For a producer of such lush and exquisite work, cinematographer Roger Deakins is often a man of select words. Thoughtful, yes, but never of a mind to over-think it.
Responsible for some of the most stunning images on film in our age — “Kundun,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” to barely scratch the surface — he shook the landscape of his field a bit two years ago when he went digital for Andrew Niccol’s “In Time.” And this year he’s back in the form with “Skyfall,” the first James Bond installment to eschew celluloid for the progression of digital filmmaking.
“Right now I don”t see a reason to go back and shoot film,” Deakins says. “And probably if I leave it much longer then I won”t have the opportunity, because it just won”t exist anyway.”
Indeed, Deakins’ switch came at a crucial crossroads in the industry. Kodak was on the way to being removed from the S&P 500 index (and facing imminent bankruptcy). Long-time champions of film, like Martin Scorsese, were reaching the end of their rope. An on-going debate on the benefits of celluloid vs. digital was erupting with marquee names in the world of film on both sides of the line.
For Deakins, though, as unexpected as the switch may have been from those on the outside looking in, it was an organic decision to adopt something that ultimately befits his work ethic.
“For me it”s not that much different,” he says. “I find that shooting digital seems to really work with the way I like to light. The learning curve was not that big, really. I mean obviously the processing side of it is slightly different. But once I start shooting I”m not really aware of the differences. And I felt I could play with things more in some of ‘Skyfall,’ because I could see with the optical viewfinder on set exactly what I was doing. It gave me more confidence to play, I think, than maybe if I was shooting film. It”s such a pressure on doing a big movie like that.”
And ultimately, he’s not overly romantic about the loss of film. He says if anything he’s a romanticist in the sense that it has its place in his own personal history, that he’s happy he had the opportunity to shoot something like “True Grit” on film. “But to say I couldn”t have done it digitally and would it have looked that much different,” he asks. “I don”t think so.”
He goes further, though. “I think digital is a better representation of reality than film,” he says. “That”s not to say I don”t love film. I love the look of film, but film isn”t quite as sensitive in terms of its color depth, the color contrast. You get more subtleties than you do with film.”
On a film like “Skyfall,” that would be of the utmost importance. Seven years ago Deakins stepped in as Sam Mendes’s new cinematographer of choice when legend Conrad L. Hall — who shot “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition” for the director — passed away. It was a daunting task to come aboard “Jarhead” and Deakins says he was very nervous about it. But “Skyfall” actually ended up calling back a bit to that experience.
“It was interesting because on ‘Jarhead’ we basically shot everything handheld,” he says. “And I like to operate, so that was a great opportunity for me to go back to sort of documentary days in a way. ‘Revolutionary Road’ was different because it was quite controlled and a different sort of camera style. But I think we took a lot from ‘Jarhead’ for ‘Skyfall.’ A lot of the action we shot handheld and a lot of that later part, that last sequence on the moors, we used a lot of the techniques and basically shot a lot of that scene the same way as the oil fields in ‘Jarhead.'”
He says he doesn’t remember a single conversation he may have had with Mendes about the overall look of the film because it’s something that develops throughout production with this particular collaboration. They would talk about the script and certain scenes, how they wanted London to be gray and rainy to contrast not only with the riveting opening sequence in Turkey but also with a jaw-dropping neon-lit Shanghai-set sequence in the second act. But there was no bogging down in discussing a visual signature. Again, he’s not one to over-think it.
Nevertheless, regarding that Shanghai sequence — which was as much a feat of art direction as it was photography, as it was shot on a soundstage and not on location — it’s sure to be a visually identifying element for viewers of the film after the fact. “We wanted this kind of blitz of color,” Deakins says. “Originally they were talking about shooting in Shanghai on a real location. And in talking to Dennis Gassner about it I said, ‘Well, I kind of like the idea of these big advertisements lighting the whole scene.’ And then we talked about the set and said, ‘Well, what if it was all glass, and it was all about reflections?’ So that kind of evolved.”
And you can expect something from that sequence to pop up on our annual Top 10 Shots of the Year column later in the season, I assure you.
The opportunity to work on a Bond film didn’t really click for Deakins as a cultural honor or anything. He wasn’t even aware of the 50th anniversary hype until closer to release, in fact. But when it did hit home, it resonated a bit for him, because the themes of the film and its place in the canon seems to be more significant than ever.
“There was a premiere in London the other day and that was like, ‘Wow. Oh, I realize. I”m glad I didn”t think of that while we were shooting because the pressure would have been a little bit too much.’ You know the idea of going back to England, to Britain, with Sam, and neither of us have actually worked in Britain on a film together. That was a very big pull.”
“Skyfall” opens nationwide on November 8.