Master of Light


Cinematographer Roger Deakins uses his blog to pull back the curtain on the lighting tricks that have made him famous.

Roger Deakins, 2004, via Buena Vista.

Sometime in the late nineties, cinematographer Roger Deakins took a kind of pilgrimage to visit his friend and mentor Conrad “Connie” Hall, who was living in semiretirement on a tiny island off Tahiti. The timing found Deakins visiting the older Hall—a three-time Academy Award winner and sort of tribal elder to directors of photography—as the industry-wide shift toward digital cameras was being met by a renewed nostalgia for film, and Deakins was excited to share how he’d recently remodeled his LA home to include a darkroom. “My expectations were shattered,” Deakins later wrote, “when Conrad pronounced the photochemical process ‘antiquated.’ ” Hall praised the possibilities of digital, telling Deakins he was happy to indulge any “technique that might have helped him develop as a visual storyteller.” That was Hall’s guiding mantra, and one the younger artist soon took up: “Story! Story! Story!” 

I came across this anecdote a few years ago while reading Deakins’s blog, Looking at Light, where practically every day, and especially when he’s between projects, the sixty-seven-year-old writes what must be among the most admiring and detailed prose about lampshades and light bulbs, fields questions about his own movies, and gives advice to readers about their own low-budget projects. Lately, his posts have been explanatory notes about Denis Villeneuve’s forthcoming Blade Runner 2049, which is due out in October, and detoxifying rants about Hail Caesar!, Deakins’s twelfth movie with the Coen brothers and the first he’d shot on film in many years. He likened the return to film to riding a bike—except that, as Deakins later admitted, he doesn’t know how to ride a bike. “But I’m sure it’s the same,” he said.

Looking at Light can be numbly dense with jargon, but the stories and curio knit together into a narrative of Deakins’s career, which now spans an epochal forty years and nearly all genres. His IMDB page reads like a list of reliably rewatchable movies from the late-night nineties and aughts. He was the DP for Shawshank Redemption, every Coen brothers’ movie since Barton Fink, more than a few great directors’ beacon achievements (Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, Sam Mendes’s Skyfall), and at least a handful of movies that are, to my eye, more visually striking than they are coherent (House of Sand and Fog, Kundun, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). He’s been nominated for thirteen Academy Awards (a tie for the most by a DP), and may well be the most in-demand cinematographer alive; the actor Josh Brolin apparently agreed to do Sicario only after hearing Deakins was in, the sort of nod you mainly hear about auteur directors. When Robert Elswit accepted the American Society of Cinematographers Award for There Will Be Blood, he joked that the ASC should establish a separate category for “films shot by Roger Deakins.”

Part of what makes Looking at Light such a weird and wonderful Internet forum is that Deakins is so freely and readily available there. I’m not aware of anywhere else a fan or student can peer inside the craft of a transcendent artist with such lucidity. And I do mean artist—there’s little hint of a Hollywood persona at work. Deakins says he created the site partially to ease his ability to answer fan mail, but it also seems to demystify an art form that, despite its direct interface with the public’s eyeballs, isn’t written about or understood all that much. He responds to even the most squeamishly artless questions (“Do you like documentaries?”) in just a few hours—and kindly. In a recent thread called “Contrast ratio: Skyfall vs Sicario” he and “simon m” have this exchange:

simon m: Hi Roger, I’ve noticed that, in general, the images from Skyfall have a higher contrast than those from Sicario … I enjoyed the images of both movies but am wondering why you chose this different look for each. Thanks for your time.

Roger Deakins: I can’t say I am aware of the difference. Could it be in the way you are viewing the films?

simon m: Oh—I don’t think so … Perhaps what I’m seeing is not more contrast in Skyfall but in the image above from the opening sequence. For example, it looks to me that the highlights are brighter than the image from Sicario.

Roger Deakins: That makes sense as I was timing the opening of Skyfall to look quite bright and ‘hot.’ That shot from Sicario, on the other hand, was an early-morning shot.

“Bright,” “hot”? “An early-morning shot”? There’s such a weird anthropological air to the encounter, it takes a moment to realize Deakins is describing his creative approach to a movie that grossed over a billion dollars, a movie that earned him an Oscar nomination. But it’s an exchange typical of the website: Deakins is polite, vaguely esoteric, yet also friendly and self-effacing. His description seems to draw on, as if from the very wisdom of Hall, the notion of an art form uncomplicated by the anxieties of craft.

