Oscar-winning DP Roger Deakins breaks down his most iconic films and ends up teaching us how to win at the cinematography game.
Cinematography is more than just pointing your camera at something cool and hitting record. It's visual storytelling that incorporates certain aesthetic elements of light, shape, size, color, movement, and so much more.
Its complexity is obscured most by the best who practice it—because if an expert DP does their job, the product of their work takes center stage over the work itself.
And that's why it can be difficult to analyze the filmography of someone like Roger Deakins, who has lensed some of the most brilliantly captured films in history, including The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, and Blade Runner 2049. We all have cinematic Dunning-Kruger moments, where we think we know what's happening on screen when in reality, we don't...and we have no idea that we don't.
So, to avoid that, let's try to answer a simple question: how does a master cinematographer like Roger Deakins take his ideas and synthesize them into something beautiful and moving on-screen? Well, as you'll soon learn in this video from Rotten Tomatoes, he just...breaks it down.
The Deakins Philosophy
First and foremost, it's helpful to understand how Deakins views and understands his craft because that will give us insight into how he approaches it. Within the first few seconds of the video, he very clearly explains what is essentially his philosophy on cinematography.
Reality doesn't have to be naturalistic. It doesn't have to be exactly the way light is. You want to create a coherent world for the audience that they believe. The biggest challenge [in] any film...is just creating a kind of world that hangs together...for the entirety of the film. It's the overall look that is the biggest challenge.
You can see this at work in The Assassination of Jesse James during the train sequence. Deakins explains how he used a 5K tungsten PAR for the train's spotlight, and as it approached the hooded men in the woods as they're poised to rob the train, you can see the light shining on them at almost a 90-degree angle. This, of course, doesn't make sense in reality, but it works for filmmaking. If it looks good and nobody notices, then you win.
Embrace Technologies You're Not a Huge Fan Of...But...
Everybody has tastes and strengths. Maybe for you, working with CG and visual effects is not really your cup of tea, nor is it something you're particularly good at.
However, Deakins reminds us that it's important to at least be open to the technologies that will allow you to turn your idea into a reality on-screen. Despite not being a huge fan of using VFX, the DP explains how it was used effectively for the oil fires in Jarhead and how it played a key role in Blade Runner 2049 and embraced its use to bring the film to life. However, part of what makes Deakins a master of his craft is his attention to detail.
In the "Hologram Sync" scene, a woman and her hologram "sync" together and the VFX team wanted to shoot one woman on a blue screen. But Deakins insisted that they shoot both women on with his lighting setup to ensure that the lighting looked the way he wanted it to.
Get Involved at Every Stage of Production
Cinematographers like Deakins don't just show up when it comes time to shoot. In fact, they show up much, much earlier...and in more areas of production than you might think.
Deakins explains that he likes to be involved in many of the different aspects of production that will eventually affect the way he's able to do his job. This includes location scouting, set design, and conversations about key stylistic choices.
You don't want to show up on the first day of a shoot and realize that your location won't allow you to move your camera in the way you want to or that the set is going to require a different lighting setup than you had planned.
Pick the Right Tools for the Job
There's no such thing as a "perfect" camera because they all come with different strengths and weaknesses. This is why cinematographers look at the features different units offer and compare them to what their project needs.
For Deakins, shooting 1917 meant needing a camera rig that was lightweight enough to run around the set with for hours over harsh terrain. Because the film is supposed to appear to be one long oner, the camera, lenses, and stabilizers had to be compact enough to navigate the set but also nimble enough to make adjustments on the fly.
What's Next? How Roger Deakins Filmed '1917' in One Shot*
Read our interview with Roger Deakins in which we talk about all things 1917, from how he planned and visualized the "one shot" movie to capturing the most difficult sequence.
Click the link to learn more!