Roger Deakins and the cinematography of SKYFALL

Roger Deakins (cinematographer)

Roger Deakins (cinematographer)

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC is the most renowned of cinematographers working today. Even audiences, which generally associate the entirety of filmmaking to just actors and directors, know him by name. For the cinematographer, usually a modest and unsung image maker, it’s a rare and enviable position to be in. Yet, surprisingly, Deakins who is a nine-time Oscar nominee has never actually won an Oscar. (In 2008 he came very close by becoming the first cinematographer in history to be nominated twice for THE ASSASINATION OF JESSE JAMES and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, but then lost to Robert Elswit who deservedly won for THERE WILL BE BLOOD).

Deakins at WorkThe Person, the Cinematographer
Born in 1949, a few years after World War 2 in Torquay, Devon, England, Roger Deakins is 63 now, but you’d never guess it. Despite the white hair (whiter, in fact, than his trademark white shirts!), Deakins remains very prolific and adaptable to change (he famously abandoned the venerable 35mm film emulsion by lensing Andrew Niccol’s IN TIME on the Alexa, a much-desired new digital cinema camera by Arri. In fact, he is the most preeminent proponent of this camera and currently also Arri’s unofficial mascot). Deakins’ penchant for naturalism comes from his early days in documentary, and his formalism may be explained by a fervent passion for still photography which continues to this day. He married script supervisor Isabella James Purefoy Ellis in 1991 and lives between Devon, England and Santa Monica, California.

Revolutionary RoadThe Deakins Look
Roger Deakins’ cinematographic style is almost always described as “beautiful”. His approach to creating visuals is non-effusive and elegant, always in service to the story. Technically, his methodology hinges on precise framing (Deakins operates the camera himself) and an overwhelming use of natural or “reflected” light, usually from a large single source. He does not use any filters in front of the camera lens, favors (spherical) prime lenses over zooms and, despite the switch to digital cinematography, still relies on his trusty Gossen light meter to set exposure. Also known to work with the same  crew he lauds at award ceremonies, the consistency translates into one distinctive feature of the “Deakins look”: a startling golden and very soft quality of light. Many sequences in SKYFALL contain this look, as do other films Deakins has photographed—particularly REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (again for Sam Mendes) and A SERIOUS MAN (for the Coens, his friends and regular collaborators). 

SkyfallThe Cinematography of SKYFALL
The 23rd installment of the imperishable alpha-male franchise got a major creative boost when producers Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli hired director Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins to reboot James Bond for modern audiences. SKYFALL is Mendes and Deakin’s third film together after JARHEAD and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, and their creative compatibility shows: despite its problematic politics and Freudian complexes, SKYFALL is photographically the most sophisticated and beautiful of all Bond films (there’s that word “beautiful” again!).

Skyfall (Scottish Moor)Distinct Looks: As tradition requires, the new Bond film was filmed in multiple countries across the world, and it extols the exotic locales of Istanbul, Shanghai, Macau, London and Scotland. Every location is given its own distinct look by Deakins: Istanbul is bright, warm and gritty, Shanghai and Macau are, respectively, baked in bluish-green neon and orange light, London is gray, cold and sterile, while the moors of Scotland have a gold-leaf gothic, old-world quality.

Skyfall (Action Scene)Oops! Something’s Off: Deakins, who operated the camera himself, did not have the opportunity light and photograph everything in SKYFALL. The opening action sequence was shot by the very capable second unit director and cinematographer Alexander Witt (BODY OF LIES) and, although it is efficient workmanship, the showy and bombastic nature of that aesthetic is at odds with the delicate and intimate camerawork that follows in later sequences. But as Roger Deakins explains, this is the nature of the beast for a Bond movie:

“Obviously there are some sections, which are kind of complex and required second units and splinter units, stuff like that. I haven’t done that many films where we’ve worked with a number of units like that. Mainly the opening sequence was heavy second unit. A lot of it was prepared by Alexander Witt (director of photography: second unit). He shot the whole sequence. We, the first unit, joined him in Turkey at the end of our schedule and then we went back and shot stuff with the actors to replace some of the action. In that sense it varied, in that the film was very much a jigsaw. That said, you know, most of the film we shot, basically with one camera so it didn’t vary that much.”

Arri Alexa cameraTech Stuff or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Science
SKYFALL was primarily shot on two prototype models of the Alexa Studio, a configuration of the camera personally requested by Deakins, and which includes a mechanical shutter (more “filmic” capture of movement; virtually zero rolling shutter problems) and an optical viewfinder (removing eyestrain that comes from extended use of an electronic viewfinder). The Plus and M models of the Alexa were also used when necessary. For the lenses, Deakins stuck to Arri-Zeiss Master Primes and the focal-lengths varied between between the wide to mid-range: 27mm, 32mm, 35mm and 40mm. The final aspect ratio of SKYFALL is widescreen 2.40:1 extracted from Alexa’s 16×9 sensor. (Deakins did not use anamorphic lenses, but is keenly looking forward to the release of Zeiss anamorphics in 2013.) The image was captured in ARRIRAW using Codex recorders. For the IMAX release, Deakins shocked industry experts by not utilizing IMAX’s proprietary DMR post-conversion as he felt that the gain in resolution from the process resulted in, subjectively speaking, a lifeless, anemic quality to the image. DI and timing was completed at EFilm in London and Los Angeles. The cinematography of SKYFALL has been universally praised within the industry and beyond.

Roger Deakins with Arri Alexa cameraSo, What’s Next for Roger Deakins?
No formal announcements have been made about Roger’s next project. And will it be shot digitally on the Alexa or is he going to use the beloved film emulsion again? Watch this space.

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Quote source: IFTN/ Materials source: Various/ Some Photos: 
François Duhamel

2 Comments

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  1. Asif Limbada

    I dont think he going to film again…until a director pushes film.

  2. You’re right, Asif. Roger hasn’t ruled out using film emulsion on a future project especially if the director insists upon it (he showed camera tests and IN TIME to Sam Mendes who then agreed to go digital for SKYFALL), though he clearly favors the Alexa. In his own words: “I think that digital cameras will only develop and become even more sophisticated. Personally I think that that tipping point has come that digital is now a far superior capture medium than film really.”—Roger Deakins in an interview with IFTN, dated Oct 25, 2012.

    Under ideal circumstances, the decision to go with film or digital must be a creative choice made by the cinematographer and director.

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