By Arun Fulara. Posted on October 17, 2015
Roger Deakins is a cinematographers cinematographer & up there with the all time greats. An absolutely amazing body of work that includes nearly a dozen classic including the Shawshank Redemption, A Beautiful Mind, Kundun, Revolutionary Road, Prisoners and almost every Coen Brothers film since Fargo. His latest film Sicario is playing in theaters now.
Few know that he's also probably the most easily accessible of leading cinematographers to seek advice from. He runs a forum where he and his fellow cinematographers engage in & answer queries from almost anyone. We regularly follow the forum and have carried little pieces of wisdom from the forum before. Any filmmaker interested in learning more about the craft of cinematography should absolutely check it out.
And if you have a query then don't hesitate to put it out there. Who knows, he might answer it, like he did to this film student who sent a list of 50 questions to him and got a prompt response. While some of the questions are on how he prepares and works, there are other questions that are more specific to a few of the scenes shot by Deakins. The answers are crisp and clear. Like Deakins mentions in the end, cinematography is instinctive and a lot of it is what happens on the sets on the day, hence most things cannot be explained simply in a line or two.
Nonetheless, there is immense value in these answers and gives an insight into how one of the leading DOP's of all time, works.
Firstly, I read a script and then meet with the director to hear his ideas about the script.
I usually have ideas in my head about the look of any film but I really want to hear what a director has to say before I will develop any thoughts in more detail.
That all depends on the project. It might involve some historical research. Generally I will sort through a sequence of images that I think relate to the visuals. Nothing that is necessarily used as a hard reference but something to start the dialogue.
I don't think lighting is always about 'what is real'. You are creating a world that is not strictly 'real' but will, in context, feel real to an audience. The lighting in 'The Third Man', for instance, was in no way 'real'. But everything depends on the project and the specific scene within that project, maybe on the individual shot.
That also depends on the project and the director's way of working. Sometimes pre production will involve some story boarding, even a lot of story boarding, sometimes none. Sometimes there might be full blocking rehearsals with the actors before the shoot even starts. That is rare but it does happen. Sometimes a director will want to wait and only decide on the staging and a breakdown of shots when/she has the actors on set on the day of the shoot. Best to say that the relationship evolves as each, both individually and together, develops a greater understanding of the script, each scene, the locations and the sets.
Planning. I will usually do fairly precise diagrams of the lighting I want for any set. Then there will be a rigging crew which sets the lights in place and usually some kind of pre-light time when I will see how the set up is working.
I would never knowingly create a look if I did not think it served the director's 'vision'. But by the time I start lighting the general look of the picture will have been discussed and so I feel free to do what I do.
Power supply etc. is left to the Gaffer, who may do his own set of detailed plans. My own plans are more or less detailed and specific depending on the location or set involved. I will stipulate specific lamps and the numbers I expect to be used, the distances and positions of these lamps and the gels required for them.
That varies depending on the work. For a big set it might require many hours of discussions and continual visits to that set as the work progresses. For something more simple I might leave everything to the day of the shoot.
Absolutely. A gaffer or a key grip, a 1st assistant or a dolly grip will always bring ideas and different options to their work.
I rarely change anything that I have prepared beforehand in any drastic way but, obviously, things do change on the day of the shoot in a general way and also from a shot to shot point of view.
Find a solution.
You should ask them. I like to work with a team that are technically competent but also completely in love with what they do.
? Depends on the shoot. Exhausted usually!
I always grade every shot in the picture. A director will come and see an initial grade, make their comments and then return when I have overseen the final grading.
No routine. Depends where i am and what I am doing next. In the past I have often gone from one film straight on to another.
If my answers are helpful then why not? If they are not helpful then nothing lost.
Here is specific questions about specific films and scenes for the analysis part :
(I only need a one sentence answer for these questions.)
The first extract is from BARTON FINK, the first meeting between Charly and Barton on the hotel room doorstep.
I met with Joel and Ethan in London. I had read the script and I loved their previous work. We seemed to get on well and that was it.
I had no concerns.
Both Joel and Ethan are incredibly focused. They know in great detail the film they want to make.
