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ASC Lifetime Achievement Award Winner – Roger Deakins

Every New Film Still Feels Like The First

By Christine Bunish

Roger DeakinsWhen Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC received the 2011 American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Lifetime Achievement Award at a celebration at LA’s Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel on February 13, he joined a list of recent winners, such as Caleb Deschanel and Allen Daviau, who are still very much in the midst of busy careers.

In fact, ASC president Michael Goi made that clear in the announcement of Deakins’s win. “The Lifetime Achievement Award is a reflection of the impact that a cinematographer has made on the art of filmmaking rather than the capping of a career,” he said. “It is our way of acknowledging a true artist in his prime. Roger Deakins raises the artistic profile of our profession with every movie, and he will continue to do so for many years.”

Deakins, whose most recent film, True Grit, opened in December, is pleased with that lifetime-so-far explanation. “Time is a funny thing,” he observes. “In many ways it feels like I’ve only just started [in the business]. Every time I begin a film it feels like the first one.”

February could be shaping up as quite a month for Deakins, who is nominated for an Academy Award for his work on True Grit. He has earned eight other Oscar nominations for his cinematography: The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Fargo (1996), Kundun (1997), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and The Reader (shared with Chris Menges, ASC, BSC, 2008). He took ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards for The Shawshank Redemption and The Man Who Wasn’t There. Although Deakins has collaborated with a Who’s Who roster of directors, he’s been paired with brothers Ethan and Joel Coen 11 times.

Roger Deakins
Deakins’s latest feature is True Grit.
Photo by: Wilson Webb ©Paramount Pictures 2010.

Still, a career as a cinematographer seemed remote for the native of the seaside town of Torquay on the coast of Devon, England. Deakins loved films as a child but “never considered it a possibility” that he’d one day work in the industry. He enrolled at the Bath Academy of Art as a graphics art major and discovered photography there. “I took a low-paying job as a photographer in North Devon photographing country life for an archive they were starting,” he recalls. Even late into the 1960s and early ‘70s some farmers in the region were using horse-drawn ploughs and there were people “who had never turned on a light switch — how the electricity got there was just too mysterious.”

After a year documenting rural life Deakins was accepted at the National Film School in London where he shot over a dozen dramatic and documentary films for himself and other students in the course of three years. When he finished school he had “dreams of being Tim Page, the Vietnam War photographer,” but first Deakins talked his way on board an around-the-world yacht race as director/cameraman and part of the crew.

“I grew up by the sea but had no experience of yachts,” he notes. The experience yielded a 90-minute British television documentary “that was as much about the crew — and how they got along with each other or didn’t while living in a confined space under extreme conditions — as it was about the hazards or the romance of ocean racing. When you do a film like that people start taking you seriously because it requires a bit of nerve to do it.”

Deakins went on to more Tim Page-like assignments covering the liberation war in Eritrea for three months and the guerrilla war in what was then Rhodesia. After half-a-dozen years shooting docs and some dramatic programming for television he got a chance in 1983 to lens his first feature, Another Time, Another Place, for director Michael Radford, whom he’d met in film school.

Roger Deakins
Deakins gets down into the mud for Jarhead.

“I had worked with Michael on documentaries for the BBC, including one about Van Morrison in Ireland, and he’d seen some of the dramatic work I’d done for TV, so he took a chance on me,” says Deakins. “It was my first chance to do a feature film and my big break.” He reteamed with Radford the following year for 1984, based on the Orwell novel and Richard Burton’s last film.

Sid and Nancy (1985) was the first film that brought Deakins to America where he now makes his home. He lensed that film in New York, San Francisco and LA; part of it was also shot in England. Deakins has traveled extensively for his work shooting Michael Radford’s evocative White Mischief, based on a real 1930’s murder, on the shores of Lake Naivasha, Kenya and Martin Scorsese’s exquisite Kundun with the Tibetan Diaspora in Morocco.

Roger Deakins
Deakins (bottom, center) sets up a crane shot for
The Shawshank Redemption.

In 1991 he met the Coen brothers when Barry Sonnenfeld, who had been their cinematographer, moved on to directing and the Coens contacted Deakins. Their long collaboration began with Barton Fink and has continued through 11 very unique films, including The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo and No Country For Old Men.

