Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC Interview about Cannes ExcelLens Cinematography Award

James Ellis Deakins and Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC

James Ellis Deakins and Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC receives the Pierre Angénieux Award for Cinematography at the Cannes Film Festival tonight, on Friday, May 22.

This year is the 80th anniversary of Angénieux. Three years ago, the company became an official partner of the Cannes Film Festival and established the “Pierre Angénieux ExcelLens in Cinematography” Award and Ceremony. It’s named after the founder of the company, Pierre Angénieux, whose designs and inventions in zoom lenses have been used by cinematographers since the first Angénieux 16mm format 17-68 mm f/2.2 1956 was built. The first 35mm Angénieux Zoom was the 35-140 f/3.5 in 1960.

And by the way, Angénieux was making 24×36 format still format lenses since 1938. Download our Angénieux History 12 MB PDF here.

Tonight Roger Deakins will be honored by the Cannes Festival, by Angénieux President Pierre Andurand, colleagues, and some of the many directors and actors with whom he’s worked.

Here’s an interview with Roger.

JON FAUER: The Cannes Festival Hall overlooks this mega-yacht harbor. Let’s begin by talking about boats.

ROGER DEAKINS: The last time I sailed was when I shot a documentary years ago. Now, I have a small boat and go fishing. It’s a little open boat with an outboard motor. It’s something I like doing in my down time in our place just south of Torquay. We’re opposite Dartmouth, half way between Torquay and Salcombe.

Your documentary about the Whitbread Race was probably the first film I ever saw of yours. How did that job come about? It must have been a grueling experience.

You always have happier memories. It’s funny. When I first heard about the project I hadn’t done much sailing. I’d been at film school for three year and I’d shot a film on the war in Rhodesia, as it was called back then. When I heard about this film, I thought it was going to be a dramatic film about Donald Crowhurst, the lone sailor who faked his own navigation around the world and it turned out that he never left the Atlantic.

But then I went to meet the producer and found, no, they were looking to make a documentary about life aboard an entrant in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race. I had sailed once or twice with my dad in a small dingy. That was the height of my experience with actual sailing. But I talked it up and said I had a lot of experience on the water, which was partially true. So I got the job.

But you were stuck on the boat for nine months or more, working as cameraman and sailing crew?

Nine months and we had to do a considerable amount of training. The yacht was based in North Scotland near Cape Wrath and I’d go up there and train with the guys who were going to be on the boat.

How many were you on board?

It varied. There were several legs and it changed numbers between 9 and 11.

Do you remember what camera you used on that film?

I do remember because I used an Éclair NPR which actually became my camera after that job. Had it for many years. In fact, it’s the same Éclair NPR that sits in the ASC clubhouse right now. I gave it to them a few years ago. Actually, when I was shooting “Skyfall” back in England, John Buckley, an old friend, came up to me and said, “I think I have your old camera.” And they had it at their rental house. I had been part of a small documentary company and we had sold it years ago. John gave it back to me. Now it sits in the clubhouse in Hollywood.

John Buckley of MovieTech in Pinewood Studios?

Yes, that’s it. He used to work with Joe Dunton and they eventually ended up with that NPR.

Unbelievable. And what lens did it have?

I mainly used an Angenieux 9.5-57mm.

That would have been good on a sailboat, a short, wide zoom.

Yeah, it was a great lens. I used it for everything I did, actually. I owned that lens and it’s what I shot with all the time. When the Aaton cameras came out, I still used that.

When you said you got the camera after the job, did you rent it first and then you bought it?

I took two cameras. Chris Menges worked for the company that did the job, ATV. They had a number of cameras. I believe, they were cameras that Chris’s used. I took a complete set and spare body from them. So it was mainly their gear. I brought the lens in but it was basically two camera bodies and magazines. I think I picked up some other equipment such as specialized batteries and solar panels for charging.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you rarely use zooms these days?

True, I rarely use zooms. However, on any film there will often be two or three shots that require a zoom or that particular look of a zoom. In fact, on “1984,” we had three of four very specific zoom shots. We were angled over somebody’s shoulder and we closed in as though we were going into a point of view on the zoom.

That’s a particular shot that has a special feel to it but I don’t like having a zoom on the camera all the time. I find that a little sloppy.

And why is that? You wouldn’t even use it as a variable prime?

