Anton Chigurh’s (Javier Bardem) placid face and unflinching eyes after murdering his first police officer just a few minutes into ‘No Country For Old Men’; April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) standing in the middle of her suburban bedroom quietly bleeding herself to death in ‘Revolutionary Road’; Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) rushing on the horseback to get the rattlesnake bitten Mattie to the doctor as the day light changes and the huge surreal stars light the sky in ‘True Grit’ – all these images remain deeply etched in our minds thanks to Roger Deakins’ unique gift to tell the story of a character in a single photographic shot by combining almost documentary-style realism with deep lyricism.
Roger Deakins is currently one of Hollywood’s busiest cinematographers: 11-time Oscar nominee, the winner of over 25 awards for best cinematography including 3 BAFTAs (for True Grit, No Country for Old Men and The Man Who Wasn’t There) and the winner of ASC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. Born in 1949 in Torquay, Deakins originally enrolled in art school but soon discovered a love of photography that drove him to drop out and enrol in school for photography. This shift led to him becoming a seasoned documentarian of war zones, mental institutions and impoverished regions around the globe. He then made the leap from documentary cinema to narrative cinema, eventually becoming the cinematographer of choice for the Coen Brothers as well as working with Martin Scorsese, Paul Haggis, Sam Mendes, John Sayles, M. Night Shyamalan, Ron Howard, Edward Zwick, Tim Robbins and Michael Apted. Looking through the list of over 60 films he has shot over the past few decades – some of them considered modern classics such as Fargo, Shawshank Redemption, The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, 1984 – it is hard to imagine there are many people who have not seen a film shot through the lens of Roger Deakins.
Deakins’ background as a documentary filmmaker was instrumental in him developing the skills of an observer of human character and helped him realise that his true interest lay in humanity, i.e. in portraying the misfits and seemingly unusual characters as just another “person next door”. His interest in stills photography and low lighting helped him create a highly recognisable style of storytelling, how he moves the camera with purpose and precision. The best of Deakins’ shots are composed in such a way that the viewer has to look at different parts of the screen for different information, and has time to do so – a pure cinematic poetry.
A fan of the Alexa lens, Deakins was also an early proponent of the use of the Digital Intermediate (DI), a process by which the negative is scanned into a telecine, manipulated digitally and then scanned back on to film for distribution. The look of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” relied heavily on the DI process.