The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents January 2011 Return to Table of Contents
Biutiful
Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC
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Page 3
Page 4
True Grit
Short Takes
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC receives the Society’s Lifetime Achievemant Award for a body of work that reflects vision, purpose and a personal perspective.


AC file photos by François Duhamel, SMPSP; Melinda Sue Gordon, SMPSP; Frank Masi, SMPSP; Mario Tursi; Merie Wallace; Bruce Birmelin, and Michael Weinstein. Additional photos courtesy of Roger Deakins.
After four decades behind the camera, Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, is at the top of his game. “I think I’m doing work now that’s as good as I’ve ever done,” he says. His
 peers in the ASC clearly agree, as they will honor him next month with the Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award.   

The ASC honor is the latest in an incredible run that has included double ASC Award nominations for two consecutive years, 2008 (for Revolutionary Road and The Reader) and 2007 (for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men). Indeed, Deakins’ presence looms so large at these ceremonies that when Robert Elswit, ASC accepted the 2007 ASC Award for There Will Be Blood, he suggested that the Society establish a special category for “films shot by Roger Deakins.”    

The four films that earned Deakins his double nominations reflect his special niche as a shape-shifting cinematographer for auteur directors with substantive, character-driven scripts. “That’s a very small niche right now,” he says with a laugh. But it’s one that many cinematographers would envy, as it has led him to collaborate with filmmakers such as Joel and Ethan Coen, Sam Mendes, John Sayles, Martin Scorsese, Bob Rafelson and Norman Jewison. Of course, he is most closely identified with the Coens, America’s most idiosyncratic auteurs; he has shot 11 films for them since Barton Fink (1991), including the current release True Grit.    

None of this was in the crystal ball when Deakins was a young lad in Torquay, a fishing town on England’s southwest coast. Once a Victorian resort, the town didn’t offer many career options for a youth with artistic inclinations. Deakins’ father ran a construction company, and his grandfather was a fisherman. “My dad wanted me to take over his business,” Deakins recalls. “For many years, when I was working in London in the film industry, my father still thought I’d come back and take over!”   

Instead, Deakins took after his artistically inclined mother, an actress and amateur painter. He also took up the brush, painting realistic renderings of people and landscapes. “They were pretty depressing, actually,” he says. But they led him to still photography. “I suppose I took up still photography because I always had an interest in [seeing] people within their environments.” Deakins had the opportunity to soak up art-house movies through the Torquay film society. He and his brother trudged miles to watch everything from Italian neorealist films to Peter Watkins’ faux vérité documentaries. Seeing a woman faint during The War Game, Watkins’ vivid scenario about a nuclear explosion in London, deeply impressed Deakins, but the idea of making a career out of film hadn’t yet coalesced in his mind.   

Intending to become a painter, he enrolled in the Bath Academy of Art, but found himself assigned to the graphic-design department. “I guess they didn’t like my naturalistic paintings,” he says. “Abstract was in, and I didn’t do much of that.” But there was a small film department. “I wanted to get involved in that, but only two or three students were allowed to play with film cameras, and I didn’t get the chance.” Instead, he discovered still photography — in a big way. “I used to spend nights in a darkroom printing, then days out, just wandering around towns and seaside communities taking pictures.” He even pinched the school’s darkroom key to make a copy for himself. Curiously, photography itself was not part of Bath’s curriculum. “It was just a way of recording images to be used in graphic design — if you were designing book covers, for instance,” says Deakins.    

When the academy brought in professional photographers as guest teachers, Deakins soaked up the lessons, particularly those imparted by Roger Mayne. “He was one of the first photographers to go out in the street and photograph the lives of people in London,” says Deakins. “He was quite a big influence on the way I started to see things.”    

After college, Deakins wasn’t sure what to do. A friend told him about a new school opening up in London called the National Film School. “I thought that really made sense, because my photography was tending towards documentary, so I applied along with my friend,” he says. Neither of them got in. Deakins made an appointment with the school’s headmaster, Colin Young, to find out why. He recalls, “On the wall behind Colin’s desk was this photograph of a horse and car. It was blurred because it was a time exposure. Colin said, ‘Well, your photographs are not really very filmic.’ He pointed to the photo behind him and said, ‘That’s filmic.’ I said, ‘No, that’s a blurred photograph.’” Deakins laughs at his youthful chutzpah. “I disputed his idea of what was filmic and what wasn’t.”   

Because it was the school’s first year, it was seeking an entry class of 25 students who already had some filmmaking experience and could self-start in an unstructured educational environment. So, with the implicit promise that he would be admitted the next year if he acquired some practical experience, Deakins looked for a job. The Bath Academy principal told him about an arts center that wanted to create a photographic record of rural life in North Devon. For the next year, Deakins wandered around the countryside, photographing farmers, woodsmen, county fair-goers and other rural folk in their element. (Some of these black-and-white images are posted on his website, www.rogerdeakins.com.) He had no supervisor. “It was very much make-it-up-as-you-go,” he recalls.   

At the NFS, which Deakins entered in 1972 as part of its second class, practical instruction was not part of the deal. “I’ve had no formal training, even though I went to film school and art college!” he says with a laugh. “Both were places of anarchy, really. They just gave you an opportunity to find your own way of doing things, which I think is the best training.” As one of the few students who wanted to shoot, Deakins kept quite busy. “I shot something like 15 films in three years,” he says. “One was a 90-minute gangster movie! Most were on 16mm, but one or two were on 35mm.”   

Deakins’ own first film was a documentary about stag hunting in Devon. “In the rural community there, stag hunting used to be a very big focal point of social life, so the film wasn’t just about stag hunting,” he notes. “In the end, I took the film to North Devon, and they showed it in village halls for quite a while.”   

Director Michael Radford remembers his NFS schoolmate vividly: “Roger was clearly one of the most talented guys, a cut above everybody else. It became very apparent very quickly, not so much in what he did but just in his approach to things, that he was a very, very serious guy.”    

Deakins graduated with the idea of making documentaries, long-form observational films in the vein of Frederick Wiseman and Richard Leacock. “For many months, I looked for work as a camera assistant, and I didn’t get any. So I started looking for work as a cameraman.” The jobs gradually came: industrial films, music videos, and then, in his first big break, a documentary about the war in Rhodesia. For the next seven years, Deakins shot and sometimes directed documentaries for British television. He spent nine months on a yacht during an around-the-world race. He came under mortar fire in Ethiopia during its guerrilla war. He filmed anthropological documentaries in India and Sudan. Working with 16mm and an Éclair NPR, he became increasingly adept as a camera operator.  
 

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