Roger Deakins? Who?
If you are a huge film buff, this question is not for you.
How many major cinematographers (aka DOPs) can you name? I’ll disregard the attribute “Academy-award nominated” for the sake of argument, but chances are, if we’ve heard of the person, their work probably stood out so much that our notice coincides with some nod from the Academy in the past. So… have a name or two? Even if they are long passed into the camera van of history?
My guess is that if a name came up, it might be Roger Deakins. And if so, was it from his solid body of work, or because he has become a running thread in all Oscar talk?
Roger Deakins has been nominated for 14 Oscars, and has won exactly none. Insert Susan Lucci joke here. But, this might just be his year. Deakins is recognized for the well-received Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Blade Runner 2049 Best Cinematography Oscar Nominee
Much has been said about this sequel – we all okay calling it a sequel? – and discussions of the story and character arcs abound elsewhere, but all reviews shout the virtues of Deakins’ cinematography, in how it was both original and true to what fans of the film expected, based on the work of original 1982 Blade Runner shooter, Jordan Cronenweth (with nods to the design team, of course).
Deakins addressed the comparison on his website site thusly: “(it would be) foolish to emulate Jordan Cronenweth. Cinematography is there to service the story and nothing else. Besides, I have no idea how to put ‘my own visual stamp’ on a film.”
But his fans would disagree.
Deakins is one of the names even non film buffs know, and his peers know him very well indeed. He has been recognized with multiple awards from American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), including this year for Blade Runner 2049, and he snagged a BAFTA this year as well, his fourth win in nine nominations. So, 14 Oscar nominations and no win – to whom did he lose out? Let’s have a quick look.
Roger Deakins’ Oscar Nominated Work
1994 The Shawshank Redemption
Nominees that year:
Legends of the Fall John Toll – WINNER
Forrest Gump Don Burgess
Three Colors: Red Piotr Sobociński
Wyatt Earp Owen Roizman
Deakins’ first nomination, for a film that is in most people’s Top Twenty films of all time. When I think of Legends of the Fall, which I haven’t seen in ages, I think two things – I’m the only girl in the world that prefers Aidan Quinn over Brad Pitt, and, getting back to the look of the film, golden. Very goldeny gold, and made beautiful Montana and beautiful Brad Pitt look, well, beautiful. Tough job. Shawshank is all grays and blues.
The English Patient John Seale – WINNER
Evita Darius Khondji
Fly Away Home Caleb Deschanel
Michael Collins Chris Menges
Oh, The English Patient. I unapologetically love this film, even more than Sack Lunch (you’re welcome, Seinfeld fans), and the photography is a huge part of that. There is a scene in a dark abandoned church where characters break in and rig ropes to look at ancient frescoes by the light of flares. That alone is worth the award.
Titanic Russell Carpenter – WINNER
Amistad Janusz Kamiński
L.A. Confidential Dante Spinotti
The Wings of the Dove Eduardo Serra
I didn’t see Kundun, so perhaps everyone gave respect for the integration of miniatures and CGI, advanced at the time, and dealing with all of that water, during that long, long Titanic shoot. And, two words: James Cameron. OSSCaaarrrr!
2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Peter Pau – WINNER
Gladiator John Mathieson
Malèna Lajos Koltai
The Patriot Caleb Deschanel
Also a year where there was an avalanche of support behind one film, and every chatterbox celeb on any red carpet went on and on about how they just adored Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. It did rack up 10 nominations and won Best Picture. It was mystical and crisp and the cinematography had to weave fantastical set pieces in with more realistic ones. For RD, it was his second collaboration with the Coen Brothers after Barton Fink, and legend has it that he personally worked for weeks in post extracting any overt shades of green out of the process to give O Brother its glowing sepia tones.
2001 The Man Who Wasn’t There
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Andrew Lesnie – WINNER
Amélie Bruno Delbonnel
Black Hawk Down Sławomir Idziak
Moulin Rouge! Donald McAlpine
Was it marked down because the Billy Bob Thornton starring The Man Who Wasn’t There was a black and white film noir, or perhaps marked up? It lost to the special effects New Zealand Tourism GCI effort that was Lord of the Rings.
2007 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford AND No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood Robert Elswit – WINNER
Atonement Seamus McGarvey
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly Janusz Kamiński
Yes, two nominations. Surely the Vegas odds-makers had Deakins’ chances very high. A lot of cowboy competition this year, and No Country won Best Picture. We have to put this down to a vote split, Deakins v Deakins, or a vote split, No Country for Best Picture but throw the nod here to Elswit’s work on There Will Be Blood? Maybe? Your thoughts?
2008 The Reader (with Chris Menges)
Slumdog Millionaire Anthony Dod Mantle – WINNER
Changeling Tom Stern
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Claudio Miranda
The Dark Knight Wally Pfister
If voters were going for splashy and gritty and rewarding hard work, their votes went to the year’s darling Slumdog Millionaire. Bandwagon aside, filming in horrible hot conditions with cameras packed in ice merits some respect, and Mantle and director Danny Boyle used different film stock for each of the significant chapters of the story. The Reader apparently needed two DOPs, as some of the film was shot before the star, Kate Winslet, who won for her role, became available full time, so Deakins only shot half of the film.
2010 True Grit
Inception Wally Pfister – WINNER
Black Swan Matthew Libatique
The King’s Speech Danny Cohen
The Social Network Jeff Cronenweth
Tough to argue with the gorgeous set pieces of Inception, where cinematography and more importantly set design were integral in the layering and relayering of the narrative, so I get this. But True Grit worked so well because it wasn’t shot like a traditional western. While the wide, sad shots of lonesome travel were there, Deakins, working with the Coens again, made the film so much more fresh than just another Western.