No, I like to say, “I want to be here, on a 32mm. I want to be here on a 50.” I want to say, “This is the lens and this is where the camera goes for this particular shot.” It’s just the way I got used to working. For me, it is a cleaner, more direct way — rather than being there and changing the focal length just to find the frame.

You like to be more precise.

I think so. I’d say it’s probably just the way of working I got used to. Obviously, years ago the zooms weren’t up to the quality of primes. So, I got used to that way of working. Of course, I know that now some of the zoom lenses are so good you probably wouldn’t really know.

There is something about the size of the lens though. I tend to work with fairly wide lenses, close to people. And I like a very small camera package. I like things to be very small and intimate.

Going back to your documentary days, I suppose that was a different style and you probably used zooms then?

Yes, I used my 9.5-57mm nearly all the time. Sometimes I’d shoot with the 15mm prime lens I had on the NPR. On the yacht sometimes it was best just to shoot on the 15, because of the size and movement of the boat and everything. But obviously a little zoom on a documentary is really very advantageous.

Your documentaries in Africa—same camera package?

Yes. I did a film in Eretria about the war for independence. It was 1980, ‘81 when Eritrea was fighting for independence from Ethiopia. I did the film with a journalist called Sarah Errington. She had been in the war zone before and I went in with her and the sound recordist Eddie Tise, who later went on to work with Kubrick. We spent some weeks inside Eritrea filming in one particular village, Karen, near the front line with Ethiopia. The film was about the way the guerillas were setting up a socialist society more than anything else. And yes, I took that same camera on that job, that same NPR.

How did you make the jump from documentaries to features?

I’d always wanted to do features but I only ever imagined that I would shoot documentaries. There were two things that started it, really. I’d been at National Film School so I had shot a lot of dramas. I shot something like 15 films for other students that were both documentary and fiction works but primarily fiction. In a way my calling card was the same calling cards that these students had left with. When they were showing their work they were showing my work.

I loved feature films since I joined a film society in Torquay as a teenager. But I didn’t really think that it was a possibility for me as a career. I also love documentaries so that’s what I did for quite some time. One thing led to another. There was another ex-student of the National Film School called Michael Radford. We had done some documentary work together and he asked me to shoot a feature called “Another Time Another Place”. By this time I had shot a variety of independent work as well as a drama series for television and because of that Mike felt I would be capable of doing his feature.

I think he would have been a bit wary if I’d only done documentaries. It was just the right circumstances coming together, really. At the same time, a friend, Jon Sanders and I were making films in a psychiatric hospital. We’d follow patients through their treatments. Something about it made me feel a bit uncomfortable. I became a little disturbed about what I was doing as a documentary cameraman-filmmaker as it all felt a little voyeuristic. Of course, I still thought the films were worth doing but when the opportunity to do feature work came along it seemed to be perfect timing.

You mentioned Michael Radford. Didn’t he do “White Mischief” with you?

Yes. We did the film, “Another Time Another Place”, which is about Italian prisoners of war billeted in Scotland during the war. That did quite well at the Cannes Film Festival. Mike was there and a producer asked him what he wanted to do next. And Mike said he’d always wanted to make a version of “1984,” the George Orwell novel. And the producer said, “Okay.” That’s how it happened. We made “1984” together and then after that “White Mischief”, a film with Greta Scacchi and Charles Dance in Kenya.

You told me once that you always liked to shoot stills. Is that still going on?

Yes. I don’t really get much time. I do like it. I don’t think I’m very good at it. I think maybe I used to be quite good at it. But it’s something you really need to keep up. But every now and again, I try, especially when I’m back in England. I like street photography.

Do you bring a camera on set with you?

Only for creating references. I just take photographs as references and sometimes send them to the lab with timing notes. For a short time, before I went to film school, I worked as a photographer in North Devon, creating a record of rural life.

You mentioned street photography. Are you using a Leica?

Yes. I’ve got a couple of Leicas. I have an M8 and I have started using a Leica Monochrome. Somehow everything I do looks better in Black and White.

Why is it that you enjoy operating so much? Basically you’re doing two jobs, which requires quite a bit of endurance.

I don’t really see it that way. It’s one job to me, because that’s the way I came into it, shooting documentaries. I was always operating on my documentaries. It didn’t work any other way.

But it is a lot more work?

