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Photo/Video: Sir Roger Deakins
There are very few positions in the film industry less appreciated than cinematographer, and the number of individuals who’ve managed to achieve celebrity from the DP chair can generously be counted on one hand. Nevertheless, British film photographer and “man with a golden eye” Roger Deakins has carved out a spot for himself as a household name across his forty-year career. But how did the vision behind generational classics like ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (1994), ‘Fargo’ (1996), ‘No Country for Old Men’ (2007), and ‘Blade Runner 2049’ (2017) rise to station as master of the silhouette and florid artist with a movie camera?
Contrary to what many may assume, Deakins did not emerge from film school as a celebrated maestro – in fact, Deakins was initially denied access to film school on the grounds his work was not “filmic” enough. After spending his youth as an avid painter and adolescence as a rural photographer, Deakins developed a passion for cinematography shortly before applying to and being promptly rejected by England’s National Film School.
Faced with the choice to either abandon his passion or pack-up and wait for the next year’s application season, Deakins chose the latter – spending the year wandering the English countryside and photographing every last detail that caught his eye. After being accepted the second time around, Deakins went on to spend his post-collegiate years picking up odd jobs as an assistant cameraman on various documentaries and musical concert recordings – juxtaposing clandestine recordings of the Rhodesian Bush War with hazy backstage hang-outs with the likes of Van Morrison and The Kinks. Deakins first foray into cinematography would come well into his 30s, a testament to the old adage “it’s never too late to start doing what you love”.
A String of Undersung Successes Throughout the 1980s
After scoring a gig as director-of-photography for a gritty British miniseries entitled ‘Wolcott’ (1981) by sheer happenstance, Deakins inspired his former film school companion Michael Radford to seek him out and ask to collaborate on the aspiring director’s first feature film endeavor entitled ‘Another Time, Another Place’ (1983). The project proved a surprise success, screening at the Cannes Film Festival and inspiring the pair to work together again on Radford’s next project; the esoteric adaptation of George Orwell’s timeless classic ‘1984’ (1984).
Deakins’ remarkable decision to attempt a bleach bypass and wash out much of the film’s primary colors in favor of a dreary and subdued Orwellian ash proved a breakthrough in cinematography later repeated in films like ‘Se7en’ (1995), ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998), and ‘Fight Club’ (1999). Throughout the rest of the 1980s, Deakins continued finding work as an overqualified DP-for-hire, contributing to a myriad of British films including ‘Sid & Nancy’ (1986), ‘Defence of the Realm’ (1986), ‘White Mischief’ (1987), ‘Stormy Monday’ (1988), and ‘Pascali’s Island’ (1988). While none ever rose above the status of cult favorites. While many may have missed most of Deakins contributions across the 1980s, there was one up-and-coming director duo who took a special interest in his work; Joel and Ethan Coen.
Sir Roger Deakins – A Cultural Breakthrough in the 1990s and 2000s
After finding little success as a cinematographer in the U.S. with lightweight 90s fluff the likes of ‘Air America’ (1990), Deakins was chosen by the two brothers to serve as DP on their latest project; the Palme d’Or-winning Tinsel Town nightmare ‘Barton Fink’ (1991). Deakins’ photography was among the highlights of the film, making him a sought-after commodity in Hollywood overnight. The cinematographer would string along a few critical successes with films like ‘Homicide’ (1991), ‘Passion Fish’ (1992), and ‘The Secret Garden’ (1993) before scoring his first Oscar nomination for his exceptional work on Frank Darabont’s seminal 1994 masterpiece ‘The Shawshank Redemption’.
As if a nod at the Academy Awards wasn’t an emphatic enough declaration Deakins had found his way to the top of his field, he received the award for Outstanding Achievement in Theatrical Releases from the American Society of Cinematographers – while also being inducted into the guild within the same year. Deakins perfectly captured the film’s sense of fleeting humanity marred by the looming shadow of physical and emotional confinement, offering up one of Cinema’s most powerful portraits upon Andy’s escape and impactful endings upon Red’s arrival at the beach as the credits begin to roll.
