Roger Deakins’ photographic language in film is like no other. The director of photography for the 50th Anniversary Bond film, Skyfall, earned his tenth Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. Unless you’re a film aficionado, the name may be unfamiliar to you. Surely many of you know his work. He’s shot 11 Coen brothers films, including No Country for Old Men and Fargo. Other films include The Shawshank Redemption, Revolutionary Road and A Beautiful Mind. Jarhead was his first collaboration with director Sam Mendes. They teamed a third time for the 23rd James Bond film.
On the heels of Golden Globes being handed out, we each have our sights set on our favorites in more visible categories: best picture, director, actor, etc. Skyfall delivers in great performances and direction, and recently earned a Golden Globe for Adele’s song of the same title. But weeks after I left the theater, I remain haunted by the most exquisite visual rush of cinematic expression. Deakins is due for that Oscar.
Only recently have I begun to familiarize myself with the lingo of this craft. When the technical language creeps in---this camera, or that specific lens---it becomes gobbledegook in my head. Cameras and I don’t seem to mix. I broke my last one and that was just a cheap Nikon.
As an artist, I get it. Concentration of line, composition, use of color and sensitivity to light are staples in the visual arts. When asked how I liked Skyfall, all I could think was gorgeous. It was what you expect from a Bond film. Actually, it was more than I expected. In fact, this was the first film where I really accepted Daniel Craig as Bond. Of course, that could be the script and directorial choices. Not sure. However, though we’re not always conscious of it, character is promoted in the photographic frame assisting or layering weight to the storyline. The visual temperament remains consistent with the franchise. It’s classic, sophisticated and sexy. Yet this action film is shot with such a seamless rhythm---that’s Deakins' mastery. A powerful energy reverberates in the traditional approach in which the film is shot. From the clean crisp lines of Tom Ford’s tailoring in Bond’s suit, to the sleek and sensuous curve of the Aston Martin, every element in the film is married on-screen with great execution.
The Shanghai fight scene is stellar. A futuristic setting of neon glints upon mirrored windows as Bond chases an assassin through a building. Savory and flashy, there’s a cool mood with use of cobalt blues seated in black. Elegant, metallic-framed windows imply a "reflection" to the emotional interior of Bond himself. Flares of Shanghai’s electric landscape counteract the clean outline of his body, whether dangling above stories of an elevator shaft or mounted, taking aim.
In Macau it’s sultry, and the temperature and gravity in plot rises. This is punctuated with a palette of rich golds, mandarins, red and black. The playful and delicate lighting of lanterns adorns a lake as a steady, slow-tracking camera teases us toward the danger ahead. Bond stands on a boat, nearing the dragon-mouth entrance of a floating casino and soon the introduction of femme fatale Bond girl Severine, portrayed by Berenice Marlohe. Severine’s dressed in a delicious “dragonesque” gown of of applied Swarovski crystal tattoos created by costume designer Jany Temime. It just keeps getting more stunning and I’m wishing I could hang every frame of this film on my walls at home. Even the CGI komodo dragons in a fight scene promote an elegant danger.
Javier Bardem is truly amazing in the role of vengeance-driven Silva. He takes creepy to a whole new level with this character. While hunting down Bond, we are transported to breathtaking shots in Scotland that command your attention. Here, introducing us to Bond's origins with tonal choices of warm greys and low blonde clouds, the photography translates a new emotional territory. Meet Bond’s ghost. Another captivating shot is the climactic explosion of citrus and gold as the robust frame of Silva almost suggests exhaust. All the while, your jaw is dropping from the action in the scene as well as the visual choreography.
Mendes stated in an interview, “We shot the movie primarily with one or two cameras, and we were very conscious of making it in a classical style, like a classic Bond movie.” Days after seeing Skyfall, I watched The Bourne Legacy (2012). I noticed the jumpy, jerky and relentless pace of many handheld cameras which made me feel I was being injured along the journey. Deakins chooses not to have the camera always moving just for the sake of moving. Rather, the camera is following the action.
“Shooting on a single camera to cover a scene is really a throwback to the way they used to do it in the ‘old days’ of Hollywood,” adds Bradley Battersby. Battersby is a film director and screenwriter, and also the head of the film department at Ringling College of Art + Design. “They’ve always shot stunts and action scenes with multiple cameras, because there’s only so many times you’re going to set a house on fire or blow up a yacht, or have a stunt guy risk his life,” he adds.
There’s also the practicality of time, not having to move one camera around, always repeating scenes. Battersby explains further, “From a cinematographer's point of view, shooting with multiple cameras compromises both the angle of the shot (because it has to avoid other cameras), as well as the lighting. From a director’s point of view, shooting with multiple cameras is difficult because they would rather concentrate their energies on just one actor and one angle at a time."
Many dynamics and techniques are always behind a work of art, whether it's a painting, great architecture or a film. Also, there’s a team of great artists behind it. We each have our own experience we take away from a film. Certainly we may individually have an investment that is unique to each and every one of us. It may be the performance, great writing or the musical score. Yet it’s that photographic language that stirs me as an artist, and I find myself with a greater appreciation for the craft of cinematography. If you’re a cinematographer, you can relax. I’ll keep my distance from the equipment. Here’s hoping on Feb. 24, Deakins gets the golden guy.
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