English cinematographer Roger Deakins is known all around the world for his unforgettable constructions of brilliant visual narratives. Over the course of his career, he has collaborated with talented filmmakers like the Coen Brothers and Denis Villeneuve among others. Deakins has several prestigious accolades to his name, including five BAFTA wins in the Best Cinematography category and two Academy Awards.
In an interview, Deakins once reflected: “I suppose everyone gets into it in a different way. I loved film when I was kid because I was in a film society in Torquay, which is near where I am now, down in Devon. And I used to go and watch films. I fell in love with movies. My dad was a builder, so I didn’t have any connection to the arts at all. I never really considered film as a career, but I knew I didn’t want to be a builder.”
Adding, “So I went to art college, and it just gradually happened. I heard that the National Film School was opening up, so I applied. And when I first started, I saw myself shooting documentaries or making documentaries, which is what I did, mostly, for a number of years. So it was quite a surprise how I found myself shooting features. It was like my wildest dreams as a kid collided.”
On his 72nd birthday, we take a look at 10 memorable shots from Roger Deakins’ illustrious career as a tribute to the cinematographer’s mastery over his art form.
The 10 best shots of cinematographer Roger Deakins:
10. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Coen Brothers – 2000)
This memorable crime comedy by the Coen Brothers is a satirical interpretation of Homer’s The Odyssey. Set in Depression-era Mississippi, the film is a visual delight that enhances the subtextual elements in the work. Deakins picked up an Academy Award nomination for his work.
Joel Coen said: “It started as a ‘three saps on the run’ kind of movie, and then at a certain point we looked at each other and said, ‘You know, they’re trying to get home — let’s just say this is The Odyssey. We were thinking of it more as The Wizard of Oz. We wanted the tag on the movie to be: There’s No Place Like Home.”
9. The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont – 1994)
One of the most popular films embedded in the mainstream consciousness, The Shawshank Redemption is an important film adaptation of Stephen King’s novella. Deakins picked up his first Academy Award nomination for his emotionally stirring cinematography which perfectly captured the condition of the characters.
The filmmaker praised Deakins: “What’s great about Roger is that he tends to think like a storyteller. He’s not just a guy who lights and shoots. [Roger viewed] the film from the storyteller’s standpoint and tried to create a visual journey that would match the journey that the story took.”
8. Barton Fink (Coen Brothers – 1991)
Barton Fink is often considered to be one of the best examples of the brilliance of the Coen Brothers. The 1991 black comedy follows the misadventures of a young playwright (John Turturro). Barton Fink’s surreal elements are beautifully highlighted by Deakins, a welcome result that led to many more collaborations between the cinematographer and the Coen Brothers.
Deakins said: “Barton Fink was the first film that I did with them, [so] there was more pressure on me. There were some very particular shots that were difficult. One in particular was the camera starting underneath the bed, tracking across the room, into the bathroom and down the plughole. This was the early days of remote heads and all this sort of nonsense, so it was incredibly hard to do that.”
7. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik – 2007)
Andrew Dominik’s 2007 epic is regarded by many as one of the greatest films of the decade and a major reason why is because of Deakins’ impeccable work. It is the final project which he shot on film, eventually transitioning to the digital realm.
“I was always looking for those opportunities — tracking through doorways and using windows and other scenic elements to break up the wide frame,” admitted Deakins. “There are also a number of shots where we dolly past a character. I always used a dolly for those shots, because in general I don’t like to use zoom lenses unless there’s a very specific reason for it.”
6. No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers – 2007)
This 2007 neo-Western by the Coen Brothers is famous for its brilliant acting (by Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones) as well as the bleak visual depiction of the desert landscape. The latter perfectly complements the dark narrative of the film, leading Deakins to receive several nominations and accolades.
The cinematographer said: “Some of it was West Texas but we shot most of it in New Mexico because it has better tax breaks. We really wanted the feeling of the Texas borderland though so we shot main unit in Marfa in West Texas for seven or eight days. I was down there during the prep period with my assistant to do the opening sequence; the still frames of the landscape.”
5. Fargo (Coen Brothers – 1996)
Fargo is the Coen Brothers’ magnum opus and a bonafide cult classic that has become an indispensable part of their legacy. Roger Deakins’ cinematography contextualises the morbid games of the characters in a framework that is somehow both environmentally frigid and filled with human warmth.
We always involve Roger very early,” noted Joel Coen. “Basically, what we do after we finish the script is sit down with him and talk in general terms about how we were thinking about it from a visual point of view. Then, in specific terms, we do a draft of the storyboards with Roger — showing him a preliminary draft of what we were thinking about — and then refine those ideas scene by scene. So he’s involved pretty much right from the beginning. The style of the shooting is worked out between the three of us.”
4. Skyfall (Sam Mendes – 2012)
One of the most visually stunning works in Deakins’ career, Skyfall is Sam Mendes’ reconstruction of the James Bond legacy. The cinematographer dazzles us with beautifully photographed images. However, the one that obviously stands out is the Shanghai scene which utilises the true potential of the cinematic medium.
Deakins said: “The only reason I did Skyfall was Sam. I haven’t ever done ‘action’ films, as such; the things I’ve done have been much more in the way of personal dramas. Was I surprised that Sam wanted to do it? Initially, yes. Then he came out to LA and we talked about it. At that point I really understood his passion for it. He was always a bigger fan of Bond movies than I was, but his enthusiasm and take on it were so interesting I thought, ‘how can I not do it?’”
3. The Man Who Wasn’t There (Coen Brothers – 2001)
Yet another Coen Brothers entry on this list, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a crime film that features Deakins’ cinematography in black and white. He manages to construct a visual nightmare from ominous chiaroscuros. It is both a tribute and a re-interpretation of the tradition of filmmaking.
“You’re going from high-technology colour to something very traditional, a black and white picture. I wouldn’t say it’s more simple, but I look at black and white photography as being more pure. It’s really about the content of the frame and subject matter. Often times, colour is just a distraction,” Deakins commented.
2. 1917 (Sam Mendes – 2019)
Deakins secured a much deserved Oscar win for his latest collaboration with Sam Mendes. The director wanted 1917’s cinematic experience to be surreal, almost like a horrifying dream, and that’s exactly what Deakins achieved with his work. It is a moving portrait of war, stylised in such a way that the sense of urgency becomes overwhelming.
The cinematographer revealed, “I’m a bit of a World War I buff really I suppose, and my wife and I had gone and seen a lot of the battlegrounds. Actually with some friends once, we went and traveled the whole of the front line in France one time when we were on holiday, just because it’s so fascinating. But I mean mostly what we did, is look at all the research and there are some old films of the war.”
1. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve – 2017)
A worthy sequel to Ridley Scott’s influential 1982 original, Blade Runner 2049 is a philosophical meditation on the post-human condition. One of its greatest strengths is Deakins’ hallucinogenic visual style which transforms the experience into a transcendental one.
Deakins explained, “I remember thinking it was more of a detective movie that paid homage to film noir more than it did to science-fiction. I was a big fan of science-fiction and Philip Dick, and frankly, the film is so far away from the book. The main character is such an antihero in the book. It’s very different. Not that it’s not great. I was just a bit thrown when I first saw it; it wasn’t what I expected at all.”