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Roger Deakins Is Bullish on the Future of Digital Cinematography

Where Janusz Kaminski was concerned about losing himself, Deakins is ever the pragmatist.
True Grit
By  · Published on May 17th, 2018

Cinematography is an ever-evolving art. At the most basic, the cinematographer is an artist of light and shadow. However, in the last century, the tools which allow these professionals and artists to capture the light have been constantly changing. From film reels and glass to digital sensor plates which capture everything.

Digital cinematography has been a bit of a sea change for the profession. The new tools have certainly brought more cooks into the kitchen. After all, if much of what is captured can be changed in post, then quite suddenly the post-production team has a much larger ability to influence the in-camera contribution of the cinematographer.

Roger Deakins, (finally) an Oscar-winning DP, recently gave an interview with IBC365, talking about his career and the evolution of the tools of the trade. What did he have to say about the demise of film? “I love film… but things move on.”

Deakins comes across as very much the pragmatist. The job is the job, and the tools are the tools. Still, for an avid painter and still-photographer, I imagine that love and loss is a bit more affecting than he lets on.

A month ago, I talked a bit about some remarks from Janusz Kaminski, two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer, at the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) regarding his outlook on the future of digital tools and his profession. While not particularly positive, it wasn’t exactly a lamentation.

Kaminski puts himself into his work. If you watch a movie he shot, then you are seeing bits and pieces of himself. He pulls his own ideas for painting a scene with light from his emotional, creative attachment to the project. The maestro argues that DPs should passionately embrace the artistic conversation from the outset.

This philosophy bears out in his approach to filmmaking. After all, he is a close, regular collaborator with Steven Spielberg. While they don’t always see eye to eye on choices, they each value the other’s personal aesthetics as a way to make the whole of their films stronger.

Deakins takes more of a workman’s approach to getting the job done. While digital hasn’t exactly changed his approach to shooting, he’s been pleased with value elsewhere in the shift. “It’s a bit more reassuring seeing the image you are shooting on-set and knowing what it is you recorded rather than receiving it from the lab the next morning, but the mechanics of working with a camera and a lens haven’t changed. You are still working with light and camera movement to give the audience a perspective on the story.”

I certainly don’t mean to cast this as a sort of Cinematographers Showdown between Deakins and Kaminski. I am certain they both have more nuanced opinions. I am also certain Deakins’ continuing relationship with the Coen Brothers functions similarly to Kaminski and Spielberg’s. Regardless, the contrast makes for heady insights to the personal philosophies of some of the profession’s luminaries.

They do seem quite different in one way. Deakins also sees cinematographers as a sort of doula when it comes to the director’s vision. “We are storytelling. I help directors to tell the story they want in visual imagery.”

I wonder if that approach makes the transition to digital photography less of a concern for Deakins. Kaminski sees himself as a co-creator of the story they are telling. The visual is a co-equal element largely in the DP’s domain. For Deakins, the goal is giving light to the director’s story. It’s important that he does his job to the best of his ability, but that also means having a wide range of tools.

In the IBC365 interview, Deakins even shares his surprise that they even still use cameras with lenses. Everything a cinematographer used to do in-camera can be manipulated and changed in post.

Deakins eschewed 3D storytelling (#GoTeamNo3D) and immersive technology. At the end of the day, he considers himself a purist in one regard. “I like cinema to be like seeing a picture on a wall as if you walked into a gallery and saw an Edvard Munch painting coming alive.”

Jesse Blocks Train

In that way, he’s as positive on the future of animated film as he is anything else. “An animated film is created in a computer by placing a virtual camera anywhere you want and putting a light anywhere you want. It can be as photoreal as you want it to be. I feel that this kind of animated production will merge and blend with live action at some point.”

In fact, we’ve seen that kind of progression already. Gareth Edwards and cinematographer Greig Fraser tackled something like that in 2016’s Rogue One. FSR’s own Neil Miller sat down with them back in 2016 to talk about the development of that virtual camera system. The technology that Deakins is anticipating becoming more widespread is very similar to what the Rogue One team used to shoot space battles.

In years gone by, his tools were reels and reels of film to record light filtered through highly specialized glass. And they’ve been largely relegated to a sort of niche aesthetic. For example, Quentin Tarantino and his cinematographer Robert Richardson shot The Hateful Eight on 70mm film with a great, big Ultra Panavision 70 camera. Or, in the case of Rogue One, it was the old married with the new. That team took Ultra Panavision 70 glass and attached them to the Arri Alexa 65, the 6k Large Format camera.


For all the available tools and keeping abreast of the technological evolution of his art, Deakins still sees an importance in the role of the cinematographer. He’s got a particular vision. While he seems to try to keep his own ego out of the conversation when it comes to making a film, there’s no question he has a style of his own.

For a look at that style, check out these thirty-five perfect shots.

“You spend your life trying to figure out how you see things. You are interpreting what is in front of you. An image is your own in some way. It’s a discovery.”

So, at the end not so different from Kaminski. Where will Deakins go in the future? Let’s get him on a Star Wars film, stat. I would very much like to see his epic space battles.

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Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.