Skyfall returns to the Connery days of the James Bond franchise, where nearly every frame would drip with coolness. Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale was a step in the right direction, but it wasn’t until director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins showed up that the series began to feel at its most alive, cinematic, and stylish. This world of Bond is lavish and bold, and to a degree we have never seen from this series before.
Deakins achieved all that slickness with his new favorite storytelling tool, the ARRI ALEXA. Deakins used the camera on his previous film, In Time. After two outings with the ALEXA, Deakins fails to see any shortcoming with the camera. As the man said a few years ago, don’t expect him to return film, unless the Coen Brothers come calling. If you call that sacrilegious, as Deakins tells us, he doesn’t really get what your problem is.
Here is what Skyfall cinematographer Roger Deakins had to say about working with Sam Mendes, the film’s stunning Shanghai fight sequence, and how anything rarely comes easy for him:
This being the third time you’ve worked with Mr. Mendes, what appeals to you about collaborating with him?
He’s very imaginative. It’s a good collaboration, really. He has strong eyes, takes chances, and tries things. It’s stimulating.
Does that collaboration feel different on a big machine like Skyfall versus Revolutionary Road?
The Bond movies are a big machine, yeah. In the way we approached it, it was very much like the films we had done before. This was character-driven. You just don’t throw equipment at it. Like, you don’t throw cameras at a scene because it’s an action scene. We shot a lot of it on one or two cameras, like how we shot the other movies.
Mr. Mendes mentioned that at the press conference. Do you usually prefer shooting action that way, instead of seeing how it comes together in editing?
Yeah. I think you want a clear idea of what you want to put the audience in. If you shoot with a billion cameras, then there’s no perspective. You want to use one shot at a time, so it’s better to discover what that is before you shoot, rather than trying to make something in the cutting room, and then it just becomes generic. You just shoot a lot of coverage. We very much wanted to center it around the characters and be with the character — and with Bond in particular — to see what was unfolding.
Mendes seemed to take a very symbolic action route. He discussed the shot of Bond underwater, saying it’s him falling like he does in most of the film. Were there a lot of discussions over how theme would play into the style of an action scene?
I think he thinks like that a lot. On this, it was quite a long process. We spent a lot of time just talking through the script, with how it played and worked. Before even talking about the visuals it just gradually developed. You know, I’m sorry, I’m not very good at specific things! [Laughs] I mean, people say filmmaking is an organic process, and that is certainly the way we worked. A lot of things were thought out in pre-production, and then a lot would happen on the set. Like, we’ll go, “Oh, what if we did such-and-such? Why don’t we move around and do this?” It was definitely not formulaic. Even when we were storyboarding sequences it was about exploring ideas. We did a lot of pre-viz, and the whole opening action scene was pre-vized. We’d never go, “This is actually what we’re going to shoot.”
How about for the Shanghai fight sequence? How much planning went into that and the use of neon lights?
Well, there was a lot of planning for that. Originally, it was talked about shooting that on location in Shanghai, because we were actually going to do a lot of shooting in Shanghai. That got whittled down, so we didn’t do much there. To shoot it on location would have been such a restriction. We talked about the big billboard advertisements, so we thought it’d be really great to use that and to make it about reflections. Obviously it’s in an office building with glass, but they’re mirrors in a different way. That’s how that evolved.
We decided to do it on the stage. Then it was a matter of designing these screens. Basically, it was about how to light the set. When you got that amount of glass and all these reflections it’s about the practical light sources. You couldn’t add light without seeing it. We shot tests and studied different kinds of screens, to see what we could use for it. We went with these two large LED screens.
Did you do those tests on the Arri ALEXA? How early on was the decision made to shoot digitally?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. We talked about that very early on. I did the previous film [In Time] digitally, and I wasn’t necessarily thinking about using it for the Bond film. When we started talking about the script and what situations it would be, I thought, “Well, it seems to make sense to me.” I showed Sam what I had shot previously, and then we shot different tests ourselves. After that, we made the decision. When we were looking at LED screens for that particular sequence, we got an ALEXA to see how the screens reacted. That worked out on a technical level.
After working with the ALEXA on In Time, what lessons did you learn from that film which you applied to Skyfall?
Well, I realized the versatility of the camera, in particular on the night work. On In Time, I was working with quite a few practical sources and low-light levels. There was quite a lot of lights on that movie, but not a lot of light, if you know what I mean. I could see what the camera could do, which led me to using it on Skyfall. I wanted the saturated colors and to shoot a lot based in practical sources.
Do you see any disadvantages in that camera?
[Laughs] You know, I get a lot of flack when I start talking it up so much, but I don’t really see much in terms of downside anymore, especially after seeing the movie at the premiere on a huge screen. I thought the image quality was great. I’ve seen it on an IMAX screen too. We shot for 128 days with the camera, and I can’t remember one problem. We put it through a lot of different type of situations. I mean, talk about the low-light night stuff, which is a very extreme contrast ratio in the Shanghai set. On the other side of the spectrum, we’re shooting the bright sun on the Mediterranean, and it looked great. That was unexpected. I thought shooting in such extreme, bright sunlight it would have had problems, but it didn’t. The camera behaved as well or better than it would have on film.
