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The Cinematographer's Job Is Not to Create Amazing Images: Roger Deakins on Shooting Sicario
With the latest film to feature Roger Deakins behind the camera making its way through theaters, the legendary cinematographer recently sat down with Variety to provide some insight into how he shot it.
There are a few really useful tidbits of cinematography knowledge in this piece, as there always seem to be whenever Deakins gives an interview. Perhaps the biggest one here is his aversion to creating amazing images simply for the sake of creating amazing images. Of course, many of us who aspire to work in feature film cinematography are driven to create beautiful images that are infused with meaning. That kind of ethos just comes with the territory. However, it's important to remember that the job isn't necessarily about creating beautiful images, so much as it's about creating images that are in service of a larger purpose.
The idea behind this is that amazing, stunning, gorgeous images aren't always the best choice to support a particular script and its characters. If an image is so beautiful that it distracts the audience and pulls them from the story, then the cinematographer has failed to do their job, even despite creating a fantastic image. The same goes for images of poor quality. If they don't serve the story and they distract the audience, the cinematographer has failed. Ultimately, it's all about striking a balance between aesthetics and function.
Another fascinating tidbit from this interview is the insight into how Deakins' documentary background has deeply influenced the way he shoots narrative features. In essence, it's all about being able to shoot what you find, capturing everything in the most engaging way possible. Having an adaptive mindset helps to make you flexible on set, and it allows you go with the flow, adapting to the many challenges and hurdles of production.
Last but not least, Deakins talks about his approach to working with A-list actors (there are quite a few of them in Sicario). As you might expect, his approach doesn't change. Whichever way he feels a scene needs to be shot — based on his conversations with the director and his extensive pre-production work — is how he shoots the scene, regardless of the star-power of the actors. Apparently, as he mentions in the video, this non-preferential treatment may have gotten him in hot water once or twice throughout his career.
Here's a quick video with the stars of Sicario sharing their thoughts on working with Deakins.
Nov 24 16 6:52 PM
Sophisticated storytelling like that found in Sicario requires a sophisticated understanding of story. One can't rely on the idea that the central character of a narrative is also the one responsible for driving it forward. It certainly makes it easier on the writer to set the story up that way—but it is by no means an absolute requirement.
Screenwriter Jim Barker addresses this separation of Main Character and Protagonist in his excellent article Going deep inside the underbelly of Sicario:
One of the things immediately apparent with Sicario is its exemplary structure whereas the main character is separated from the typical protagonist function…the main character serves as the perspective the audience sees the story through whereas the protagonist drives the plot – a concept many still seem in the dark about. Here the audience identifies strongly with Kate because we know just as much as she does, when she does, as the truth is slowly revealed. We are in her shoes and experience the story vicariously through her vantage point as part of the story’s design.
The idea that the alternative perspective to Kate's comes from both Alejandro and Matt is an interesting one; in my analysis I had seen Matt Graber (Josh Brolin) as more of an objective character (perhaps Contagonist) and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) as more of the emotional counterpart to Kate. I feel like Matt plays more into Kate's personal issues and Throughline, rather than offering an emotionally significant perspective for her to consider…but I can see how there could be a handoff of persepctives from Alejandro to Matt when the hitman is out on his mission.
That is the beauty of understanding story through the Dramatica lens: the meaning of the storyform is more important than any strict rule of structure. The Influence Character perspective is simply that—a perspective—and as long as that perspective comes from the same point-of-view and challenges the Main Character to change their ways…well then, it functions appropriately within the Author's argument.
Whether simply Alejandro or a combination of Alejandro and Matt, the argument—and storyform—remains the same and carries the same emotional impact.
In addition to creating conflict on multiple levels, great storytelling is also able to present an argument and persuade its audience, challenging them to change their own beliefs over the course of its unfolding. In Sicario, we’re thrust into Kate’s perspective and are asked to see things as she does – more so because most of us share the same values and beliefs in the rule of law and a just system. It’s through her that the author presents their moral argument along with a separate viewpoint that is, more or less, diametrically opposed (a concept previously discussed here). The more details that come to light, the more we question our own beliefs and values as seen through Kate.
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An FBI field agent is seconded to a special unit tasked with taking the fight to the South American drug cartels and finds their approach more resembles a declaration of war than police work.
Narcos meets Zero Dark Thirty in this uncompromising cop thriller that is less shades of grey than shades of black. In fact, the line between right and wrong is so muddied throughout the story that it makes The Shield looks like T. J. Hooker. But Emily Blunt – giving a fine portrayal of a good cop who is in way over her head – provides a strong central character which thankfully grounds the story, preventing it from becoming obnoxiously over-violent and amoral. The action sequences are tense rather than spectacular which suits the grittiness of the story perfectly and a lean, mean Benicio Del Toro is typically intense as the enigmatic “special adviser”.
There is little here in the way of content that you won’t have seen before, but the brutally straight-edged approach and strong female protagonist mark Sicario out from the crowd.
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Jan 26 17 3:48 PM
Lellaben, your 'Sherlock Holmes' talents are amazing - where do you find all this amazing material?
A million thanks!
Jan 26 17 6:12 PM
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