by Marshall Flores
When the 85th Academy Awards concluded, the final distribution of winners generally reflected the patterns of years past. A few won their second or third statuettes, others received their first trophies, and most walked home empty handed, some for the umpteenth time. Unfortunately, that last group included perpetual Oscar also-rans like composer Thomas Newman, sound mixer Greg P. Russell, and cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Deakins, the longtime director of photography for the Coen Brothers and a frequent collaborator of Sam Mendes, received his 10th Oscar nomination for “Skyfall.” lensing what is undoubtedly the most exquisite James Bond film ever made (I mean, seriously, that blue and black fight scene set in a Shanghai high rise gets my vote as the most beautiful fistfight ever captured on film). Deakins continued his Oscar-less streak, this time losing to Claudio Miranda (a great DP on his own right) and his incredible work for “Life of Pi.” However, he would not go home from this awards season empty-handed, as Deakins won his share of cinematography awards this year, including a third trophy from his peers at the American Society of Cinematographers.
In my mind, Roger Deakins is the greatest working cinematographer today, and definitely one of the greatest of all-time, right up there with the likes of Conrad L. Hall, Gordon Willis, Kazuo Miyagawa, Stanley Cortez, and Jack Cardiff (among many others). I strongly feel that Deakins should have at least four Oscars by now , winning for the Shawshank Redemption, The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit. But I’m certain that as long as he continues to work, the Oscar is merely an inevitability.
The two things that stand out to me the most about Deakins’ work is his superb eye for detail and his unwavering commitment to simplicity and naturalism – he meticulously maps out every scene, every angle, while eschewing flashier or more complex techniques if they’re not right for the film. As he explained in a 2009 interview with NPR,
“It’s got to mean something…you’ve got to know why you’re doing it, it’s got to be for a reason within the story, and to further the story… There’s nothing worse than an ostentatious shot.”
For me, Deakins is almost without equal with his absolute mastery of lighting and shadow, angle and movement, framing and composition. Even if his commitment is to the story and not to “making great images,” the end result is still always memorable and often breathtaking. Deakins’ unfettered approach also enables him to be incredibly versatile: he’s lensed period films and modern action thrillers, and shot on both film and on digital, all with equal aplomb. It also must be noted that he served as a visual consultant on both “WALL-E” and “How to Train Your Dragon,” – it’s little surprise that both films are some of the most visually resplendent animated films ever created.
All that being said, no tribute to Roger Deakins is complete without letting his work speak for itself. Hence, I will conclude this post with a selection of some of my favorite shots in Deakins’ repertoire. Hopefully, my choices adequately highlight both his superlative skill and versatility. I’m sure you all have your favorites as well – feel free to share those and any other thoughts about this one-of-a-kind artist.
In chronological order:
The Shawshank Redemption (1994, dir. Frank Daranbont)
Fargo (1996, dir. the Coen Brothers)
Kundun (1997, dir. Martin Scorsese)
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001, dir. the Coen Brothers)
Jarhead (2005, dir. Sam Mendes)
No Country for Old Men (2007, dir. the Coen Brothers)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, dir. Andrew Dominik)
WALL-E (2008, dir. Andrew Stanton)
Revolutionary Road (2008, dir. Sam Mendes)
A Serious Man (2009, dir. the Coen Brothers)
Skyfall (2012, dir. Sam Mendes)