible. And I think the point about shooting what's right for the project, not just what's most beautiful, applies to any video regardless of budget. In a series of narrative shorts that were actually educational videos that I worked on, the director and crew came up with a beautiful, lengthy tracking shot of an actor moving through different rooms of an apartment. Very cinematic. But also way way too long, and extremely difficult to intercut with other coverage, because they spent so much time doing takes of this shot that there wasn't much other footage at all, and what little there was had some glaring continuity issues. So it became the hardest video in the series to edit coherently and that beautiful shot got chopped up out of sheer necessity into something that wasn't so beautiful. Now I'm not saying don't experiment! And I'm not saying standard coverage is best. But what I do think is that they forgot the essentials of the project (strict time limits on videos, a certain style, etc.) while they were working to achieve the most cinematic shot.

October 1, 2015 at 5:11PM, Edited October 1, 5:11PM

Benjamin Reichman
Post Supervisor/AE/Editor

Where there is art and ego there will always be gratuitous camera work and dialogue... Fortunately for us, we have Deakins to show us that it's simply not the way to do things & Sicario is a great example of this.
I was rather fortunate to see Sicario at the Arclight screening last week and Roger was there, in the flesh, for a Q&A afterwards!
Such an honor to listen to him speak about his work and empart some of his philosophy.
He's one of the reasons I switched my major from business, at one of the top business schools, to TV & Film nearly 12 years ago... while I'd definitely not recommend that to college students these days, it was probably the best decision I ever made.
He does such a masterful job of telling the story through camera moves in a way that never distracts the viewer but each shot is artfully composed in the best way it could be captured... Which in a way is rather beautiful.
One piece of knowledge that I'll pass along from that in-person Q&A that we should all take to heart... Roger says he is not a "tech guy", that everyone gets way to caught up on specs and technical capabilities which really detracts from the job at hand.
Worth keeping that one in mind.

October 1, 2015 at 11:21PM, Edited October 1, 11:50PM

J.M. Anderson
Director of Photography

Just stumbled over this, an almost 1,5 hours long Q&A conversation with Deakins regarding Sicario:

October 2, 2015 at 1:50AM, Edited October 2, 1:50AM

You voted '+1'.

Been following this movie for awhile, since it was directed by Denis Villeneuve. The acting was amazing by Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt, the script really insanely detailed,researched, characters had amazing depth, the music score was fantastic, set design really outstanding, and of course cinematography was outstanding. I felt he went with a lot of natural lighting on this film. The Infrared shots were really impressive. We're going to see this style being used alot in upcoming action movies. Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubeski, Jeff Cronenweth are probably my favorite digital cinematographers. They really have a grasp of this new format.

October 2, 2015 at 7:23AM


As far as that interview with Deakins:
Couldn't they have found someone more qualified to interview someone of Deakins' calibre? This guy Coen has no idea what he's doing... is out of his depth and, quite frankly sounds like a total wanker. If you want to interview someone as skilled as Roger Deakins, don't waste his time by HIRING A WANKER!!

October 7, 2015 at 11:18AM

Andrew Staniland