6 Filmmaking Tips from Roger Deakins

By  · Published on November 13th, 2013

There’s a moment about halfway through Denis Villeneuve’s sprawling, occasionally brilliant yet sharply uneven film Prisoners that finds Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki do something that we’ve seen so many detectives do in movies before: in a bout of frustration, he swipes his arms across his cubicle desk, violently sending his evidence and other materials into a labyrinthine clutter. But this fit of anger ends up leading to a serendipitous discovery – the chaotic new arrangement of papers on the floor reveals for the detective a clue that had been hiding under his nose in plain sight the whole time.

This is moment is, in short, a cliché. Yet on the other side of cinematographer Roger Deakins’s lens, the moment takes on a plentiful, foreboding, and eerie quality. The muted tones, carefully composed yet slightly agape mise en scène, and rich depth of field collectively transform a moment we’ve seen so many times before into something considerably more. Through brilliant lensing, a cliché is elevated into the possibility that something, anything can happen in the detailed and uncertain world of this film.

To say that Deakins is amongst the greatest living cinematographers working today is no controversial claim. A regular collaborator with the Coen Brothers and Sam Mendes, the zero-time Oscar-winner has painted some of the most memorable moving-image palettes in recent cinema including the digitally reimagined deep South of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the fire-lit oil fields of Jarhead, the revisionist 19th century western tapestry of The Assassination of Jesse James…, and the cyber-present of London and Hong Kong in last year’s Skyfall.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man who was there to shoot The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Develop Your Own Way of Seeing

To start off the bat with some straightforward advice, here’s the simple yet important reason Deakins’s eye is so distinct, palpable, and consistent throughout the various stylistic preferences of the directors he collaborates with. Elsewhere, he’s clarified this point, arguing against developing a style and instead advising cinematographers to simply hone a “way of seeing things” so that you have an eye to offer anything from music videos to documentaries to feature films.

Work in Documentary

“That’s what’s great about documentary, about working in it. You work with the light that’s available and create something with what you have at hand. It teaches you how to be quick in terms of setting the frame and finding the angle and reading what’s happening – reading the development of what’s going on in front of you. And that really relates to fiction as well, when you look at actors working, blocking, and rehearsing a scene. I feel like my documentary experience comes in handy during those situations. I still feel like I’m looking at real life and figuring out how to place myself and the camera to translate what’s happening within the scene.”

At around the eight-minute mark in this detailed long-form interview with Deakins conducted by British Society for Cinematographers president John de Borman, the cinematographer discusses how his early nonfiction work on films like Zimbabwe and Eritrea – Behind Enemy Lines entailed demanding and compromising shooting conditions that forced him to rapidly professionalize his shooting methods. I particularly like how this quote mixes a pragmatic approach to shooting with a philosophy geared towards what should be achieved in constructing a frame through which an audience witnesses an event. How do you place yourself in the scene in a way that allows the audience to see what you see, to experience the immediacy of the thing depicted?

Check out some choice moments later in the interview, including Deakins’s explanation of how he lit the night-set train scene in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Pay Attention to the Little Things and Make Yourself Say “Woah”

Take a few minutes to watch the man at work as he describes his uses of light in the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men

Change Your Mind and Adapt

In this extra on the making of the Coens’ True Grit, Deakins discusses changing the location of a scene at the last minute, which he then adapts his camera to, thus manifesting a compositional style unique from the one previously intended. This maneuver not only illustrates the collaborative role Deakins takes on set (clearly his directors listen to him), but also values the importance of instinct and trust in allowing the location to dictate the look of the scene, a characteristic that seems incredibly important during the uncertain practice of location shooting.

Live Your Work

As evidenced by multiple reports and interviews, Deakins’s primary hobby when not working is (get this) photography. He’s developed a vast archive of private images from the great deal traveling he’s seen with his wife. Still deploying the skills he developed as a photojournalist-turned-documentarian-turned-narrative cinematographer, Deakins clearly lives for capturing images. This isn’t simply about perfecting an approach to his working life; rather, Deakins’s work is built on a lifelong devotion to the power of the image, be it moving or still. This is a drive that goes beyond skill or talent.

Or, as Deakins puts it…

Get to Know Your Fellow Humans

“All I’ve ever wanted to do is take stills of people, or take documentaries about people, and try to express to an audience how somebody lives next door. You know what I mean? Just how similar we all are as individuals. I think I’m drawn to scripts that humanize people, that in some way help us understand who we are, that are about character, or character development, and man’s dilemma. And that does come into the Coen’s films. They may not be overtly political. But you take a film like The Man Who Wasn’t There, that’s a very interesting study of alienation, at least in my viewpoint, anyway.”

If you’ve ever wondered how or why Deakins chooses his films or the directors he works with, here’s your explanation. What motivates Deakins is not the desire to realize images that show off his skill even push cinematographic conventions (he has no tolerance for what he sees as showy, self conscious shooting methods). Rather, Deakins possesses an ardent drive to explore and learn through the powerful capacities of capturing images. Deakins’s humanist approach to filmmaking approaches the image as an endless reservoir for knowledge, for feeling, and for expanding one’s view of the world. Deakins’s work isn’t memorable only because he makes pretty pictures, but because he uses the frame as an invitation through which we might be able to see and experience something new.

What We’ve Learned

In the aforementioned BSC interview, Deakins discusses his love for the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, noting their “simplicity and their lack of trivia; they go directly to the heart of the story and the characters.” It’s easy to see the influence of Melville’s work not only on Deakins’s visual style (Army of Shadows and Prisoners share a surprising lot in their geometric approaches to composition), but also on his pragmatic philosophy of filmmaking. Deakins’s approach to the image is “simple” in the best possible way: he’s interested solely in getting to the root of the scene, the characters, and the moment, letting little else get in the way. Look at this B-roll footage from the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, for instance. For those who haven’t been on many major movie sets, it’s difficult to believe how many people were involved in this “simple” moment between Larry Gopnik and his antennae. Yet the finished product demonstrates intense psychological intimacy.

Deakins’s work is unmistakable in part because he sees through the process of filmmaking itself: he hones in on the story, the humanism, the event, and frames it in such a way that allows the audience to traverse right to its core, beyond the clutter of the process or any stylistic decisions therein. He’s the skilled cinematographer that composes brilliant images while at the same time making us forget about the work of the cinematographer, allowing even the most dedicated cinephile to lose her/himself in the world of the story. Whether he’s shooting in Zimbabwe or suburban Minnesota, Roger Deakins is such a distinctive cinematographer because his “ways of seeing” can permeate through any situation worth looking at.