A Conversation with Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC

Camera Movement Techniques, the DI Technology, Working with Directors, and More

by Jacqueline B. Frost

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Cinematography for No Country for Old Men and for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is easily one of the best and one of the hardest working cinematographers working today. His credits are vast, and he frequently collaborates with the Coen brothers and Sam Mendes. I had the opportunity to speak with Roger in his home in Santa Monica.

What are you looking for in a script besides a good story? Do images come to you when you are reading the script?

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: The first time I read I script, I pay attention to how it affects me, whether or not there is something I can relate to in the story. I don’t think about it visually on the first reading, images always pop into the mind, but I read it as a book to see how it affects me. I like a script that’s got something to say. What is the reason for making this film other than taking peoples money? That’s not enough. So the script has to affect me emotionally, if it doesn’t affect me, then it isn’t going to affect anyone else. If I wouldn’t go to the cinema to see this film, then I don’t want to work on it. The other thing is, you are going to spend three – five months of your life on this film, so it’s got to have some sort of meaning for you. I don’t do this just for a job; it’s much too hard.

So how would you prepare for a film with a script? What kind of notes would you make for yourself on the script? Where would you go from there?

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: I usually break the script down into what I think it would take to do each scene, and then relate it to the schedule. Of course, it is necessary to have conversations with the director to get the look, feel and nature of the film, that’s the first thing. But then I go back to the script and break the thing down and look hard at the major sequences, the major locations, and think, how can they be best achieved. That’s true even if that’s a simple script, like the last one I did with Sam [Mendes]. Most of that was set in one suburban house. In a way, every film you do is a compromise. You just can’t ever get everything that’s in your head from the page on to the screen visually. It just doesn’t happen. It’s kind of like you have a plan of attack and break it down to see what is really important in the film. Where do I really want to concentrate the most effort? I’m not trying to say that I’m not trying to make it all as good as possible, but certain sequences or aspects of the story are more important than others. So you’ve got to concentrate your time and energies on those things. It varies with every script. But the most important thing after having discussions with the director, because you can only talk about the script for so long, is you have to be on location, looking at sets or plans or drawings or whatever and start visualizing, from working with something specific. You have to have something concrete to work from.

Do you decide shots and angles with the director? Or do you prefer that the director come to you with those things already decided?

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: Well, that depends. With Joel and Ethan [Coen], sometimes they will go ahead and storyboard the whole film and sit down and discuss it with me, and sometimes not. With other directors, they might not do storyboards at all. With Sam [Mendes], he didn’t do storyboards on either film [Jarhead or Revolutionary Road]. Maybe one scene or something, but he very intentionally wanted to work in a much more free way than he had previously. So, specifically on Jarhead, we would look at locations and discuss the aspects of the locations and what we needed to create for a particular scene. Then I would discuss it with my crew and my gaffer on exactly how we would light those situations. But in terms of actually breaking it down into shots, we didn’t do it until we had the actors there on the day. He wanted the feeling of spontaneity of the camera, and it was a very particular kind of film. We shot the whole film hand held. A lot of it, without rehearsals. It was that kind of thing. It was great. I used to do a lot of documentary, so I didn’t find that a problem. I found it kind of exciting really. It wasn’t like we had to get in there and endlessly rehearse before we shot. I’d just get in there with the camera and start shooting. That was a really exciting way of doing it. But that is the antithesis of working with Joel and Ethan where everything is really controlled from the outset. That’s not to say that when you are on the set and somebody has a different idea for a shot or different staging and says, ‘well, what if we did this?’ They are quite open to that, and we often change things. But they start with a very prepared plan of how things are going to work. It’s a much more traditional way of working really.

Do you like a director to know focal length and understand the concept of depth of field?

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: I’ve worked with a couple of really experienced directors, and they didn’t understand focal length or depth of field. Others do understand the concept of depth of field and how you put something in the background that’s out of focus, the situations you can do that in. So it doesn’t really matter. I don’t think technical things are that important anyway. I have to know as much as I can, but the way I like to function is trying not to let the directors do anything technical, so that what they do is a much more instinctive thing. It’s more about the scene and what the actors are doing. You have to know these things, but the trick is not to let the technical issues get in the way.

