“I feel like I’m just getting started.”
Cinematographer Roger Deakins at age 61
Tonight Roger Deakins will be honored with the 2011 American Society of Cinematography Lifetime Achievement Award in Los Angeles. It must be odd to win such an award when you’re still in your prime. Nine times he has been nominated for an Oscar for his cinematography including this year for True Grit. Twice his ASC peers have given him top cinematography honors; The Shawshank Redemption and The Man Who Wasn’t There.
From time to time I just like take a detour from talking about screenwriting to show another side of the moviemaking process and today I’ve pulled ten quotes from Deakins taken from answers he’s given on the forum on his website as well as a couple from an NPR Interview.
1) “To me if there’s an achievement to lighting and photography in a film it’s because nothing stands out, it all works as a piece. And you feel that these actors are in this situation and the audience is not thrown by a pretty picture or by bad lighting.”
2) “When you move the camera, or you do a shot like the crane down (in Shawshank) with them standing on the edge of the roof, then 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.”
3) “There’s nothing worse than an ostentatious shot or some lighting that draws attention to itself, and you might go, ‘Oh, wow, that’s spectacular.’ Or that spectacular shot, a big crane move, or something. But it’s not necessarily right for the film — you jump out, you think about the surface, and you don’t stay in there with the characters and the story.” (Note: That’s a sort of a combination of #1 & 2—but worth repeating.)
4) “I am finding that my lighting becomes more and more simplified as I gain experience, which facilitates moving the camera more easily. I always operate myself and so I am very aware of the flexibility I need as an operator. With that in mind I have always tended to light for the situation and not a single shot. It is hopeless to light a close shot, however brilliantly, only to find that the lighting used can in no way be justified in a wider view.”
5) “On the Coen’s film that I am shooting right now we are averaging about 11 set ups a day whilst the screen time can vary from 6 minutes to 2 minutes depending on the scene. My set up time averages around 20 minutes. Normally the first set up will take the longest and my time will generally coincide with hair and make up time. For that reason it is usual to do the most complex or widest set up first. We rarely work more than 12 hours on this film and some days are shorter. The film has been very well prepared and I have a clear idea of the way we will shoot each sequence.” (Note: Comment was made in 2008 so that could have been A Serious Man)
6) “I have never been a fan of filters to soften an image. I used a black pro mist for a film I shot in 1985 and have regretted it ever since. I have done some tests with the Alexa ‘footage’ adding a selective amount of grain and I will be doing this for certain sequences of the film I am shooting right now. However, that choice is one of personal aesthetics and not because I feel the image from the Alexa looks too sharp or ‘electronic’.”
7) “I usually dim down a tungsten lamp if I want it to match a household practical source.” (The color temperature of the tungsten bulbs is slightly cooler than typical bulbs found in most houses.)
8 “Most of the films I have shot have been based in reality, so it follows that much of what I do is founded in a naturalistic approach.”
9) “There was no additional lighting used for any of the snow scenes (in Fargo)…we just dug out the snow, which was quite deep, to lay down dolly track as we needed.”
10) “I would suggest the choice of location is the most important one if you have little money in the budget for lights. You might consider the films of Terry Malick. They utilize very few artificial sources.” (Note: If I recall correctly, on The New World—which was written and directed my Malick—DP Emmanuel Lubezki did not use a single light and earned an Oscar nomination in cinematography.)
Bonus quote (and suitable for framing) for all the new shooters out there lusting after ever piece of equipment (and the old shooters as well):
“I am not a fan of having too much gear.” —Roger Deakins
Granted Deakins has the budget to rent those 18K HMIs and any dolly he wants on his features. But he’s also not beneath using “cotton bed sheets” and 4 X 4 bounce boards. (Note: When I’m on location shooting interviews with a limited (or no) lighting package I like to go to an art store and pick-up two pieces of white foam core to have with me. Home Depot/Lowes works as well with those large 4X8 boards in the insulation area. (I forget what it’s called but it is white on one side and silver on the other. Just ask them to cut the board in half.) Keep in mind that Deakins spent many years shooting documentaries where he just had to make do with little or no lighting.
Because the Coen brothers and Deakins do extensive pre-production planning before they shoot—visiting each location, and planning each shot well before they shoot—studying one of the many films they’ve done together is a great way to improve your eye for cinematography. Breakdown a scene asking yourself why you think they put the camera where they did. How did they light the scene? Why did they move the camera?
February 14, 2011 update: Last night, Deakins also picked up BAFTA award for Best Cinematography for True Grit.
Scott W. Smith