Roger Deakins: 5 movie moments that highlight the cinematographer’s skill

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Much has been said about 10-time Academy Award nominee and best picture front-runner “1917,” especially when it comes to the technical achievements that bring the World War I drama to life. But no aspect of the film has been as publicized or discussed as its “one-shot” appearance. Writer-director Sam Mendes’ story of two young British soldiers traveling to deliver a message to a different troop is filmed to look as if it takes place in real time, in a single, continuous take.

This vision is brought to life by veteran cinematographer and 15-time Oscar contender Roger Deakins. While Deakins has only won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography once in his storied career, he seems poised to take home his second award for “1917” come Sunday night, especially with wins this awards season from both the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and the American Society of Cinematographers.

Regardless of whether or not Deakins takes home the prize for his mesmerizing camerawork in “1917,” a glance through his filmography makes it clear that he’s one of the greatest cinematographers of all time. There’s a reason why moments like the climactic running scene in “1917” are as effective as they are emotionally stirring; a large part of their impact is Deakins’ innovation and skill in visually highlighting places, themes and feelings.

Here’s a look back at some of the best moments of Deakins’ cinematic repertoire, all of which demonstrate his strength, creativity and versatility in his craft.

Car investigation from “Fargo” (1996)

In a film remembered for signature one-liners, quirky accents and one of the most interesting protagonists we’ve seen in a film about crime, “Fargo” quickly solidified itself as a major entry in the Coen brothers’ filmography. But it’s easy to forget how important Deakins’ cinematography was in creating the memorable northern Minnesotan setting — and one particular scene, in which a pregnant police Chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) investigates the scene of a flipped car while complaining about her morning sickness, is especially noteworthy. 

This scene combines sweeping shots of the stark-white snowy landscape on the highway with a constant focus on the characters, emphasizing their near-solitude in the area. With the inclusion of a corpse in the distance, the camera’s movement and framing not only establishes an iconic visual style, but also adds to the nonchalantly dark humor of the film as a whole. 

“Man of Constant Sorrow” performance from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000)

Considering that Deakins has been a longtime collaborator of the Coen brothers, it’s only fair to include a second entry from their partnership on this list. Music and the way it’s captured visually are intrinsic to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The film, which follows three convicts on their escapades as they hide from the law, features a number of scenes in which characters sing — the most important of these, of course, is the stage show near the film’s home stretch. From capturing the characters’ performances and movements onstage to interwoven shots featuring the audience’s interactions, this scene’s cartoonishness is highlighted by its exaggerated, off-kilter appearance.

Church sermon from “Doubt” (2008)

“Doubt” may be an actor’s film through and through, especially considering the four main actors in the film were nominated at the Academy Awards for their performances. But in one early scene, in which a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) delivers an unsettling sermon on the idea of “doubt” to a church full of young students, the slow movement of the camera emphasizes the eeriness of the moment as much as the performances it aims to highlight. The audience is meant to follow Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) through the chapel as she finds misbehaving children to scold. But these movements are juxtaposed with distant, slightly angled shots of Hoffman’s Father Flynn speaking into the crowd, placing the viewer directly in the space, and effectively creating a sense of unease.

Opening scene from “Skyfall” (2012)

“Skyfall,” Sam Mendes’ first addition to the James Bond franchise, was a game-changer. The film received near-universal praise for elevating the series to a more exciting, intellectual and ultimately darker arena than its predecessors. Deakins’ cinematography was instrumental in shaping the film, especially considering how much it alternates in its pacing — rapid and jarring in its action sequences and almost completely still in many of its dialogue-heavy scenes.

No Bond film has had a better opening. Like “1917,” it’s meant to feel as though it’s occurring in real time, but every character is shown from various angles at various moments and the camera notably plays with the audience’s preexisting connection with the central spy. As an action sequence on its own, it’s smooth and exciting, but as a setup to the rest of the film, it’s visual storytelling at its finest.

Luv’s attack from “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)

“Blade Runner 2049” rightfully won Deakins his first Academy Award for Best Cinematography. The original “Blade Runner” is notable for its exceptional world-building and iconic imagery, but “2049” is a visual masterpiece. Every scene in the film is haunting, stunning and distinct, and a number of moments could have gone on this list. But a scene in which protagonist Officer K (Ryan Gosling) finds Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) in an abandoned casino, and is soon attacked by a team of replicant enforcers, especially stands out.

Working with director Denis Villeneuve, whose command of color in his films has been repeatedly praised, Deakins’ use of lighting, shadows, and variety in each shot creates a distinct and harrowing visual style that comprises a solid portion of the film. The tension in this scene — as with much of the film — is unrelenting, and the film is all the more powerful because of it.

Anagha Komaragiri covers film. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @aaanaghaaa.