When it comes to Hollywood superstars, rarely does one originate from behind the camera. Oftentimes, when we think of non-actor superstars, we imagine directors like Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese, writers like Quentin Tarantino or Greta Gerwig, or composers like Hans Zimmer or Randy Newman. Out of the hundreds of crew members on set, the director of photography will barely pull a large crowd.
However, if there were one cinematographer throughout the history of Hollywood who has developed a superstar-like following, most would point to accomplished cameraman Roger Deakins.
Throughout his career, Deakins has nurtured creative partnerships with directors he has a personal affinity for, collaborating with Denis Villeneuve three times, with Sam Mendes five times, and with the Coen Brothers twelve times. He has a whopping sixteen Academy Award nominations, taking home the statue twice for his work on Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Mendes’ 1917 (2019).
Having worked with directors such as David Mamet, Wayne Wang, Martin Scorsese, Edward Zwick, Angelina Jolie, Ron Howard, and M. Night Shyamalan, Deakins boasts a filmography that includes classics such as The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Kundun (1997), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and… Rango?
Despite an illustrious career shooting live-action films, Deakins also has a touted stint in animation. After helping popularize the advent of photorealism found in animation today (see: Toy Story 4), we believe it’s time for Deakins to revisit the animated space to bring us something new and inventive while expanding on work from his recent past.
Roger’s History in Animation
Part of Roger Deakins’ apparent stardom is linked to a podcast he and his wife, James, produce and host together. Team Deakins offers audiences an inside look into the world of filmmaking while giving insight into Roger and James’ experiences working on particular projects.
Early in the podcast’s existence, Roger and James spent three episodes discussing their experience working in animation, namely as a consultant on Wall-E (2008), How To Train Your Dragon (2010), and Rango (2011).
Roger talks about how he had an “audition” where he taught Pixar animators about lighting concepts. This grew into a more formal working relationship as director Andrew Stanton hoped to design the dystopian Earth portraits as more lifelike. Jim Hill from Huffpost writes, “[Stanton] wanted the first act of this film to look realer than any of Pixar’s prior pictures.”
The folks at DreamWorks hoped for similar aspirations, as they employed Deakins as a consultant on their Dragon series. This would eventually evolve into a collaborative experience, with Deakins working on multiple pictures for the studio, including Puss in Boots (2011), Rise of the Guardians (2012), and The Croods (2013).
However, Deakins’ fingerprints are most evidently felt in Gore Verbinski’s Rango (2011), where he had more of a hands-on approach when creating the film’s distinct visual style. Together with Verbinski and the animators at Industrial Light & Magic, Deakins crafted a look which emulated classic Westerns from directors such as John Ford, John Sturges, and Sergio Leone while presumably pulling from his work on No Country For Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010).
After delving into the world of animation, Deakins single-handedly changed the landscape of animated design as studios opted for more photorealism within their films. This ultimately hit the fan in 2019 when Disney released a “live-action” remake of the 1994 animated classic The Lion King. With the film being fully computer generated, it opened questions about where the future of animation is headed and what audiences can expect from animation studios moving forward.
The Future of Animation
The bigger question that should be asked is: When will Roger Deakins get back into animation?
Deakins himself criticizes the photorealism found in today’s animated films, citing the updated The Lion King as reasons against it. But it’s obvious that animation has taken a drastic turn away from the style of photorealism towards more expressive and surreal visual styles.
Phil Lord & Christopher Miller changed the game with films like The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021) and the Spider-Verse movies. DreamWorks and Nickelodeon followed suit with Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023), respectively.
The cinematographer is also very aware of the changes in technology when considering live-action films. In a recent podcast episode with fellow director of photography Greig Fraser, Roger and James discuss the pros and cons of shooting on the Volume LED wall and how this will serve as a potential alternative to the blue screen productions of Marvel and Disney. Roger also recalls using animation to bandage a few sequences in 1917 and Skyfall, which saved production money on reshoots. According to NoFilmSchool, “[Deakins] believes that animation and live-action will merge in the future.”
This leaves us with a burning question… With the recent developments in animated visual style combined with the advancements in SFX technology, will there be an opportunity in the near future for Roger Deakins to deliver a one-of-a-kind animated feature film?