That is difficult. I believe I had 5 weeks of prep for the film, which included many days working with Joel and Ethan on storyboards for the entire film. Then there was much time spent discussing sets and finding locations. The specific scene you ask about was shot on a set and that involved a few days of pre-rigging and lighting.
I make diagrams as soon as a location or set has been locked down. These will change and be finessed as we get nearer to shooting. On some films this work is done whilst in the middle of the shooting schedule, so I may continue making diagrams right up until the last few weeks of production.
I will test film stocks and I will test a digital cameras response to exposure variations. I may shoot specific lighting 'tests' depending on the project but I will rarely have the chance to test the lighting on a set before a shoot.
I always have a great team and those on 'Barton Fink' were excellent. The dolly grip I met on that film is still working with me today. What is that? 26 years later.
I can't think of what that might have been. The set needed to be lit beforehand and then we finessed the lighting of each shot on the day of the shoot.
Long time ago since I have seen the film. I don't remember doing anything unexpected. The scene was story-boarded and was pretty simple to shoot.
That was shot on film so I was at the lab supervising the timing of the answer print.
I believe I left Los Angeles after 'Barton Fink' to go to Baltimore to shoot a film called 'Homicide' with David Mamet. I can't remember much time off between, perhaps back to the UK for a few weeks but I can't remember much about that time.
The second extract is from ROBERT FORD, The baking scene in the kitchen (the kitchen in daylight in general )
Great script and I was very pleased to be asked to work on that film.
I loved the screenplay. It reflected the poetic feeling of the book on which it was based.
A director who has a very specific film in his mind. Very visual and innovative.
The kitchen scene, if it is the one before Jesse is assassinated, was shot in a set built on location. We scouted that location on horseback. I remember this as I had never ridden a horse before. Shooting and lighting this location required quite a bit of thought and prep. Even a temporary road had to be built for access.
I made notes of what I would require to shoot on this set but no diagrams for this scene as the lamps were set on the first day of the shooting on this set. The cables had been laid, the generator was in place and the lights were on stands but we lit the scene on the day of the shoot.
No, I don't shoot those kind of tests. We shot all sorts of tests for that film but that was for specific lens effects rather than for lighting.
Hard to quantify. The crew can vary in number from set to set depending on the complexity of the work.
We were shooting in the fall and the main challenge was coping with the changing weather, with the inconsistency of the light and trying to make it consistent from shot to shot. One day we had snow on the ground and we had already shot part of a scene before that snowfall.
Nothing unexpected, as far as I know. A success? That's for you to say.
I spent about 4 weeks timing this film. I was shooting in Connecticut at the time the film was I post, on 'Revolutionary Road', so we had a DI facility set up close by so that I could work on '....Jesse James...' at the end of my shooting days. We then had a few days finessing the timing in LA when I had finished that shoot.
I really don't know. I probably went to a movie!
The final extract is from PRISONERS, The living room scene when Terrence Howard plays trumpet.
I had met Denis when he was nominated by the Academy for his film 'Incendies'. When I heard he was shooting a film in the US I asked to be considered.
I felt it could go either way. By that I mean it could have been a Gothic Horror film or it could have been the film that Denis wanted to make.
He is a visionary director just like Andrew Dominic.
The same as for the other scenes. There is a gradual process whereby you discuss the script, the scene, and search for the right location.
Probably, 2 weeks before shooting schedule began. we did not shoot this particular scene until a week or so into the schedule.
We shot digital for this film and the only tests I remember shooting were for make up and hair. I tested no lighting set-ups for the film.
As any, film you spend time scouting locations, you discuss the schedule and you discuss how to rig the sets and service the locations. I don't think there was any more detailed conversation about the scene in question that a short discussion of the lighting plan I had in mind.
The location was a room in a VERY small house. I was a challenge just to physically shoot there. It was also trick to hide the lights I needed for that work.
Nothing unexpected or that I hadn't done in some way before. Every set is a little different, so there is no formula, but I had hidden 'gags' behind practical lamps before and that is a trick I used here.
I was present for the timing of every shot of the film. I think my timer and I spent 14 days working on the timing of 'Prisoners'.
I really can't remember!
I hope this is of some help. Personally, I feel your questions are not ones I can be very specific about. Cinematography, whether composition, shot design or lighting, is far more instinctive than you seem to imply in your choice of questions.