“I’m very lucky to have met the Coens. Every script, every setting, every film is so different,” Deakins notes. “True Grit is very different from A Serious Man which preceded it. Each film is a challenge in its own way, mainly due to scheduling and locations.”

True Grit was shot in Santa Fe, New Mexico and in the Austin, Texas area. “We were lucky to find a town called Granger, northeast of Austin, to stand in for Fort Smith: It’s a turn-of-the century town that worked very well with the addition of some false frontages, roofs and extra buildings,” Deakins explains.

“Aesthetically, I don’t approach a period film any differently from a contemporary one,” he adds. “It depends on the story and the mood of the story. But everybody knows you’re working on something special with the Coens.”

Deakins is a longtime user of Arriflex 35mm cameras, often the 535B. He prefers ARRI Master Prime lenses and rarely uses zooms “unless a specific shot requires it.”

Since Deakins operates the camera himself he likes to plan the lighting scene to scene, pre-lighting and pre-rigging shots so he’s not preoccupied by lighting while he’s operating. That was especially necessary for True Grit which had “a pretty rough schedule. I had to be prepared and ready to shoot quite quickly so the more preparation the better.”

Deakins tends to use conventional lighting instruments and “a huge amount of domestic fixtures as film lights — practical bulbs and my own lighting rigs. True Grit featured a lot of rigs I made up instead of rented; I’ve always done that. Coming from documentaries I tend to make up rigs from trips to the local hardware store.”

Deakins is not averse to the latest technology, however. In 2002 he was one of the first cinematographers to use the Digital Intermediate (DI) process on the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? to manipulate the color palette and paint certain frames to give a dry, dusty look to exteriors that had actually been lush and green.

He’s using the new ARRI ALEXA digital camera on his latest feature, Now, a “retro-futuristic thriller” from director Andrew Nichol. “I had been testing a prototype of the camera when I met with Andrew, and he asked if I was still shooting film,” says Deakins. “I said yes, but look at the tests I’ve been doing with ALEXA. It’s a really good choice for this futuristic film; it makes a fantastic, smooth image and the color is so rich that it seems to fit very well.

“With ALEXA I can work faster, and I think it has more dynamic range and a wider color range than film. Its faster camera speed, 800 ASA, is quite a benefit for a lot of the night exteriors I’m shooting in LA.”

Roger Deakins
Deakins, who’s been partnered with Ethan and Joel Coen 11 times, talks cinema with the directing duo.

Deakins has been a visual consultant for a number of animation studios, including DreamWorks for WALL-E and How To Train Your Dragon, the latter in stereo 3D. “Jeff Katzenberg is a very big advocate of 3D, which works for the kinds of films they’re doing,” he notes. “DreamWorks is good at telling entertaining stories and embracing 3D as a way of enhancing the entertainment aspects. But for the live-action films I like to shoot,” he muses, “I’m not sure I’d ever do 3D. I think it would be a distraction; I don’t quite understand where it fits in.”

No Luddite, Deakins does not eschew new technology where it does fit in.

He has said that he “would not dissuade the use of 16mm or a cell phone to capture an image if that medium were appropriate. Only change is a certainty and, as members of the ASC, we need to encourage students of cinematography to find their own ways of seeing and their own ways of creating images in our changing industry. If there is a threat to the role of the cinematographer in the future, it will surely be a lack of vision.”

But he goes on to explain that “it’s not the technology today but the way it’s used” that reflects an industry that has changed greatly from when he got his start. “Technology doesn’t create the art. Everybody’s got a pen, but there was only one William Shakespeare. The problem is that nobody really wants William Shakespeare. Most of the time they don’t want the kind of films I love. Look at the films made in the 1970s versus now. The decline in the industry isn’t because of the technology but because of the way society has evolved.”

Deakins is quick to say, “I can’t complain because I get to work on films I believe in and love, but I do feel that’s the way the industry is largely going. The independent film sector is very lively, but studio films’ content tends to be like arcade rides. I prefer a good story — I guess I’m old fashioned!”

December 6, 2012