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Oscars Postmortem: A Tribute to Roger Deakins

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)

shawshank

Fargo (1996, dir. the Coen Brothers)

fargo

Kundun (1997, dir. Martin Scorsese)

kundun

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001, dir. the Coen Brothers)

manwho

Jarhead (2005, dir. Sam Mendes)

jarhead

No Country for Old Men (2007, dir. the Coen Brothers)

nocountry

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, dir. Andrew Dominik)

jesse

WALL-E (2008, dir. Andrew Stanton)

wall-e

Revolutionary Road (2008, dir. Sam Mendes)

revroad

A Serious Man (2009, dir. the Coen Brothers)

serious

Skyfall (2012, dir. Sam Mendes)

skyfall

42 Comments on this Post

  1. Pierre de Plume

    I second that emotion! The list of “should have” won also includes The Assassination of Jesse James….

    Words of wisdom (and this applies to any artistic expression, really):

    “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.”

  2. I thought for sure this would be his year. Easily the best living cinematographer today.

  3. The man will have his day. Undoubtedly the greatest working D.O.P.

    But I gotta say Robert Elswit, of all those years you mention, deservedly won in 2007 for There Will Be Blood. He shot both that and Michael Clayton, which are both gorgeous films, displaying many of the qualities you’ve listed in favour of the Deakster.

  4. unlikely hood

    Whoever that Brutally Honest Voter was (a brute, yes; Friedkin? Ratner?) that Sasha put on the mainpage a week ago, I thought the most fascinating thing he said was that the ballot didn’t name Deakins – just the five films up for best cinematography. He said he’d be voting for Deakins, but that most voters wouldn’t know it was him.

    Looks like Deakins may have to win that Oscar the hard way – you know, working for Terrence Malick.

  5. One of the huge joys of watching Skyfall was that Shanghai scene, it took my breath away! Deakins is a genius, he has to win sometime!

  6. Deakins should have, at the minimum, 2 Oscars (Fargo and Jesse James), but it wasn’t his year this go round.

    In the fall, we’ll see what he comes up with when he works with Denis Villeneuve on Prisoners. Villeneuve is a good Cdn director and has a unique visual style (Incendies – nom’d FLF and Polytechnique). With Jackman, Jake G, Viola, Melissa Leo and Paul Dano, it won’t be a minor unseen effort.

    Maybe this time?

  7. rolotomasi99

    For the past 4 years, the Oscar for Cinematography has gone to the same film as the Oscar for Visual Effects (and 3 of those winners have been in 3D). While Skyfall certainly had some great f/x, Deakins needs to do a f/x heavy film if he wants to win.

    I am calling it now: the next winner of Cinematography and Visual Effects is going to be Gravity. Director Alfonso Cuaron always makes visually incredible films, and the Academy owes Emmanuel Lubezki after he lost for The Tree Of Life.

  8. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    Looks like Deakins may have to win that Oscar the hard way – you know, working for Terrence Malick.

    ahaha!

  9. @Unlikely Hood…might be in vain my friend. Poor, poor Lubezki.

    @Marshall, well put. It’s tough for me to say Deakins deserves to have beat the other Oscar winners all of those years however the man is close to 2nd to none. However every year he’s nominated he’s up against someone truly incredible and, in my mind, someone who does something new or propels the medium forward. I won’t say Deakins does nothing new but he is old school in a lot of his techniques (Skyfall excluded). This year he lost to Life of Pi, before that Inception, before that There Will Be Blood (and I felt that deserved it). However I will say without hesitation that nobody is as consistently great as he is.

  10. Whoa! Cuaron and Lubezki? Sorry, Roger – here we go again.

    Good point about the fusion with FX, rolotomasi99. That’s an unstoppable trend.

  11. Have to say, I really think both Deakins AND Newman should have one this year for “Skyfall.” After listening to all of those nominees multiple times that one actually emerged as my favorite. I don’t see what’s all that great about Pi, especially when you take out the song which shouldn’t be counted as part of that score.

    I’m working on a project at home in our living room where we’re lining our entire wall with little 8x10s of our favorite shots from movies throughout the years. Lots of Deakins work on there so far.

  12. Adore Deakins, loved No Country and Jesse James, but Roger Elswit was well worthy of the Oscar for There Will Be Blood.

  13. Marshall…I swore I was done reading about the Oscars…but you pulled me back in!!!

    I want Deakins to win an Oscar…and I do think Skyfall was the best looking Bond film in forever. But, in my opinion, Pi was unbeatable.

    Did Deakins shoot Llewelyn? Or however it’s spelled? Guess I have to start learning to spell it before next season.

  14. Watermelons

    “Did Deakins shoot Llewelyn? Or however it’s spelled?”

    Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie) is lensing Inside Llewyn Davis! Should be gorgeous.

  15. filmboymichael

    some of his best work came this year – but he is ALWAYS so good. My favourite of his work has to Fargo.

