Road To Oscar Epilogue Features del Toro, Deakins, Desplat
Roger Deakins accepts the award for best cinematography for "Blade Runner 2049" at the Oscars on Sunday, March 4, 2018, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Insights from a lauded director, composer, and a cinematographer who broke into the winners’ circle on his 14th nomination
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Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, received a standing ovation when he came on stage this past Sunday (3/4) to accept the Best Cinematography Oscar for Blade Runner 2049 (Warner Bros.). The tribute from the industry audience was not just for his work on that film but recognition for a heralded artist who had never won an Academy Award before despite 13 previous nominations spanning such movies as Sicario, Skyfall, True Grit, Fargo, No Country for Old Men and The Shawshank Redemption. His 14th career nomination finally proved to be the charm.

Deakins’ cinematography has long been celebrated by his cinematography colleagues and beyond. In brief acceptance remarks, he shared, “I really love my job. I’ve been doing it a long time, as you can see. But one of the reasons I love it is the people I work with” in front of and behind the camera.

In its awards season coverage, SHOOT caught up with Deakins shortly after he had garnered both ASC Award and Oscar nominations for Blade Runner 2049. Back then, he noted that Blade Runner 2049 marked his third collaboration with director Denis Villeneuve—all of which have earned ASC Award nominations, the first two being Prisoners and Sicario. (Deakins wound up winning the ASC Award this year, marking the fourth time he’s received that honor in his illustrious career.)

Deakins said of Villeneuve, “We just hit it off right out of the gate on Prisoners—and it’s continued since then. When you meet and work closely with a director, some you get on with better than others. Denis and I have similar kinds of feelings about filming and style, trying to make something true to the story.”

Blade Runner 2049 posed its own unique challenges, with a seemingly simple “goal” proving to be easier said than done, Deakins told SHOOT. “We were adamant about everything we shot outside had to be in gray light. Both Denis and I wanted this very kind of smoggy, foggy, gray, claustrophobic atmosphere for the film. Something simple like shooting an exterior scene on the backlot, though, became more challenging as we had to hold out for gray light. It’s easy to want, but hard to schedule.”

Taking some of the difficulty out of realizing the filmmaker’s vision, continued Deakins, was the meticulous mapping out of that vision through the painstaking task of storyboarding the whole movie. “Denis is very minimalistic as am I. We spent a long time in Montreal thinking of specific ways to shoot each scene,” said Deakins. “Of course, things change on set, scenes evolve. But we had storyboards drawn out going into the shoot. It kept us in touch with the original vision.”

After much research, Deakins again gravitated to the Alexa XT as his camera of choice for Blade Runner 2049. He also returned to another long-time lens ally, Zeiss Master Primes. Deakins described the Alexa XT as “a user-friendly camera. I operate myself so that’s important. I also like the camera system because the images it produces are as close to what I see by my eye.”

The Zeiss Master Primes, were chosen simply because they are “about the fastest, sharpest lenses around,” assessed Deakins. “They’re sharp and clear, with less flare in them from light sources.”

Regarding whether he was influenced by the original iconic Blade Runner—directed by Ridley Scott and shot by the late, great Jordan Cronenweth, ASC—Deakins said, “I’m very aware of the original Blade Runner. I’ve seen it a number of times. But I don’t think you can go the way of being influenced by that. I work differently, have a different sensibility than another artist. I didn’t want to be inspired by the original Blade Runner. I instead took the script for 2049 as if it were any other script and approached it from there.”

That approach entailed Deakins being involved in the process—extensive pre-pro, production and post—for “a very long time. I was involved in visual effects all the way through. It was absolutely crucial for Denis that we do as much as we could in camera and that the effects wouldn’t look like effects so that the audience could get fully immersed in this world.”

Guillermo del Toro, Alexandre Desplat
In our Road To Oscar coverage, we talked to several artisans who went on to become nominees and then Academy Award winners, among them Best Director Guillermo del Toro and composer Alexandre Desplat who earned Best Original Score distinction for The Shape of Water (Fox Searchlight), which also took Oscars for Best Picture and Production Design (for production designer Paul Denham Austerberry and set decorators Shane Vieau and Jeff Melvin).

In our Part 14 installment of The Road To Oscar last month, right after he won the DGA Award, del Toro observed that directing entails such prime responsibilities as creating worlds and deftly dealing with the unexpected happenings that invariably come up during filmmaking. He likes to call the latter “orchestrating the accidents,” citing the adage, “the obstacle is the path.” 

The director shared that there were “at least two major crises” every day on The Shape of Water. How a director and his team deal with these crises is crucial, he affirmed.

Those unexpected occurrences or crises are both the best and worst parts of being a director, continued del Toro. Out of the unexpected can come something positive and beautiful. It’s akin, he said, to the sound barrier. It’s a challenge but “once you break through,” you can find “the true art.”

Most importantly, though, asserted del Toro, is thorough preparation. “When you prepare, an accident is benign.” But if a director isn’t properly prepared, an accident can turn opportunity into “disaster.”

In his preparation for The Shape of Water, del Toro knew he wanted to adopt a “dry for wet” approach to certain underwater sequences, which had cinematographer Dan Laustsen, DFF, using smoke, wind machines and projection to create a dripping, pulsating feel contributing to the illusion of water. This enabled the actors to perform with their eyes open, tapping into their facial expressions, serving to heighten feelings of both romance and mystery.

Del Toro said he knew dry for wet would work, having successfully deployed it in the feature Hellboy. The difference this time around with The Shape of Water, explained del Toro, was that the dry for wet technique had to yield a “painterly” feel.

As for the feel a director must have, del Toro related that “the set is a living thing” and a filmmaker has to serve in many capacities. In that vein, del Toro said he’s “good at comforting” and “confrontation” depending on whatever the situation calls for.

Part 8 of this season’s The Road To Oscar series of feature stories included insights from Desplat.

A relationship between mutes, steeped in a rich emotional silence, represents an opportunity for music to take on an essential role. “With a character [Elisa portrayed by Best Leading Actress Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins] who doesn’t speak, you have more space,” related Desplat. “You can expand the sound more and say things with many different colors in the instruments. In a way you can be more talkative musically.”

Entering the project, Desplat recalled that when he saw a cut of the film for the first time, he was “in total awe over the beauty of it, the pure emotion that Guillermo had put into it. There are some things you watch and they have found a balance, with everything in the right place--like a piece of music where all the chords and melodies, the structure is just right. That’s what I saw in Guillermo’s film. So I had a lot to live up to in trying to score it. How can we have the audience feel the love between two characters who don’t speak? How do we do that without being too romantic, sugary or over the top? How can the sound be warm and tender? We ended up being influenced by the sound of water. The water is warm, tropical, the music needed to convey that sensation of warmth, longing desire, comparative to swimming in warm water. Water opens the film and ends the film. Water is present throughout the story. Music needed to get into that flow.”

“Flow” is an apt description in another respect, explained Desplat. “The camera was always in motion in this film. It never stops. It is always in motion, flowing, which is extremely musical.”

For the hybrid creature’s musical theme, flutes dominate as del Toro observed that the character is about breath--oxygen or the lack thereof. Thus the writer/director felt flutes seemed to best depict the creature, a choice which Desplat embraced, relating, “I suggested we change the lineup of the orchestra to have 12 flutes--alto flutes, bass flutes and C flutes--but no clarinets, no bassoons, no oboes. There’s very little brass, only in a few cues so it’s really the strings and the flutes that bring the qualities of fluidity and transparency that water has. We added to that some piano, harp and vibraphone, instruments that have a pearl-like quality.”


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