Depends on the movie. I suppose it is more work in terms of what I have to do. But I think it almost simplifies what I have to do because I don’t have to communicate with an operator.

I know what I’m looking at. I know the shot I’m seeing in my mind and how I want to light it. And then I just go and do it. I have direct contact with the director. I’ve worked a little bit with operators and obviously we do double cameras and triple cameras and 11 cameras sometimes. So I’ve worked with a number of operators, but when it comes down to doing the day-to-day work on a film, I much prefer operating myself.

I understand that some people like just to light. I like to be involved. I like to be there. I think the most satisfying thing actually is looking through the camera at the actors’ performance, or the way the light falls, or the combination of everything and how it comes together and makes the shot. It’s the most satisfying moment of all filmmaking.

And that’s the operator’s position to do it.

You like to be relatively close and wide. I think it probably gives comfort to the actors, as well, to have an ally there.

Yes, probably. I certainly hate being away watching a monitor. That’s just not me. I can’t do that. I just find that deadly. On the other hand, I do operate quite a lot of the remote heads watching a monitor. So in a sense I am doing that, but in my own way.

Which remote heads do you use?

Bruce Hamme, a dolly grip I have worked with for 25 years just got the Scorpio Mini head that we used on “Unbroken” in Australia. That was the first time I used it and I thought it was really fantastic head. Most of the time I still use a Power Pod Classic that Otto Nemenz has. I’ve used that ever since we did “Barton Fink.” I have worked with Otto and have been supported by his company for well over 20 years. He has a great team.

We take it out on every job and everybody says, “Well, that’s an old head.” But it still works. It’s one of the smallest heads out there. It works well in small spaces.

How does operating your own camera fit in working with the director, especially if they are in Video Village far away from the camera?

Frankly, most of the directors I work will, will be right next to me or very near. Joel and Ethan Coen will have a small monitor on a stand that will be quite near the camera. Actually a number of the directors I’ve worked with will do the same.

That’s refreshing. They’re close by, not far away in Video Siberia.

Yes. Certainly we go back and forth to Video Village to review takes and discuss.

In this digital era, you’re using ALEXA. Did you say you’re never going back to film?

Well, the last film I shot was on film.

So you did go back.

Yes, on “Hail Caesar” with the Coen Brothers that we did over the winter.

I’m not sure I really want to back again, though. We had a few problems that I hadn’t encountered before. I think, for a number of reasons, film has had its day. The main reason is that the  infrastructure is not there anymore.

It’s an economic concern and not an aesthetic thing now?

You just don’t have the people anymore with the knowledge and the craft and the care.

You only have FotoKem in LA, no labs in New York, several in Paris, and four in Tokyo.

That’s odd really. Isn’t it? It’s the last place I would think they’d still be shooting film.

I know you use ALEXA, and you’re operating yourself. How do you establish the look, keep those looks on the monitors, and maintain that in dailies and through final grading?

I’ve have always worked through EFilm and basically we have monitors calibrated by EFilm.

It’s calibrated to their screens and the system on which I watch dailies or their projection system, if we have a projection system on location. All those viewing systems are calibrated.

I don’t know why people think this is actually such a big deal. I basically shoot digital the same way as I’d shoot film. I light it the way I want to light it. I decide on one look-up table before I start the film. And I do very little color timing on the set.

I’ve worked on the same DIT, Josh Golish, on everything. He checks my exposure, which is really nice and reassuring. But I still work with a light meter. It’s funny. I don’t know why there is such a commotion about the consistency of the image from set to the DI suite.

I have a theory about that. I think it’s because you are operating so it engages you full-time. Whereas, if you were not operating the camera, you’d be in the Video Village tent with lots more time on your hands and the temptation to twiddle and fiddle with dials and knobs.

I would say I do very little timing on the set. I do now and again; I’ll ask Josh to lessen the contrast a little bit or change the saturation slightly. But it’s only a reference to the timer. I’ll often take still photographs with my Leica M8 and then email them to the timer at the end of the day.

I’ve done that ever since I got a digital Leica. Before that, I used to do Polaroids when we were shooting film. The digital Leica is a great way to go.

What about grading? Do you start fresh or do you work with the look that you’ve already established?

I usually start with the grade that the dailies’ timer has put on.