I think the most important thing a director needs to know is how to handle the script, the characters, the pacing in a scene, and knowing what is important in a scene. Whether it’s important to be in close or not, of course, the cinematographer can help on that level. The hardest thing for a cinematographer is to be working with a director who is kind of scattershot, who doesn’t have a focus of what’s important in the scene and wants to cover themselves, so is basically shooting as much as they can in an 18 hour day, so they can get away with not really knowing what the center of attention is. That’s really hard, because then everything is compromised, the performances, and there isn’t any focus to the day’s work.

A lot of times, a director will say, I want you to watch the rehearsals and suggest the shots and blocking while rehearsing the actors, and we’ll talk about it. The director and I will then discuss how to break down the scene in terms of shots. Then I’ll say okay, that will take 10 or 20 minutes. And then, I’ll talk with the AD on how we will break down those shots and the order of shooting depending on the location or light, and what is the best way to shoot that scene. So actually, that is quite a normal way of doing it.

Sometimes a director will come in with a very precise idea of what type of shots and the order of the shots to reflect that scene. So you rehearse the scene with the actors, and look at them with focal length the director has chosen to see. If it is going to work or if it doesn’t work, you adapt and go on. I did the one film with Marty [Scorsese], Kundun, and he’s very much like that. It wasn’t storyboarded, but he gave me a copy of the script that had his notations on it, and every scene was broken down into the idea of a shot or a couple of shots to cover the scene. We would look at the set and the location with those shots in mind and figure out if they would work. It was as simple as that really.

Experienced directors, like the Coen brothers, have made so many films they must have an idea of what focal length is going to give them the type of shot, whether it is wide or medium that they want. They probably have that focal length, and they are just not telling you numbers specifically.

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: When I first worked with them on Barton Fink, it was interesting because they had been working with Barry Sonnenfeld on their previous films, and their whole perception was wide-angle lenses. I was never a fan of going very wide, so my wide angle would be like a 27mm, and theirs would be like an 18mm, or maybe a 16mm. On that level, their films changed a little bit because I started to shoot on slightly longer lenses. Well, it’s not really long 27mm, so it was slightly longer than what they had been using on Raising Arizona, for instance. Then we’d have a laugh if I put on a 100mm or a 135mm or something like that, and they’d go, “God, that’s long, I don’t know if we’d ever gotten that long before.” They knew what these lenses do, there’s no question about that. It’s just that their eyes see much wider than my eyes see.

Regarding working in pre-production, do you do extensive testing? What do you do in pre-production?

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: It really depends on the project. Some films I’ve done enormous amounts of testing. For O Brother Where Art Thou? I did a lot of testing, because we started out trying to reproduce the look of the film photochemically and hit a wall. So then, we decided to take the risk and do it digitally as a DI. I did a lot of testing on The Man Who Wasn’t There because of the black and white look we wanted. I did a lot of testing with Andrew on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, because there was a specific look he wanted for the film in terms of the photographic effects of the vignetting. He wanted certain sequences where the black in the frame was actually a dark red. He wanted color introduced into the shadows, and he wanted a certain kind of vibrancy to the image that wasn’t a very straight-forward photochemical process. So we mixed doing it photochemically and digitally to get the kind of looks that he wanted. I had done twenty different shots of interiors and exteriors, and I manipulated them afterwards to get these specific looks that we both settled on for a template for the movie. It really depends on the film. When I came back from doing Kundun, I had only a few weeks before shooting Big Lebowski. They actually pushed it back a week for me because I had very little time to prepare between the two films, and then we just got on with it.

How much discussion goes into color palette? Whether or not the film is going to be de-saturated or not?

