The cinematographer’s precise control of the moving image heightens the way a story is told in film.
Although film is primarily a visual medium for storytelling, how those visuals shape the story can often go unappreciated. Dialogue can tell you what a character is thinking, and an actor can show you how that character is feeling, but cinematography can signal and tease out so much with its unique visual language. It is capable of connecting with audiences on a deeper, more instinctual level. While the image does not traditionally drive the plot, it does allow room for more nuance and artistry within storytelling.
A new video essay by James Hayes of Film in the Making examines how one of the great cinematographers, Roger Deakins, constructs a shot and produces such beautiful images. The essay comes with a “potential spoiler” warning as it focuses on Deakins’s most recent film, Blade Runner 2049, but it also contains images from his earlier work, including Sicario, No Country for Old Men, and Skyfall. Hayes highlights the complexity of Deakins’s craft and how cinematography “can tell a story without a single word spoken.” This role requires a strong relationship with the director so that this visual language can be translated properly. Perhaps this is why Deakins has worked with everyone from the Coen Brothers to Martin Scorsese to M. Night Shyamalan. Deakins’s intentional lack of a signature style and his feeling of discovery on each film set — even after more than a dozen Academy Award nominations! — heighten the effect he has on the diverse projects he chooses.
The video essay shows how Deakins uses light and where he places the camera, both of which seamlessly intensify the bond between the audience and the characters. Incorporating scenes from across Deakins’s extensive filmography, Hayes showcases how the cinematographer often uses practical lighting. By including visible light sources in the shot, Deakins reduces “unnatural and unconvincing” disruptions from the world depicted on screen. In Blade Runner 2049, Deakins goes even further, “constructing different planetary lighting” that effectively creates an immersive and tense atmosphere within the film’s futuristic setting.
The famed cinematographer was just nominated for his 14th Oscar for his work on Blade Runner 2049. Regardless of what happens on the big night, this is a landmark in Deakins’s extensive career. If he wins, it will be his first ever, but if he loses, he will break the record for the cinematographer with the most nominations without a single statuette to show for it, passing George J. Folsey.
In honor of Deakins’s historic Academy Award recognition, watch the video below and see for yourself the beauty in his compositions.