I definitely have my dailies timed exactly as I would if I were shooting film. I think it’s important for me to trust my dailies timer. When were doing “Unbroken” in Australia, I brought the timer I’ve used from Los Angeles. He was in Sydney timing the dailies. That’s important. So in final grading, we start with that timing but we can always take that timing off and look at the RAW file and do a new grade.

Do you supervise the dailies as well?

The RAW files go to wherever the timer is at EFilm. On location, we try to have the timer nearby.

I go in when I can, maybe at the end of the week, or even on the weekend, to just check the dailies. If I don’t like something, I can re-time that section. I like to get the dailies close—similar to the way we worked in film. When the editor and director are watching dailies’ timing on film or on digital, they get used to it. And then it’s a shock if suddenly, when you do the final DI timing, it’s different from what they’ve been looking at for four or five months. So I like to get it as close to what I really want it to look like.

How do you and the director discuss looks? What do you use for reference?

It varies from director to director. On the last film with the Coen Brothers, the film was set in 1952 Hollywood. It incorporates a number of different movies within the movie. We had a few references from old movies. With them it’s mainly just discussing the locations and the storyboards. It’s a general conversation rather than looking at something very specific.

Whereas, with another director it might be much more specific. For instance, on “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford James” with Andrew Dominik, we looked at very specific visual references for that film.

Not that we were copying something—it was just for the mood and the kind of the idea of the imagery.

Yeah, I very rarely look at other movies for reference. When I did “Skyfall” with Sam Mendes, we looked at action sequences from a certain number of movies. And mainly we decided we didn’t want to do it that way. It was a talking point. You put something up and then you discuss why you like something or why you don’t like something. I sometimes get photo references and pick the work of a particular photographer that I think might relate to that particular movie. It’s a way of stimulating conversation.

Has your style of lighting changed or evolved over the years?

I think it’s got kind of simpler. I was going to say pure. But that’s not the word. It’s simpler in that it’s gotten more down to the essence, really. I think I used to put up more lights than I do now. Sometimes I might still put up more. But they’re not done in such a way as to create different sources. It’s a more simple style of lighting. It really depends on the film and the scene we’re shooting. On the last movie, with the Coen Brothers, I don’t think I’ve ever used so much light, not for years and years. But we were doing sets that I wanted to light up to a high stop and we were shooting on film. On one set I had 120 10Ks, which is a lot of light for me.

You also had a lot of light on “Skyfall” in the night scene on the moor?

We shot some of that on location but a lot of it was done on a big stage. But it wasn’t that much light actually. I had 16 Dinos. But they were used as one big light source. It’s a very simple way of doing it. On a smaller scale, you could use 16 LED panels. But it just happened that I had to light actors 600 feet away.

Now that digital cameras are more sensitive, is that affecting how you’re lighting or using bigger units?

I think definitely digital is affecting things. But I was starting to do that with film at the end. On  “No Country for Old Men,” I was starting to work with practicals a lot more than maybe I would’ve 20 years ago. I tend to do that. It’s about choices. Key to what I do now is the choice of the light in the shot, the choice of the practical, the choice of the location and where the windows are. It was always important to me but maybe that’s becoming more a priority when shooting digitally.

Are you using LEDs at all?

I have. It depends on the situation. In a simple interior, I still like the idea of simple tungsten table lights or ceiling lights. I like that you can just dim them down and they warm up. I got used to that, I suppose.

“Sicario” is opening at 2015 Cannes Film Festival and is in competition for the Palme d’Or…

It’s showing on Tuesday, May 19. The story is about a border detective played by Emily Blunt, who gets involved with Josh Brolin playing an FBI/CIA kind of guy, and Benicio del Toro who plays a Columbian hit man who is working with the FBI/CIA to combat drug trafficking. It’s about the character played by Emily who gets tied up in the machinations of how to manage with drug dealers and the border problems.

It’s a really good story. It’s an interesting blend: not documentary realism, but it has a sense of reality to it.

Where did you shoot it?

We shot mainly in Albuquerque. We also shot in Mexico City for a little bit, because a sequence in the film involves the agents going across the border to pick up a cartel member from a Mexican jail and bring him back to the States.

So how would you describe the style of the cinematography?