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: If it is going to be de-saturated, that happens up front. People do it in the DI now. You can manipulate it a bit more. On [In the Valley of Elah], we manipulated it more on the DI than I thought we were going to do when we shot it. But we still had the overall concept; we just hadn’t done tests that went that far. So, it varies. With color palette, you want to have some idea where you’re going, otherwise the production designer may make the sets a different color than you were expecting – or that the director was expecting, and they wouldn’t necessarily react the way you may like it to on film. That goes for costumes as well. I find it a bit odd sometimes that so much testing is done on costumes and wallpaper and paints and stuff. You can stand and look at it, and that’s what it’s going to look like. There’s no great magic, it’s what your eye sees basically. Film stocks these days are balanced to give you what your eyes see. It’s not like the old days, the film stocks didn’t truly reflect what was in the frame, and it was a really big issue. These days, a black-blue suit may look slightly more bluish, but that’s a minor thing. In the old days, even the black and white stocks did not reflect the true balance of what was in the frame, so it was a really big issue. But now you see someone standing there with the makeup on and wardrobe on, and that’s the way it’s going to look on film. The only way it’s going to vary is if you are changing the color temperature by lighting something much warmer at night with candles. But someone standing outside in normal daylight, there is no need to test that. It’s going to look the way your eye sees it.

Do you like working with primes or zooms? Do you have a preference?

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: I rarely have a zoom in the kit. I like zooms only for particular reasons. To me the effect of the zoom is if someone is focusing their attention on something. It’s like a point of view, narrowing in on something within a frame. Otherwise, I don’t like zooms. I work with prime lenses all the time. I don’t think I’ve done a zoom shot for maybe three movies, and I can’t remember the last one. On The Village, we did a few zooms, but again, they were for very specific shots. But I never work with a zoom on the camera as a variable prime. I would rather use prime lenses and change.

There used to be a quality difference between the zoom and a prime in terms of visual clarity? Do you think there still is?

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: It might not be in terms of the actual sharpness and resolution of the image so much, but there is a quality difference in terms of the length of glass that is in front of you on the lens, and how that affects the feel of the camera movement and everything else. It looks different to me, anyway. But also, the thing about prime lenses, which is one of the first things anyone, everyone said to me when I was starting out – the prime lens makes you think about what kind of shot it is. Is it a 27mm or a 50mm? Not like, oh, it’s a 63 and 1/2mm on a zoom. I want the audience to be here looking at this, at this, with a wide angle, or I want them to be here looking at the character’s face with a 50mm, or I want them back here looking at the character’s face on a 200mm. It’s not only aesthetically, but also emotionally a totally different effect. I think just by getting into the regime of changing lenses every time you change a shot, it makes you more aware of what you are doing. And, it really doesn’t take any more time to change a lens. In fact, it takes less, and there you have it. [Laughs] I know John Seale [ASC, ACS] would say the antithesis of what I just said. It’s just interesting that everyone has a different way of working. It’s not that one is right or wrong, but I just get totally fixated working with prime lenses.

There’s also a physicality of putting the camera either closer or further away to elicit an emotional response from the actor. You can be much more voyeuristic using a longer lens.

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: But that’s what you’re saying to the audience. That you are being much more observational. I would find it quite exciting to shoot a film with a zoom lens if it was that observational, roving kind of look like Robert Altman’s films. That’s what he was known for. He’d put the camera on a jib arm and float across the scene and pick out these shots as he went along, quite a nice way of working. There’s no reason not to do it on a zoom, but you need to be aware of the effect it has when you do it.

I don’t think we really understand lenses well enough in terms of the effect they have on an audience. That whole field was used much better in the past in traditional filmmaking. Eisenstein or whoever, people were more aware of lenses than they are now. I think that comes from television, ‘oh, we’re going closer,’ so we’ll zoom in. But it’s not the same.

Regarding camera movement, is it the director or you who make suggestions regarding camera movement?

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: It totally depends. On some films, I like to see the blocking of the scene and design a few shots and talk to the director about it, and then we do it. But it really depends on where the director is coming from. I will always have a suggestion, and I really wouldn’t really want to be on a film where I couldn’t have a suggestion, because I don’t know what I’d be getting out of it. [Laughs] I’m not saying I always have to have my suggestions taken either. I just like to be able to say to the director, ‘excuse me, I have this idea,’ and then, they can blow me out of the water. But as long as I can have that idea, and they listen to me, then I’m happy. Some directors, not that I’ve worked with, may say, ‘this is it, you don’t really have an input on what the camera does,’ and I think it’s a shame.

