Master of Light: 'Blade Runner 2049' DP Roger Deakins looks back on a storied career

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Internationally revered cinematographer Roger Deakins has a resume spanning 42 years and 13 Oscar nominations. “It amazes me if I think about when I was a kid and starting out,” states Deakins, who grew up with ambitions to become a painter. “My dad had a 16mm projector and you could rent cartoons so we would watch Felix the Cat cartoons at night in the loft of our house. Those were the first movies that I ever saw.”

A local film club in Torquay, England enabled the teenager to go beyond the regular cinema and see a lot of European movies, his favorites being Army of Shadows (1969) and Ivan’s Childhood (1962). “Those films are more than the sum of their parts. The images have a resonance that go beyond the words on a page.”

An unexpected opportunity presented itself to the art college student. “If the National Film School hadn’t just been opening and a friend of mine hadn’t been applying to go there, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into films.”

The shift towards dramatized storytelling for Deakins stemmed from classmate Michael Radford asking him to join him on a particular project. “I worked with Mike shooting some documentaries for an arts program and we did a film called Another Time, Another Place [1983] together. Then we had the opportunity to do Nineteen Eighty-Four [1984]. It was Richard Burton’s last film, so to have the opportunity on my third or fourth feature to work with him and John Hurt was wonderful. It was quite a responsibility to do justice to that novel and the film did. Mike was specific and dedicated to bringing out what that novel is about, which is the oppression of truth through devaluing language.”

When Barry Sonnenfeld decided to pursue directing, Joel and Ethan Coen needed a new cinematographer, resulting in Deakins collaborating with the prolific siblings 12 times, including on No Country for Old Men (2007). “The biggest challenge was Josh Brolin’s escape from the drug bust site, then swimming down the river and having the dog chase him. It was an extended sequence which was all supposed to happen in this short period of early dawn. I walked it out and found locations on this river and valley. I staked out every shot that we needed to make that sequence and timed exactly when to shoot. We would be doing a shot between 5:30 a.m. and six a.m. Another one between six a.m. and 6:30 a.m. Other locations worked better in the evening, so we did shots at dusk or dawn. It’s like a jigsaw making up a sequence like that. You need to do a lot of prep to make it work and to get the right light.”

“The first film I did with Sam Mendes was Jarhead [2005],” recalls Deakins. “I was stepping into the shoes of Conrad Hall. I was terrified.” No storyboards were utilized. “Sam wanted everything to be spontaneous. That was not at all what I was expecting. We shot the whole film handheld and hardly rehearsed. Coming from documentaries, that was a great way to work for me.”

Skyfall (2012) was an entirely different experience for the cinematic duo. “We even did a pre-vis animation of the whole seven-minute opening sequence to make sure it was going to work and to break down how it was going to be shot.”

Mother Nature played havoc with the James Bond picture. “We were going to do the interior of the Chinese casino on a film back lot in Shanghai, but then there was this storm that blew down part of the big standing set. In the end, we decided to cut our losses and shoot everything onstage at Pinewood.”

Introducing Denis Villeneuve at an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences soirée was the first time Deakins met his creative partner on Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015) and the highly anticipated sequel Blade Runner 2049, opening Oct. 6 from Warner Bros. Harrison Ford reprises his signature role of Rick Deckard, a government-sanctioned assassin of replicants, alongside new characters portrayed by Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks and Dave Bautista.

“I know that there are certain connections with Blade Runner [1982] because one of the main characters follows over and some of the story points, but this is a different film that stands on its own,” Deakins asserts. “By the time we got to shoot, every sequence had been storyboarded. It’s a way Denis can visually go through a script. We talk about different sequences, sets and even whether dialogue is needed. Storyboards are good for figuring out transitions between scenes, but you should never be locked to them. If you’re doing the blocking on the day with actors and it becomes something different, then you need to be open to that spontaneity.”

Distinct lighting patterns were produced by Deakins for the numerous sets. “I could have lit them all with a couple of lamps and bounced them off the ceiling; however, it was a great opportunity for me to play and create various worlds for these different situations. We were hardly on a set for more than a day or two at a time, so we were constantly leapfrogging from one to another. There were quite a lot of rigging and lighting challenges, to say the least.”

The specific nature of the on-set lighting needed to be digitally duplicated. “There’s this one particular character played by Jared Leto and I wanted his interior world to be lit by moving sunlight. There were a couple of big wide shots where we shot the actors as an insert into the much larger space. I had the art department build me that space in a model form which was about five to six feet high; I lit that with a moving sunlight effect, so when John Nelson and his visual-effects team were doing their work they had it as a reference.”

Internet imagery of Beijing at dusk engulfed in a grey smog was a key visual reference for the exterior environments. “Denis wanted this really choking atmosphere where it’s raining and snowing all of the time,” explains Deakins. “I did this film called House of Sand and Fog [2003] and we had used misters onstage to create a real fog, so I suggested that to special-effects supervisor Gerd Nefzer. There’s a scene on a rooftop at night, for instance, and we literally filled the stage with this fog. There are a couple of other scenes that take place in a red dust cloud and we did the same thing. The reason why I did that is because if you try to do it in an exterior environment, you’ve got the wind, clouds and the angle of the sun. It could be a mess.”

Deakins recalls, “We did scout London early on in prep but couldn’t find any studio space available in England, so then Budapest became the place to go and it made financial sense. We found locations there because we needed to, but there were some great locations available, like this old Soviet power station that was amazing.”

Aerial-unit director of photography Dylan Goss utilized a helicopter while some drone work was overseen by second-unit director of photography Pierre Gill. “When it came to these landscapes and cityscapes that we needed, Denis was adamant that we shoot real places even if it was just as a basis. We shot Mexico City in smog with some great light and there’s obviously CG work on top of it, but that was a great reference. Then we shot in the desert in California, a solar farm and some agricultural areas in Spain, and landscapes in Iceland.”

Rather than using multiple cameras, Roger Deakins composed the images with a single ALEXA XT open gate, with the 3.4K resolution being upgraded to a 4K DCP. “I like the Arriflex Master Prime lenses. We went everything from a 16mm to 100mm. Most of the range we were shooting in was 27, 32, 35, and 40mm.” Blade Runner 2049 will be released in the 2.40:1 widescreen format.

“Most of my time spent in the DI [digital intermediate] was trying to make everything fit together a bit better than it might have done. We shot an extended sequence partly on the back lot in Budapest where the weather and lighting conditions changed. Then we did a long sequence at night on this water tank that we had built. A bottom section of a seawall was constructed. A lot of that needed some finessing in the DI, but not in terms of color. It was just a matter of matching things in.”

Deakins is overseeing the 3D conversion of the project that he began in late September 2015. “I just hope that it all fits together and nothing jumps out. That’s what it’s all about. You want to create something that is like a seamless picture of another place and time.”