Deakins would end the decade with two more nominations tucked into his belt for transcendent efforts in the Coen’s snow-capped Dakotan noir masterpiece ‘Fargo’ (1996) and Martin Scorsese’s underrated epic biographical drama ‘Kundun’ (1997). Both received much acclaim for their brilliant direction and superb performances, but the discourse around the two films never strayed too far away from Deakins’ magnificent camerawork and spellbinding use of colors to evoke specific emotions – be they isolation and disgust in the former or spectacle and wonderment in the latter. While not remembered for its cinematography, Deakins work on ‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998) deserves its own special shout-out, perfectly reflecting the chord struck between nonchalance and absurdity within the film and abiding right alongside The Dude throughout its runtime.
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An Emergence as a Preeminent Force in Cinematography Across the 2000s, 2010s, and Beyond
The hits would keep on mounting for Deakins, reteaming with the Coen’s on all of their films across the 2000s including ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ (2000), ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ (2001), and their Best Picture-winning Cormac McCarthy adaptation ‘No Country For Old Men’. All three would prove visual feasts, the latter film the second of Deakins’ work to win the coveted top prize at the Academy Awards after Ron Howard’s psychological drama ‘A Beautiful Mind’ (2001) went home with the honor a few years earlier. Deakins began branching out from his usual collaborators as the decade progressed, teaming instead with young and vibrant young auteurs like M. Night Shyamalan on ‘The Village’ (2004), Sam Mendes on ‘Jarhead’ (2005), and Andrew Dominik on ‘The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford’ (2007). The final film featured what Deakins has since referred to as the particular shot he is most proud of; the arrival of the train at dusk into the waiting arms of Brad Pitt’s James and his gang of restless outlaws.
The 2010s would see Deakins seek out new and exciting ways to keep himself challenged, placed clearly on display by his decision to contribute to Gore Verbinski’s atypical animated neo-western ‘Rango’ (2011). Deakins would later serve as a visual consultant for animated films like ‘The Croods’ (2013) and the ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ trilogy (2010-2019), but ‘Rango’ remains the only occasion the cinematographer stepped up to the plate for a non-live action project. A year later, Deakins would release what may very well be the most accomplished film of his career; the peerless James Bond masterpiece ‘Skyfall’ (2012). Deakins found within Bond a perfect sandbox to flex his artistic capabilities to their maximum potential, not leaving a single shot waisted over the film’s 143 minutes.
The next directorial muse to lure Deakins onto their creative team came in the form of French Canadian sensation Denis Villeneuve. In 2013, the two would collaborate on the gripping thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal ‘Prisoners’, which they then followed up with ‘Sicario’ in 2015, and ‘Blade Runner 2049’ in 2017. After a whopping 14 nominations, Deakins finally won an Academy Award for his ultimate collaboration with Villeneuve, creating one of Cinema’s most awe-inspiring visual spectacles and imagining a dystopian Los Angeles cityscape not just defined by the neon-noir of its predecessor, but hued in a rich collection of oranges and blues sure to forever remain embedded in the minds of all those lucky enough to experience Deakins’ masterwork.
While it may have taken him 23 years to win an Oscar after his first nomination, Deakins did not wait that long before repeating the feat – winning again for his first project after ‘Blade Runner 2049’; ‘1917’ (2021). An epic World War I drama inspired by the tales of Mendes’ grandfather and edited to appear as one continuous, uninterrupted take, there was little doubt Deakins would walk away empty-handed. Alas, he would not, winning the award and scoring his fifteenth nomination for the unrelenting battlefield saga.
While the road to success may not have always been assured for Deakins, his spot as one of the greatest cinematographers in Cinema history certainly is. Very few in the industry could dream of having their name attached to more bonafide classics spanning four distinct decades and counting, but Deakins has made it clear he is only ever as good as his latest film. Fans anxiously anticipating the next time they can see Deakins breathtaking photography on the big screen can rejoice at the news he will be again teaming with Mendes on a love story set in and around a rundown British cinema entitled ‘Empire of Light’ and scheduled for release in the latter half of 2022.
By Andrew Valianti
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Andrew Valianti is a writer and an aspiring producer-director, and all-around film lover. While writing both features and reviews for the Hollywood Insider, Andrew has focused on the intersection of cinema and politics as they relate to empowering diverse stories and viewpoints. Through both study and practice, Andrew has seen first hand the many ways in which film and media can have a positive and meaningful impact on everyday lives. His personal views align with the Hollywood Insider, as he views journalism as a means to empower and mobilize positive change rather than spread gossip or negativity. He believes that art ignites action and has sought to pursue stories that further this goal.