Do you have any thoughts on digital technology and the cameras that are out there today? Any thoughts on the longevity of film?

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: Some days, I think film is going to be around for a while yet. And other days, I think, well, cut the ears, and that’s it. We’ve been going around with this for a long time. Obviously, HD is catching on in a quite a big way. But to be honest, I haven’t seen a film shot on HD, apart from a long time ago, a film called In Celebration, that I like the look of. It just doesn’t look real to me. But maybe that’s because I’m brought up on film, and I’m just sort of a dinosaur [laughs]. I would love to shoot HD if it was the right project. I do think film is antiquated. The idea that you have to wait for a dailies report in the morning to know if everything is all right. It’s horrendous, I hate that. I’ve always hated it. I hate the supposed mystery of film. But on the other hand, there is something about film that forces you to concentrate on what you’re doing.

When I used to shoot documentaries, I always shot on film, because that’s how it was done in those days. So I would go to Africa to shoot for three months and carry all my stock, like 100 rolls of 16mm with me. And shoot the film and come back and take it all to the lab, and hope I got a good report the next morning. But there is something about the fact that you have a limited number of rolls, and you really have to think about what it is you are going to shoot. You can’t just shoot and shoot, because it’s not about the amount you shoot, it’s about the moments you capture. Especially in a feature film, you are just looking for the moments. You might say, okay, I’m in a close up, and I’m trying to get a performance on HD, and I’ll keep it rolling for an hour and maybe I’ll get the moment; and maybe there’s an argument for that on HD. But a number of actors have even said this to me, there is something about the whole ritual of film. You load this magazine, you’ve 400’ or 1000’, a particular amount of time, and everybody is building up and doing their jobs. The lighting has got to be right, and makeup. And you’re ready to shoot, and it’s all leading up to this very important moment when they run the camera and put the board up. Now we’ve got to create this scene, maybe it’s antiquated and traditional, but I think there is something in the build up of this one moment to get this piece of magic on film, and I think that’s important. So it’s not the difference between the image quality between film and HD. It’s the way you work. Film forces a particular way of working that I think is good. There is no reason that you couldn’t do that with HD, but from what I hear, people don’t.

If you were doing a $25 million dollar film and told you were shooting on HD, what would you think?

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: I would say I think you should go through the budget because I don’t think it would necessarily be cheaper. I still would prefer to shoot on super 16mm if that were the case. You’d get a better quality image, you could work faster in terms of getting that image quality you want. Sure, there would be other restrictions, but I think I would have that argument. Right now, I don’t think I’d want to shoot on HD unless it was a particular project. I don’t’ think I’d take a project if they said we’re shooting on HD, and that’s it. I’d have to think about it, and ask, does it suit the project? How do I feel about that, can I have fun with it, whatever; but right now, I don’t really feel I’d want to.

You have mentioned working with the DI. Has it changed the way you shoot a film?

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: The DI is the most significant contribution to have happened to image making in many years, since I’ve been a cinematographer. Absolutely. My experiences are usually quite good. Obviously, doing Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Which was one of the first DI’s was quite taxing because it took a long time. Because the system we were working on was like a telecine system. We were timing from the original negative for ten to twelve weeks, and that was horrendous. Not just because we were worried about the negative being up there. But the time it took. But now, you basically scan the negative once, and you’ve got a digital file that you manipulate. You can do different timings and watch them, and you can flip through different versions of the timings to see which way you want to go. You could never do that when we were doing Oh Brother. So the advances are enormous in this area since that time, because of the memory in the storage systems.

The DI has changed the way I shoot quite a lot. But you can’t do everything. There’s a total misunderstanding. In some courts, usually the people who hold the purse strings, the thought that you can fix anything in the DI, maybe you can in CGI with computer graphics, but you can’t in a straight forward DI suite, but you can do a lot. It certainly helps balancing sequences where the light is not matching if you’ve got no control over it. You can certainly help it with adjusting color and contrast. You can suppress certain colors. Whatever you can do on Photoshop on your laptop, you can do in a DI suite. It’s a really important tool.