There’s plenty of craft in cinematography, of course, but what you gather from Deakins’s blog is that the form aspires not toward the creation of startling images but the absorption of a seamless narrative. The highest achievement a cinematographer can garner, Deakins says, is to have his or her work go unnoticed. If the viewer is made aware of a frame’s composition, the thinking goes, they’re taken out of the narrative, maybe not unlike a reader noticing a novel’s font as they stumble over a cluster of adjectives. A cinematographer should have style, in other words, but only in service of story. Deakins puts it this way: “people confuse pretty with good cinematography.”

Still from No Country for Old Men.

*

Deakins was born in 1949, in the seaside town of Torquay, England, and began painting and photographing in his teens. His people were construction workers and fisherman, but Deakins earned entry to the Bath School of Art and Design, going on later to the National Film & Television School, where he was at first denied admission for not being “filmic” enough. He next spent a year wandering the countryside, photographing woodsmen, seeking out a looser, uglier form of realism. He liked Tarkovsky, the grit of seventies Hollywood, especially the washed-out, noon light of movies like Fat City. But much of it also seems to have struck him as needlessly contrived—photographic realism, professionally lit. Deakins wanted the camera to see the world as he did. “I always had an interest in seeing people within their environments,” he says.

That way of seeing merged easily with documentary work for British TV, which sent him to war zones in Rhodesia, Ethiopia, Sudan, as well as on an around-the-world yacht race. Deakins brought, to each assignment, his own immersive style—an intense sensitivity between cameraman and subject that could verge on the humanitarian. One day, during a shoot in a psychiatric ward, he was jolted from behind the lens when a schizophrenic patient broke down. Stopping to assist her, some illusion, already too thin, seems to have broken in him, and he hasn’t returned to documentary since.

Deakins’s artistic origin story is tinged in an offhand assuredness. He swears he never aspired to shoot movies, so when he wound up doing so, in the early eighties, he brought the journalistic sensibility he knew to his early films: 1984, Sid and Nancy, David Mamet’s Homicide. “My life just sort of gradually grew into my dreams,” he says. He doesn’t so much share this past with his readers for insight as refer to it as hard evidence of the work’s difficulty. Asked by “rileywoods,” a film student, how he came to master lighting, Deakins replies, “I have been lucky over the years and have been pretty constantly working.” He continues, “I do think observing is important in learning”—meaning, observing the world, not others at work. In a recent thread about how to create the look of a thunderstorm, film students go back and forth on the right diffusion gels and light screens before Deakins chimes in with a one-sentence solution: “You could always shoot at night.”

One of Roger Deakins’s “battle plans,” from Looking at Light.

It isn’t difficult to make the connections between the triage training Deakins got shooting in the field and the work habits he’s now famous for. He insists on handling the camera himself, something most cinematographers delegate to a camera operator. He likes shooting on handheld and without zoom lens. “I like to feel someone’s presence in a space,” he says. He doesn’t like any format in which the depth of field is too shallow or anything in the frame out of focus; background, he seems to feel, tells the viewer as much as the actor in the foreground. A story goes that during the shooting of No Country for Old Men, the Coens had storyboarded a simple close-up of a watch, as Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) checks the timing of a possible ambush. Deakins suggested a slight change: that Moss hold the watch up, framing it against the desolate West Texas landscape. It’s onscreen for only a blip—an “insert shot,” they call it—but when you rewatch the scene, you find you’re better inside the vigilance of the character. Not just looking out at the landscape but feeling the stretch of desert lengthen with dread.

Deakins explains these decisions to his fans with an almost absentminded clarity. “The balance of the frame—the way an actor is relating to the space in the frame,” he says, “is the most important factor in helping the audience feel what the character is thinking.” Watching him reduce a technically complex art to “story-character” gives one the sense of being in the presence of an artist who has achieved stylistic stability, one who can’t be bothered to overthink it. He has no truck with “mystery of cinematography”–type talk. “Don’t get distracted with technique” is perhaps his most consistent piece of advice.

