Essays · Movies

Aberration in The Lens: Roger Deakins and Jesse James

The genius cinematographer’s laconic take on the modern western is a masterclass in film photography and light.
Jesse James Deakins
By  · Published on March 30th, 2019

This article is part of our One Perfect Archive project, a series of deep dives that explore the filmmaking craft behind some of our favorite shots. In this entry, we discuss Roger Deakins’ cinematography in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

The quintessentially American story of Jesse James and his rise from Confederate guerrilla to robber folk hero has been a staple of American cinema, both literally and inspirationally, since the beginning of the medium. So it’s all the more ironic that the definitive film biography of his contentious life and death would be made by Australian director Andrew Dominik, with the help of English director of photography and one of the most celebrated cinematographers of the modern era, Roger Deakins.

Released in 2007 to mild acclaim, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford has since settled into the quietly respected place that many epic Western films occupy in the years after their release, and Deakins’ photography is a defining part of its legacy. In applying his unique style and approach to the open plains and ghostly landscapes of the Old West, Deakins photographed one of the definitive films of its kind more than a century after the genre first appeared in cinema.

Deakins’ preference for using natural or practical lighting is one of the most enduring trademarks of his style. The use of practical lights, not only on set but oftentimes in the shot itself, creates a composition that belies its intricacies by hiding its light sources in plain sight. He famously consults with set designers on his films, allowing him to incorporate fixtures and lighting devices into the sets themselves. To do this in a period film, where practical electric lights are few and far between, is an even more impressive accomplishment. Because of this, The Assassination of Jesse James‘ exteriors are awash in autumnal glows or wintry whites, while its interiors and night shots twinkle in the shadow of open flame or lantern light. The most iconic example, very early in the film, is the Blue Cut Train Robbery sequence.

Jesse James Deakins

The James Gang, perched on the banks to the side of the train tracks, are surrounded by absolute darkness, lit only by the lanterns they’re carrying. After admonishment from the elder James brother, they douse their lamps, and the sound of the rattling tracks is the only indication something is approaching. Then, through the pitch blackness, a light. A train. A billow of steam in the dark. For this sequence, Deakins heightened the black level of the film stock through bleach bypass and had a powerful light fixed to the front of the train. The lanterns, train light, and the light spilling from the windows beyond the engine is the only lighting for the scene, and as the train approaches, the harsh white level of the train bathes the masked bandits in ethereal light. It’s a masterful scene, and it’s one of the most indelible images in the film.

Deakins is famous for using a large array of lights affixed to an octagonal frame to bathe large areas in his preferred diffusion of light. But the main recurring visual motif in The Assassination of Jesse James is the use of a different homemade tool to mimic something called lens aberration, the lack of uniform design in the lenses early filmmakers used. Using devices he coined “Deakinizers,” the effect causes a slight vignetting around the edge of the frame, echoing the photos of the late 19th century. In an interview with The American Society of Cinematographers, he describes his and director Andrew Dominik’s inspiration for this effect.

“Most of those shots were used for transitional moments, and the idea was to create the feeling of an old-time camera. We weren’t trying to be nostalgic, but we wanted those shots to be evocative. The idea sprang from an old photograph Andrew liked, and we did a lot of tests to mimic the look of the photo. Andrew had a whole lot of photographic references for the look of the movie, mainly the work of still photographers, but also images clipped from magazines, stills from ‘Days of Heaven,’ and even Polaroids taken on location that looked interesting or unusual. He hung all of them up in the long corridor of the production office. That was a wonderful idea, because every day we’d all pass by [images] that immediately conveyed the tone of the movie he wanted to make.”

Deakins’ photography in The Assassination of Jesse James evokes the very best the Western genre has to offer. His use of vignettes, time lapses, sweeping landscapes, and interiors bathed with reflected sunlight or flickering lantern or candlelight, grounds the film in the late western expansionist era of its antihero namesake. Like its quiet, contemplative narration, the cinematography is a hypnotic, beautifully rendered tribute to one of the oldest genres in American cinema.

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Actor of little renown, writer of none, jack of exactly three trades