Knowing you are going to do a DI, how does it change the way you approach shooting?

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: Well, it doesn’t change how I shoot, it just changes how I may shoot a certain scene. Like if I’m doing a close up of somebody against the window, and there’s a white wall next to the window. And, I’m lighting that character with a soft light that is bouncing off that white wall. And the camera is not moving that much. It might take me five or ten minutes to flag that soft light off the white wall. So I often say, okay, I can take that down later, digitally, so I’m not going to take the time to fix it now. We’ll just get on and shoot, simply put. There are obviously more complex situations than that, but that’s the basis of it. There are certain things I know I can fix in the DI suite, so I just say I’ll take care of that later. But in that leads into the whole question of the cinematographer’s involvement in doing the DI. So I feel I have to be there since I am making those decisions on set. I have to see them carried through to the final product.

There are some people that say bad things have happened once you deliver a good negative because anyone can alter the look of the film – the director, the producer, the cinematographer, and whose DI is the winner?

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: That’s the big problem. But it goes back to the basic relationship you have with the director. Whether it works or doesn’t work, and if it doesn’t work, you could get into that situation where the director ends up doing the DI. I heard of one situation where the cinematographer had done the DI, and the director went in and re-did it afterwards. It’s a hard one. Every film I have done a DI on, I have been the one in the DI suite, and then the director comes in and watches it, and we discuss it and make changes or not depending. When it was straight lab work, you could be out shooting another film, and there was not much they could do. They would send you an answer print, and you made some notes and call the color timer, and they would do another print and you didn’t have to be there. But with the DI, you have to be physically in the suite. The biggest advance that I have done this year was while I was shooting Revolutionary Road in Connecticut with Sam [Mendes], and I needed to time Jesse James and Elah. So Ethan set me up this digital suite in Connecticut, this portable system, basically a 20’ screen and the whole works that you would get in a digital suite in Hollywood. So in the evenings and weekends, I went in and did the digital timing. During the day, the timer was working, and in the evenings, I would sit with him, and we would go through and make adjustments.

So that’s a huge advance, that they can bring a portable facility, so I could work in the same location on both projects. On Elah, I’d do a pass in Connecticut and send it to LA. It’s not a big deal because it’s a program that affects the original files which could be done over the internet. So Paul [Haggis] would watch a version of the film, then he would spend a few days doing a pass on it himself. When I came back, we sat together and watched what he did and what I did and talk about it, and that’s how it ended up. If I hadn’t been able to do it on location, I would have been in trouble on that one, because you need to be there. You and the director need to see it, and you need to have that time with the director to explain if something you have done is very different than the cutting copy that was done from the HD file. A director watching a scene over and over while it’s being cut may not be the way you originally intended it when you shot it. But now they’ve become accustomed to it, so when you go back to timing it the way you intended, you have to remind them of the original idea.

Would you ever finish another film photochemically?

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC: Yeah, sure, although the last one I did was a while ago. House of Sand and Fog ’03, which frankly, I was quite glad we did photochemically. Because Vadim, the director, was from commercials and was very into tweaking imagery, and I was quite happy with what we did. When he was in the lab watching the answer prints, he said, ‘can’t we change the contrast here, or can’t we change this…?’ And I said, no, this is the lab, it’s film not digital, so we can change the colors or we can change the density, but basically that’s it; and we can’t do anything on a per shot basis. Sometimes it’s an advantage. In the old days, you’d shoot what you wanted, and that’s it. You lived with it, and it was no problem.

Jacqueline B. Frost teaches cinematography and advanced film production at California State University, Fullerton, and regularly teaches cinematography for directors through the UCLA Extension. Jacqueline has shot numerous short films, independent feature films and documentaries that have screened in film festivals around the world. She has also taken on the role of Producer, Director and Editor on many projects. Jacqueline continues to freelance as a cinematographer in the Los Angeles area.

Featured in StudentFilmmakers Magazine, October 2008 Edition.
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