Readers will often compare their images, side by side, with similar ones from Deakins’s movies and want to know why their shots don’t look as “cinematic” as his. “There is no ‘trick’ to making one image more ‘cinematic,’ ” he writes back, “other than what you see.” Even if I can’t begin to comprehend what’s involved in pulling off what Deakins does, I understand what he means here—one can train their eye too much. On a thread titled “Ways to create a feeling of isolation and being lost,” for instance, Deakins advises against the character actually looking isolated and lost:

Perhaps your character can be motionless, silhouetted against a bright window, whilst the bustle of the city takes place around him. He could be static, in silhouetted close profile against the moving crowd out of focus in the background or against the headlights of moving traffic.

*

A strange but beautiful thing you will hear cinematographers say is that they conceive of each frame as, at first, completely black. The creative act lies in what to light and how—where to send viewers’ eyes, using each beam like a stroke or word. And Deakins thinks about this canvas of blackness not unlike the way blues guitarists—I’m thinking of the Keith Richards quote here—do the beats between notes: “The lighting of a film makes the pauses speak as eloquently as the words.”

Deakins wades deeply into the technical aspects of making such abstract ideas possible. He posts reams of what he calls battleplans, carefully drawn lighting schematics indicating how to hang bulbs and where to place lamps, all of it notated in candle feet (a perfect-sounding unit for light intensity). Gaffers on Deakins’s sets are apparently given stacks of these, many of them necessitating DIY fixtures and rigging. He likes using household bulbs, bare fluorescents even, for the naturalism of it. Like his mentor Hall, he has become known for using “motivated-source” light, where a scene is lighted by sources already in the frame, such as the lanterns carried by Jesse James’s crew in The Assassination. In movies with darker palettes, like Villeneuve’s kidnapping-thriller Prisoners, you also see a lot of “single-motivated source”—a sole bulb, say, dangling in a bathroom.

Still from Prisoners.

Technically speaking, what source lighting allows for is a reality “just slightly enhanced,” as The Deer Hunter’s Vilmos Zsigmond once put it, a subtle act of illusion that requires intricate discussions down at the level of wattage. The trick, Deakins says, is blending the illumination necessary for the frame into the very verisimilitude of the scene, so you don’t have a nighttime shootout in True Grit looking brighter than the nineteenth century should. Asked by “zola_rad” how he decides on such light intensity, Deakins writes, “I might look at the photometric specs of a lamp if I am unsure what level of light I will get at a certain distance.” Notice that he’s hedging against using technology here; for Deakins, usually the archetypal Brit, such questions can reveal sides of a soulful, almost devotional, connection to light (he once told NPR that slashes of light gave him a kind of high). It’s a level of obsessiveness that can lead him, on occasion, to working at the very edge of physics. In one thread, he shares in “tumbleweed”’s frustration controlling the shape of soft cuts of light on skin, asking the message board for ideas.

Such exceptional sensitivity helps assure, first and foremost, a movie’s continuity—which can be a task of nightmarish proportions if a scene has to be shot, as many do, over multiple days. Among the most demanding scenes of Deakins’s career, he writes, was the one early in No Country for Old Men when Moss is chased on foot by a floodlit truck at sunrise. Because of the movie’s schedule, Deakins had to shoot some of the frames on different days, and not necessarily in order, forcing him to blend several dawns into one. To prepare, he rose early for a week before the shoot and walked through each frame of the sequence, studying the timing and contours of West Texas daybreak. It was a means, he says, of disguising the machinations of making a movie, but also of getting all the preparation out of the way—metering the light, recording the distances—so he might concentrate solely on positioning Brolin in the frame.

Famously, Alfred Hitchcock storyboarded so meticulously he sometimes found himself half-bored on set. For him, a movie wasn’t being created so much as realized. A similar taste for preparation, it seems, has kept Deakins and the Coens collaborating for the past twenty-six years. And I am struck, going over Deakins’s posts, by how his work-style reads like an exercise in “freedom within constraints.” You might even look at his entire track record, stretching as it does across genres and formats, as proof of the fact that photographic sensibility probably matters less for a cinematographer than script planning. And this is why it can seem, falsely, that cinematographers are closer to technicians than artists. They’re simply not in control of enough factors, some say, to be responsible for a movie’s artistic effect. Only rarely does a cinematographer get to pick fundamental stuff like focal length, format, camera type, or color. More often they’re in charge of the technical aspects of making the fundamentals expressive: the lighting, focus, depth of field.