I never know what style it is really. Style is just kind of what evolves when you start working on a film. It has some handheld. Some scenes are done with Steadicam. Bits are on the jib arm. Bits are static. Stylistically it’s heightened realism. The quality of the light and the colors are what I would call heightened realism. It’s funny. The films I had in mind when I first talked to Denis Villeneuve, the director, were Jean-Pierre Melville’s gangster movies. I hope that some of what’s in “Sicario” echoes his work. It’s a dark existential sort of noire-ish feel. Le Samouraï is an example, shot in color by Henry Decaë.

Probably my favorite film of all time is Melville’s “Army of Shadows” (1969). It’s about the French Resistance. I think if we’ve got a slight sense of his existential streak in “Sicario” then I think we will have done well.

What are your other favorite movies?

I like so many and it’s a kind of mix. “Ivan’s Childhood” (1962), the first feature directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, I think is one of the greatest war films ever made. I also love everything Kasuo Miyagawa shot for Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, and I love Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone’s movies.

And what are the favorite films that you did?

When I was starting, the second or third movie I did was “1984” with Richard Burton and John Hurt. It was a wonderful experience.

Burton was great in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”.

It was brilliant. Some of the best black-and-white photography you’d ever see, from Ossie Morris.

So, to work with Richard Burton was amazing. At the end of the first day he asked the AD to have everybody gather around his trailer because he wanted to say something. We were very nervous what he was going to say. We were really afraid that he was upset. We gathered around and he came out and said, “I just want to thank you for some of the best times I’ve ever had on a movie.” I was so nervous when I came on set and saw so many young faces, but it was such a nice time. I can’t thank you enough.”

You know, I’ve never had a nicer moment on a movie than that.

He would sit with us at lunch time and just talk about movies and about his life, so it was just wonderful. I thought, “God, if this is what’s in store for me, I’ll happily work to the end of my career in movies.”

That was great. You remember movies for a lot of different reasons. I remember a film with Bob Rafelson with great affection, not only because I like Bob so much, but because it was such an amazing experience making the film “Mountains of the Moon” in Kenya with him. He’s such a pusher for what he wants. He’s so dogged. We went all over Kenya shooting, but sometimes just looking because he wanted just to experience it.

The film, you know, it wasn’t seen a lot, which was a shame ‘cause some people — some people see it now and go, “Wow, why was this film never shown”? You know, why did we never see this? I mean I think it’s got a good movie. We were quite particular in getting an authentic feel of Victorian Explorers in Africa.

What was your first picture with the Coen Brothers?

That was “Barton Fink”,

What was it like working with them at that time and now? Have they changed?

No. They’re very much the same. I think we hit it off quite early on. We first met in Notting Hill in London. I had basically given up the film industry because I’d just come back from Thailand from doing the film, “Air America”. And I thought, if that’s the film industry I don’t want to know about it. And then I met them in Notting Hill and I was very nervous. We got on, they asked me to do the movie and I had a good time. I hope they did. I think they did. They certainly asked me back, so maybe they did.

At the beginning of the job, the lab was producing terrible dailies. In the same scene we’d have three takes that looked too green and the next three takes would be magenta. We rang the lab and they said, “All our printer machines were slightly out of whack but we can’t do anything about it”.

I said, “Well, that’s it.” So instead of processing in LA, we sent our dailies all the way to New York. We were shooting in LA, we sent them to DuArt in New York, which for my money was always the best lab in the country. And they did a fantastic job. But, for the first couple of weeks I think the Coen brothers were thinking, “What the hell is he doing?” Because the dailies looked so terrible, but thankfully they didn’t fire me and, I think, they were happy with the end result.

Is that where you met James, at DuArt?

James had been at DuArt, but I didn’t meet her there. She worked as a script supervisor after DuArt. I met James after I’d done “Barton Fink.” When I was offered a Michael Apted film called “Thunderheart,” I decided to move to LA, went looking, and eventually bought this place where I am now in Santa Monica. I moved in and a week later went to South Dakota to shoot “Thunderheart”. James was working on the film as the script supervisor.

She just moved to LA from New York, around the same time that I decided to move to LA from England. As we got to know each other in South Dakota we found that we lived a few hundred yards apart in Santa Monica.

So is there anything else that you want to talk about that I should’ve asked you or?

What’s your reaction, in advance, to receiving the Pierre Angénieux Award?

I’m blown over, really. I’ve never been to the Cannes Film Festival, so I am really looking forward to it. It’s been a long career so far and I have no complaints.

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1 Response:

  1. Well done Roger – we love your work!

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