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Famed Cinematographer Roger Deakins Talks Coens, Storytelling, 'Prisoners'

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood January 13, 2014 at 7:47PM

I spoke to British cinematographer Roger Deakins via Skype while he was filming Angelina Jolie's challenging new film "Unbroken" on the water in New Zealand. Deakins, who often collaborates with the Coen brothers, is a go-to cinematographer for many filmmakers and is revered by actors because he puts storytelling front and center.
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'Skyfall'
'Skyfall'

Are you a believer in the long take? Do you feel like there are times when the long take is the right way to go?

Absolutely. No question about it. I've got a few long takes in many movies we've done, especially Coen brothers movies. It's when the camera becomes ostentatious and it's done more because it can be done that because it actually relates to what the film is trying to express.

Tell me about Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken," which you're shooting right now. What are some of the challenges on that film?

We've shot for four weeks. Every film is a challenge in a different way. The film is about Louis Zamperini. He was taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II on the water and spent two-and-a-half years in a prison camp.

Of the Coens' films you've shot I'm particularly fond of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" You were innovating something that hadn't been done before in terms of the digital master.

We were shooting in Mississippi in mid-summer and the Coens and I wanted a dry, dusty look but obviously, it was a very lush environment. We also wanted a kind of feeling of a painted postcard, and we experimented for quite a long time. Digital finishing was starting, people had been using digital technology to do effects work and we thought, "Why not try and do the whole film like that?" We made some tests and figured that by the time we finished shooting and were in post-production that the technology would be advanced enough that we could do it. It was a bit of a struggle, but that's what we did.

You've made the inevitable switchover to digital. You shot "True Grit" on 35mm, and went digital with "In Time," which looked great. And then "Skyfall," which was stunning. In your filmography, what's the proportion between 35mm and digital?

It's a slow change. Since "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" I think I've finished almost every film digitally but in terms of shooting digitally, I only started shooting digital negative on "In Time" a few years ago, then "Skyfall," "Prisoners" and the film I'm doing now.

What do you prefer?

It's hard to say. There are so many advantages to digital capture. The first one is that now there's no film lab in Australia or New Zealand, so if we were to process film we'd have to send it to LA or London. So the biggest advantage for us here is that we know what we've got. We see the image onset and that's it. We don't have that week of processing the negative and getting the dailies in return. There are lots of advantages in the shooting as far as I'm concerned, in terms of the flexibilities of digital technology as opposed to film. I say that but I've shot film, obviously, for many, many years and I love the process. But one can't be nostalgic. That's the way things are going. 

Most people now, even those who shoot in 35, they finish the movie digitally. What's going to be lost forever with your generation is people who know how to process 35.

When it comes down to it, it doesn't matter what you record the image on. It's the image you're recording that's important. It's the framing, the way you move the camera, the choice of shot, the lighting within the scene. It's not what you record the image on. I think this argument is a little irrelevant actually.

The 35mm advocates would argue that the digital cameras, while they are improving every year, they still don't beat the quality of the image you can achieve on 35.

Frankly, I totally disagree. I don't know what a better quality image is or how to describe it, but I didn't start shooting with a digital camera until I felt the image was superior to what I could get on film for what I wanted to achieve. Other people have different ideas on that. I understand that and accept their opinions, but I don't agree with them.

When Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese talk about 3-D, they make intelligent, brilliant analysts of what makes a shot work and its impact. Have you ever done 3-D?

I work in animation, with DreamWorks, and all their shots are in 3-D. I've worked on "Wall-E," "Rango," "How to Train Your Dragon," "The Croods," "Rise of the Guardians" and now I'm working on "How to Train Your Dragon 2."

What is your role there?

It's much the same, really. At Pixar with "Wall-E," the director wanted this live-action feel to the film and I'd been up there doing a seminar and they asked me to be involved. It was over a short period. I wasn't involved for the whole period because they take so long. And after that I got asked to be involved in quite a few more at DreamWorks. It is very much as a consultant, with animators, directors and the lighting. You discuss the look of the film and how it relates to the story, as I would do in live-action. But it's a much longer process, and it's a larger crew of people working on it, so it's much more of a collaborative process.

Do you contribute to the storyboards and shaping the animatics?

Yes, in terms of the shots. They do storyboards and then they actually do motion capture on some sequences and all sorts of things now. It's so different now. The blend between animation and live-action came into becoming kind of fuzzy. On "The Croods" for instance, we were doing a lot of motion capture in order to create shots just the same as you might do on some live-action sequences.

Have you ever considered directing an animated film?

Most of the animated films that I work on, I love the films. If I worked as a director, I don't think it'd be very commercial.

Have you thought about directing films in general?

No, I love what I do. You recognize what your abilities are. Years ago, I did, but not no. I'm quite happy.


This article is related to: Roger Deakins, Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve, Denis Villeneuve, Interviews, Interviews, Awards Season Roundup, Awards, Awards, Coens


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