  16. Hahaha, Brian! My apologies!

    For the record, I do agree that Miranda was unbeatable for wondrous work on “Pi” – a well-deserved Oscar for my 2nd favorite film of 2012. No grumbling at all from this end. In fact, I really have no qualms with much of the work that ended up winning Oscars in lieu of Deakins’ films: There Will Be Blood, Inception, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were all incredibly lensed as well. Even if I have my many gripes with AMPAS, their cinematography lineups are always solid, year in and year out. It’s not easy for the average voter to choose a winner, and I’m sure it’s even harder for the voters in the cinematography branch.

    The Oscars have indeed recently trended with awarding a film with both cinematography and visual effects. And, of course, not having your name on the ballot (something I still find absolutely ridiculous) dampens any prospects of Deakins winning votes based on his name – though I’m sure he’d want to win any award on merit alone, not just because of his name or reputation. But his work, old-school as it is, is just so damn consistently brilliant and will stand the test of time, Oscar or not.

    Still, I’m sure a lot of cinephiles will rejoice like they did with Scorsese if Deakins finally wins one! All it takes is the right film and the right moment.

  17. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    we’ll see what he comes up with when he works with Denis Villeneuve on Prisoners. Villeneuve is a good Cdn director and has a unique visual style (Incendies – nom’d FLF and Polytechnique).With Jackman, Jake G, Viola, Melissa Leo and Paul Dano

    don’t forget Terrence Howard and Maria Bello, playing mr. and mrs. chopped liver?

  18. Please Academy take away the permission to vote to people like Joan Rivers and Kirstey Alley, please, their taste of cinema is horrible, their favorite film actress was jennifer lawrence, come on!

  19. Well, I looked him up just to see what else he has done and I noticed that he’s a Member of the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Cinematographers Branch). So, if nothing else, he’s got a special Oscar for his career waiting for him in the wings.

    Hey! He’s married to James Purefoy! No…wait.. that’s Isabella James Purefoy Ellis. Damn!

  20. In the same vein of biggest Oscar “losers,” Daniel Day-Lewis is the first person to win an Oscar for acting (out of 12 nominations) in a Spielberg film.

  21. Hearing from that THR Oscar ballot that cinematographers and other tech people do not have their names on the ballot is dispiriting. And now it makes sense that the younger group of DPs like Greig Fraser (Only The Master was more beautifully photographed than Killing Them Softly and Zero Dark Thirty’s cinematography easily could have been nominated just for the raid scenes alone) and Mihai Malaimare Jr. got ignored for more established Richardson (the only nominee who shot in film) and Kaminski (I have never been a fan of color tones). But Deakins not winning at this point is just off. Even with his range there is still a heart and texture there that is constant. Though I was much more of a Harris Savides partisan when he was still alive (Good lord that opening shot of Birth is magnificent), Deakins is in the pantheon.

    And let’s look at who Deakins lost to:

    Life of Pi, Claudio Miranda (Deakins, Skyfall)

    Inception, Wally Pfister (Deakins, True Grit)

    Slumdog Millionaire, Anthony Dod Mantle (Deakins & Chris Menges, The Reader)

    There Will Be Blood, Robert Elswit (Deakins double-nominee for The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men)

    The Lord of the Rings, Andrew Lesnie (Deakins, The Man Who Wasn’t There)

    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Peter Pau (Deakins, O Brother Where Art Thou?)

    Titanic, Russell Carpenter (Deakins, Kundun)

    The English Patient, John Seale (Deakins, Fargo)

    Legend of the Fall, John Toll (Deakins, The Shawshank Redemption)

    Now some of these wins over Deakins are objectively amazingly photographed films themselves. The year Deakins was a double nominee, likely cancelled him out but TWBB’s cinematography is amazing and so crucial. Others, however, seem like the typical piles on that happen in Oscar season when the consensus BP winners or even just the technical wonders of the season get there pick of the liter in the tech categories such as Titanic, The English Patient, and Slumdog Millionaire (though for my money the winner of that category should have been Wally Pfister that year for The Dark Knight). At some points Roger ran into some tough luck but the fact some of these were picks based on artistic merit (John Toll’s Legends of the Fall for goodness sakes) and he still is without one is amazing.

  22. Best cinematography is my favorite category at the oscars and it’s something I aspire to be locally at home with my film community. Obviously, deakins is a true inspiration to me among other talents from past and present. When I see a films credits I always need to see who the DP is.

    I wished the academy had awarded deakins for a serious man, a year he could easily have won. I would also say he should have won for skyfall. The shanghai scenes stand out the most riveting.

    I would also like to see lubezki get his due as well. Though I liked Hugo’s cinematography, I feel tree of life should have won.

    Here’s hoping these two greats win soon!

  23. “I am calling it now: the next winner of Cinematography and Visual Effects is going to be Gravity.”

    I thought exactly the same thing after reading the text about Deakens. At least, Lubezki is number 2 most overdue cinematographer.

  24. re: Gravity, if we are to believe the first reports of the leaked script are to be believed, of it being some ridiculously amount of time, space, and action in just one shot, if Lubezki can pull off the opening shot scene then he deserves almost something more than an Oscar for that. I think he can pull it off.