Deakins’s name and talent has insured him a larger creative role in these decisions (the Coens now bring him in as early as storyboarding), but the fundamental truth of the profession still applies: his job is to act as an intermediary—a translator—of his director’s vision. Which is partly why I understand him to mean it humbly when he says he’d rather have his art go unnoticed; as a cinematographer, it’s professionally unwise to develop a recognizable style. But now that I’ve read Deakins blog for a few years, I also understand how he might mean it artistically, and honestly so. How having one’s work go unnoticed might in fact be an achievement.

For most of my movie-watching life, this would have sounded absurd to me. What liking cinematography has meant to me, over the last fifteen years, was that I liked watching movies at home; I’ve always liked pausing and rewinding movies to better admire certain shots as still photography. I began watching movies this way with American Beauty, which I rented nearly every week of 2002, when I was fifteen. My family lived in rural northern Colorado, and movies weren’t a thing we went to with any regularity. More often they were DVDs rented long after the release date and brought home to be consumed, then picked over, like cultural relief packages.

And I can still picture, with a strange, framed brightness, the movie’s unforgettable red door, which Annette Bening’s character, Carolyn, reveals to the viewer by rolling her window down during a night rainstorm. At the center of the shot: a door, deeply saturated, lipstick red, lighted by a single overhead bulb. The radiance of the porch light in the darkness makes it appear as though the rain is parting around the door, like an island in a stream. The image is gaudy, rudely symbolic of the murder to come—but it also feels, in a movie too full of hard thinking. As a teenager, I watched the scene over and over, conscious suddenly of the presence of photography in movies. (Only years later did I learn the movie was shot by Conrad Hall.)

Which is why I wasn’t a little horrified to learn that my habit of pausing and praising still frames, which I’d been doing for years, thinking myself a thoughtful noticer of an “underappreciated” art, was anathema to what many cinematographers considered their art. Still, it seemed somewhat disingenuous to me that cinematographers would say they weren’t trying to create memorable images. (Could a painter avoid it?) But Looking at Light offers clear proof of Deakins’s belief that “there’s nothing worse than an ostentatious shot”—a belief even more convincing when refracted through the reality that many of cinematography’s most celebrated shots were “happy accidents,” as Conrad Hall called them. Deakins never bothers to point this out, but it’s there in a thread about the trailer for Blade Runner 2049. A fan inquires about what he or she sees as a brilliantly off-center shot, and Deakins writes back: “the framing was probably just ‘human error.’ ”

*

Not long ago, after reading some of Deakins’s recent posts about Prisoners, I rewatched it, trying to notice what Deakins hadn’t wanted me to. He describes the practicalities of shooting the movie—arriving early to interior sets to change all the bulbs, the good drizzly days of wan light—but also of finding himself inhabiting its mood:

Denis [Villeneuve] was keen on seeing things in obscured ways with more complex frames. You know, you talk in general terms during prep but these things carry over when you are setting up the camera. It’s not always conscious but you have these ideas in your head and when you are on a film there is nothing but that film in your head, so that’s what comes out.

What came out, exactly, I initially couldn’t see. In fact, the first time I watched Prisoners, I don’t think I noticed what now seems its most remarkable moment. It’s during the first few scenes, when the families come to accept their daughters have been kidnapped. Inside the living room, nearly all the lamps are turned on, despite it being mid-afternoon. Deakins probably needed a light source in the room; but the way it’s done, it doesn’t appear like a contrivance. Partly that’s because of the lighting’s subtlety—the drapes are drawn, it’s raining—but more because you can so easily imagine grieving families huddling inwardly in this way, turning on lamps to fend off the darkness. The beauty is: we don’t see them do it. We see only the moment after, as they stir in their private anxiety. And it’s suffocating. A logic of grief expressed almost solely through lamp light. As Hall used to ask Deakins: “Does the story tell without sound?”

Noah Gallagher Shannon lives in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Oxford American, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.

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