Whenever a lot of directors are about to shoot digitally they say, “It’ll look just like film.” Your work with the ALEXA goes beyond that. It’s not trying to be film.
Yeah, it just looks like what it looks like. I don’t care what it looks like, because I like the look [Laughs]. The thing that got Sam and I the most when we first starting shooting was just the clarity of an actor’s eye. He looked at it side-by-side with film, and we did a lot of comparison tests, and just that slight sharpness and subtlety of color…you’re right, it’s not film, it’s something else. I really like it. I like how it renders the real world.
So, when you’re starting to work with the ALEXA, there is no questioning over whether wanting to make it look like film?
You know, I don’t like doing the comparison thing. I do feel more comfortable with it now. I do love film, but it’s a different look. I think the advantages now definitely outweigh the disadvantages.
I don’t know if you saw the documentary Side-by-Side.
Yeah, yeah, it’s a good film, but that documentary is almost out of date already. There’s so many films being shot digitally on the ALEXA and the RED — and I like the ALEXA much better than the RED, but that’s enough of that — since that documentary’s been made. Hugo, for instance, was shot on the ALEXA. So much is being shot on it. [Laughs] The weight of the comparison now is changing, but I know people who absolutely swear by film, and that’s fine. I have no problem, but I don’t see why there’s such a problem when I say I like shooting digitally and probably won’t shoot film again, unless Joel and Ethan [Coen] want to shoot something else. Yeah, it’s just another tool in the paint box, as they say [Laughs].
Which is what the movie was saying, that they’re just for different kinds of stories. Say, if you were making another western, do you think 35mm would be right for that?
That’s an interesting point. I was watching True Grit the other day, and I’m really glad I shot that on film. I mean, it’s the last film I shot on film. I don’t know why, really. Maybe I’m just nostalgic. If I was doing True Grit or something similar next year, I don’t know…I think I’d still shoot digitally, actually.
Well, you seemed to have already shot a western digitally, with the final siege in Skyfall.
Oh, yeah. When they’re waiting for the bad guys? We were rehearsing those sequences and Sam said, “Let’s start it simple, play it like it’s a western.” Gradually, it started to deconstruct, shooting it handheld, and it becomes rugged. That was definitely a conscious thing.
Did you and Mr. Mendes at all look at the earlier Bond films as templates? The style of Skyfall seems to harken back to the earlier films.
Yeah, we watched bits and pieces. All I remember is we’d watch action sequences from a variety of movies. A lot of it, I think, comes from the fact Sam hadn’t done action, so he wanted to see action sequences, get ideas, be guided, and whatever. We watched a lot, saying, “That’s how that looks, but we’re not necessarily going to do that.” I think we were just doing it and getting good talking points, but we weren’t looking at anything else as template. No way. I certainly don’t do that in terms of photography, and we didn’t do that with the general thing on the movie. It was its own thing. I think there are certain scenes where we go, “That’s like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch or something like that.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] And you’ve done Westerns before, so it’s probably already in your DNA.
Well, I think it’s just there, isn’t it? The things that have affected you and the things you love are still there in your mind. When I’m shooting a shot I don’t consciously say, “That frame is like such-and-such from The Wild Bunch,” but I’m sure it’s there. I think that one particular shot where Daniel [Craig] is at the window, Judi is sitting on the couch, and Albert [Finney] is deep in the back of the shot when they’re waiting, it’s very much a Western frame. There’s not many Westerns around, and I feel lucky to have done three, if you count No Country for Old Men.
Even with that Western influence, there is still a good amount of sequences in Skyfall we haven’t seen from you before. Was that a part of the appeal?
Certainly. There are sequences I haven’t done before. You know, it’s not so much the aesthetic challenge, but it’s the creative technical side of it is the hardest thing, really. Figuring out how to shoot something with camera placement and camera movement with the director, that’s so much more instinctive. When you’re lighting or thinking about the look of a sequence, with shades and colors, you may get an idea, like, the glass and the LED screens. The technical challenge is creating that look, which can be scary. Sometimes you can project something, but then you go, “Well, I have projected it, but how the hell do I create it?”
So, even after being at this for a while, nothing ever feels like a walk in the park?
Oh, no, every scene has its challenge. Even with day exteriors, which are sometimes the hardest things. When we were shooting all the day exteriors for Skyfall in London that was the hardest thing. We were very lucky with the weather, in that it was very dry and quite sunny. When we were shooting, for instance, the exterior of the island, we were shooting that in the winter. We wanted bright sunlight, and we were lucky we got ten days of it and 60 degree weather. I think it was March, which is ridiculous. On the other side, when we wanted to shoot a lot of the stuff in London and wanted it grey and rainy, we got some sunny days, which was really bad. To try and control that and make those sunny days look like a cold and wintery day is hard. People would say, “Ah, we’re just doing day exteriors, that’ll be an easy day for you.” [Laughs] That’s the hardest part!
Skyfall opens in theaters on November 9th.