    I’m still bitter Lubezki losing for Tree of Life. That work was just well and beyond all of the other nominees.

  25. Thanks CMG for putting together the comparison. It puts Deakin’s losses into perspective and proves that although he’s one of the – maybe – five best in the business, it’s all a matter of timing to get that Oscar. In almost every case his good work was up against either a BP juggernaut or something a bit better. It will come.

    Yes to the remark about Lubezki. For a category that seldom gets it wrong, they sure did last year when they bypassed Tree of Life.

  26. @CMG, not only Tree of Life but I’m still bitter about losing for Children of Men! In terms of nominations Deakins is the most overdue. However, like I said before, I’ve always felt there was just someone else a biiiiit better every time he’s nominated. But he’s the most consistently great. Lubezki, on the other hand, should have at least 2 Oscars. If he had to lose I’m glad it was to Hugo and Pan’s Labyrinth but his work those years were absolutely top tier.

  27. Roger Deakins is my favorite cinematographer and he is a true artist. Unfortunately the Academy fell deeply in love with 3D movies!!

  28. Kind of like how Avatar’s cinematography beat the far more intimate and better guerrilla cinematography by Barry Ackroyd in The Hurt Locker or Christian Berger’s jaw-dropping, gorgeous yet chilling black and white cinematography in The White Ribbon.

  29. José R. Ortega

    Agree, he truly deserves an Academy Award, as does another great (and also snubbed) cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki.

  30. Regarding the comment that said his name wasn’t in the ballot…i think that’s actually quite good. You should win for your name. For pity. It should be by your own work. Winning just because he lost a lot is just sad.

    So , if they have the names of the movies , the choices are much more fair.

    Deakins has a wonderful career. His work in Skyfall was kinda trashy. He didnt deserved it (to be nominated , much less winning) . Pi was one , of many , who completely crushed Skyfall in the visual department. Glade he didnt won for his worst attempt.

  31. Even though it seems to be low on the 2013 anticipated films radar, I’m looking forward to Prisoners. The script definitely has strong possibilities if not sidelined by being viewed as too similar to Taken and/or Mystic River. The cast is about as good as you can get.

  32. I rarely comment on this site (just because I’m not worldly enough about film to put in my 2 cents) but I’m so pumped you included WALL-E in this article, nobody remembers Deakins worked on that movie.

    Looking him up on IMDB, I had no clue Deakins shot some of my favourite movies of all time! Glad you’re appreciating him here even if the Academy hasn’t (yet)

  33. Bennett

    For me his finest works are in Skyfall and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. To me he would have already been a two-time winner.

    Vittorio Storaro should as well be cited as one of the best DP of all times. His work in The Conformist is sublime, not only explains a lot of Trintingnant’s character but the title of the film, but, also, a fine portrait of the italian historical context at WWII.

  34. keifer

    Deakins also did a tremendous job on a little seen film from the ’80s set in Africa: “White Mischief” with Gretta Scacchi, Charles Dance, Joss Ackland, John Hurt, Sarah Miles and Geraldine Chaplin.

    He should have been nominated in 1988 for that film. It takes place in the ’40s and is so evocative of that era.

    Check it out sometime. The photography by Deakins is beautiful. There’s a great shot of a heroin-laced Sarah Miles looking over this gorgeous African landscape and she mutters, “Another fucking beautiful morning”.
    One of my favorite one-liners in all of filmdon.

  35. keifer

    I think the cinematographer who was really robbed this year was Greig Fraser for his stunning work on “Snow White and the Huntsman”. I just can’t believe he was overlooked (even by the guilds).

    Clearly, for me, the best cinematography accomplished on film in 2012 was in this movie. Watch it sometime just for the gorgeous shots, dark shadows, and beautiful vistas. He took some risks in shooting this movie too. Great, creative camera angles (he did some side shots that were amazing), and not your typical boring “epic” scenes in widescreen. He also shot “Zero Dark Thirty” this year (again, not nominated in that either).

    I think he is a cinematographer to watch (will win an Oscar some day I predict).

  36. Deakins also did stunning work in “Dead Man Walking”, for which he should have been nominated.

    Another little seen “Deakins” film (the first actually I remember watching of his work) was a movie called “White Mischief” in the ’80s. It was amazingly photographed and hinted at great things to come. Deakins delivers.

  37. Two other cinematographers who come to mind as not winning an Oscar are the great Allen Daviau who should have won for “Empire of the Son” and Eduardo Serra who should have won for the last Harry Potter film.

  38. Hi, I just wanted to say that whoever thinks of Skyfall as the best Bond movie, or as good movie at all, has lost the right for ever to comment on all things related to cinema. Deakings is a great DP, but Skyfall is the worst piece of crap ever made. BTW I am not a troll, I am a filmmaker.

  39. Une fοis de plus un post assurément passionnant

  40. Je suis pressée de lire un autre poste

  41. Fabuleux post : persistez de cette manière

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