Life of Pi Claudio Miranda – WINNER
Anna Karenina Seamus McGarvey
Django Unchained Robert Richardson
Lincoln Janusz Kamiński
Make a Bond film contemporary, sexy, full of tight action, on trains no less, and it lost to a CGI’d tiger. Okay that is harsh, and points for the vanguard use of good 3-D, but…
Gravity Emmanuel Lubezki – WINNER
The Grandmaster Philippe Le Sourd
Inside Llewyn Davis Bruno Delbonnel
Nebraska Phedon Papamichael
Err, I’ll admit, I don’t even know which film this is. Gravity was beautiful, and I really enjoyed it, but again, you could say, cooked in a laboratory.
Birdman Emmanuel Lubezki – WINNER
The Grand Budapest Hotel Robert Yeoman
Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski
Mr. Turner Dick Pope
Unbroken is kind of best known as “an Angelina Jolie film”, which is maybe snarky as she does create her second career as a director. This is a war film with Deakins creating her vision of two different POW camp worlds – the hot dirty Omori and the frozen Naoetsu, plus lots of time spent on (the bane of film makers), open water. Beaten by Birdman, where the idea was to create a sense of one two-hour unbroken take, which went fairly well, and Lubezki had to deal with filming in real New York city street crowds, which can trump prisoners on water any day.
The Revenant Emmanuel Lubezki – WINNER
Carol Edward Lachman
The Hateful Eight Robert Richardson
Mad Max: Fury Road John Seale
Hey look who won again. Again, the shooting conditions might play into votes. When a movie involves water, extreme cold and nature, plus has to integrate CGI, the other camera teams that took the latest Adam Sandler shooting in Hawaii picture pay their penance through their Oscar ballot. Sicario is such a good film, and deserves you to see it if you haven’t– lots of focus changes and mirror-work when telling the story, keeping the viewer guessing about what is to be believed.
2017 Blade Runner 2049
Darkest Hour Bruno Delbonnel
Dunkirk Hoyte van Hoytema
Mudbound Rachel Morrison
The Shape of Water Dan Laustsen
Best Cinematography Oscar 2018
And that brings us up to now. Who will win out of these five? Rachel Morrison makes history as the first female nominated in the field – take a pause and check your calendar, yes the first. Did people see Mudbound, though? (gotta admit, I didn’t, yet)
Darkest Hour does have some beautifully lit set pieces, but they seem stagey, if that’s what voters are looking for. My thoughts on the film are on record here. Dunkirk has a LOT to do, and does it beautifully, and loudly, in air, on sea and land, and that can count for a lot of votes with the crews that have been there. Some of the scenes in Nolan’s film are let’s say, delivered in the final cut (so, not the DOP’s fault) in a way that make following the ongoing action slighty tricky, maybe throwing those potential votes off, but damn, it opens with a great, tense, POV scene of a soldier running for his life, so, worthy contender. The Shape of Water is all about the pallete, and the production design, to an extreme, but has such a period feel to its look, and first time nominee Laustens frames the scenes so precisely that you know where to focus without feeling talked down to. Tough to call.
Roger Deakins worked with Denis Villeneuve on Sicario, but taking on Blade Runner 2049, a movie so entrenched, especially visually, in the public conscious was a huge task. Fans sites were bickering as soon as the contract was signed – that Deakins was too realistically-inclined for Blade Runner, too Coens for the task. But nothing seems to phase this veteran, and the results speak volumes.
If you’re into film or especially if you’re an aspiring cameraperson, check out his website, rogerdeakins.com, where he is very active in answering questions from fans and filmmakers, sometimes with a lot of technical detail – he is offering industry knowledge you’d pay a ton to get.
Will Deakins finally win an Oscar?
As noted above, he’s not going to be drawn into comparisons and award talk – the man is intensely about the work.
So win or lose, don’t feel too bad, he seems to love what he is doing, he will never be out of work, and he has a full mantle of other awards and the respect of his immediate peers.
Here’s maybe where the breakdown happens. While Deakins has been gifted with multiple awards from the ASC, with the Academy Awards, the voting is different. Only the 246 or so members of the Cinematography branch vote for the nominees in this category, so it is a selective, informed audience that brings it down to five. After that, all 6000+ members can have their say. So perhaps the glitch here is the aforementioned bandwagon effect. More often than not, the Cinemtography Oscar goes along to the guy – for it has always been such, til this year – who shot the Best Picture. Happens a lot with Best Director, as well. Looking at Deakins’ 14 nominations above, only five of those films also received a Best Picture nomination – True Grit, No Country, O Brother, Fargo and Shawshank. There are times when the ultimate Best Picture winners, not even nominees but winners, didn’t merit a nod here at all – Driving Miss Daisy and Annie Hall come to mind as not even nominated for photography in their years, while the picture won the big prize.
The other nine films shot by Deakins weren’t exactly indies, but perhaps less seen, less well received over all, and if we spin it positively, real positively, for the guy remaining in his seat politely clapping, over and over, it is nice that his work was recognized as scoring above the final effort released. That’s some participation trophy level stuff right there.
But even though Blade Runner 2049 isn’t in contention for Best Picture (discuss below) surely this will be the year the 68-year old breaks his streak? Something to watch out for – just a hunch – but when Martin Scorsese finally won Best Director, on his seventh try, for The Departed, who walked out to present it to him? Some foreign-language ingenue? Nope, only Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. Not saying they knew something, but if history is made on Sunday, who will be given the honor of making Mr Deakins an Academy Award winner, finally?
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A former ABC National, Dallas and Atlanta radio personality, Martina O'Boyle is now making movies and covering culture in London, Dublin, and as far in Europe as the cheapie flights will take her, for Pop Culture Beast.