October 24, 2017

Watch: Techniques Every Cinematographer Can Learn from Roger Deakins

roger deakins skyfall
Oscar or not, filmmakers have much to learn from Blade Runner 2049's master DP Roger Deakins.

Given that films are ultimately collaborative efforts, requiring that the skills of each individual crew member, actor, and other personnel work together in relative harmony, it might be difficult to isolate one part of a film and use it to bolster your own creative efforts. And yet, in Roger Deakins' case, it's not so difficult. In fact, in films in which Deakins works as DP, the cinematography takes on a life of its own, and can be studied in and of itself.

Nelson Carvajal's latest video essay for RogerEbert.com, partially created to bemoan the fact that Deakins has not received an Academy Award, points out some timeless techniques, or rather aesthetic goals, Deakins maintains that anyone could learn from.

The macrocosmic view

When immersed in a story, it would be easy for a filmmaker to let the details take over, to let an obsession with who did what to whom and why and where and when and how engulf both the plot and its visual representation, and yet with Deakins at the visual helm, that would never be a concern. As Carvajal's piece indicates, Deakins is a master of the macrocosm, of letting us know how small each individual struggle is by comparison with a more vast backdrop.

Look, for instance, at that well-known scene of a state trooper's car pushing on into the Minnesota wastes of Fargo, a minute symbol of law, rectitude, justice, nearly swallowed up by acres of its opposite. Or look at the three chained travelers of O Brother, Where Art Thou? hippety-hopping across a huge field, a hint at the magnitude of the journey they are about to take. These relationships can be represented visually, and watching Deakins work can be a way of learning how to pull them off.

Fargo
The macro of 'Fargo'

The intensity of the microcosm

Just as the universality of a story is essential, giving life to its smallest aspects is also a crucial part of the cinematographer's job. Carvajal offers us one moment from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford which tells everything and gives away nothing at the same time; we see Brad Pitt's James, alone, in his backyard, smoking. The outlaw in repose? The outlaw pondering his next big heist? The outlaw considering his own mortality, wondering who's going to be the first to take him out? Possibly any one of these, maybe all three; the point is that, even though the shot keeps us slightly removed from James, we see him and get a slight glimpse into his microcosm.

Conversely, linger over one of the numerous seduction scenes from The Reader, we see Kate Winslet's Hanna Schmitz, working her way down Michael Berg's (David Kross) younger chest—satiation for one, education for the other, brought to being by the way Deakins' camera isolates these two figures for maximum intensity. 

'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford'

Life is motion

Just as a cinematographer can teach viewers a lot about a story through vantage points, he or she can also show us characters in motion, at their most vivid and engaged, reminding us that stories are all about the actions we take and the reactions that occur as a result.

Deakins is a master of letting the characters in front of his camera breathe. Look at that magnificent fight scene from Skyfall, all in silhouette, as James Bond half-wrestles, half-dances with an assailant against a fluorescent backdrop. Or trace the circular motion of Anton Chigurrh (Javier Bardem) in No Country for Old Men, as he writhes with one of his victims on the floor, slowly strangling him to death but not without a struggle. The message Deakins is able to bring home, again, and again, is this: life is motion. If you're able to represent that truth cinematically, you'd make Deakins proud.

What are your favorite Deakins scenes? Let us know in the comments.      

Your Comment

9 Comments

It really is his year to win it.

October 24, 2017 at 11:54AM

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Matt Carter
VFX Artist / Director / DP / Writer / Composer / Alexa Owner
447

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October 24, 2017 at 12:47PM

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He's one of, if not the greatest cinematographer of all time. I'm sure it'd be nice, but he doesn't need their recognition to make him more valid. It wasn't until I started studying film that I realized it was his work that inspired me to get into cinematography. I never thought, "oh, but who won the Oscar?".

DEAKS 2017!

October 24, 2017 at 3:37PM, Edited October 24, 3:37PM

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"Nelson Carvajal's latest video essay for RogerEbert.com" needs to come much sooner in the article.

October 24, 2017 at 4:34PM

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You just can't argue about how stunning his movies look:
https://cinestills.eu/?s=RogerDeakins

October 24, 2017 at 7:11PM

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You have a decent point here!I absolutely concur with what you have said!!Thanks for sharing your views...hope more individuals will read this article
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October 25, 2017 at 12:17AM

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That's not really a video essay, there's no comment, it's just a showreel.

October 25, 2017 at 8:40AM, Edited October 25, 8:40AM

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He also answers questions from nobodies like me--what a helpful Prince.

October 26, 2017 at 10:11PM

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Miller Aviano
Member of #Resistance to Fascism
1

Literally took my breath for 2 minutes...
Woww..!!
Inspiring.. Love his visuals.

October 29, 2017 at 3:27AM, Edited October 29, 3:27AM

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Sameir Ali
Director of Photography
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