Oscar-Winning Cinematographer Couple James and Roger Deakins Came to DFW | Dallas Observer

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Cinematographers James and Roger Deakins Don't Care About Oscars, but Earned Them Anyway

Cinematographer Roger Deakins, left, helps introduce his Oscar-winning film Blade Runner 2049 on Sunday with his wife, James, and Dallas Film & Creative Industries Office Commissioner Tony Armor at the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins, left, helps introduce his Oscar-winning film Blade Runner 2049 on Sunday with his wife, James, and Dallas Film & Creative Industries Office Commissioner Tony Armor at the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff. Zach Huggins
Roger Deakins and his wife, James Deakins, the Oscar-winning cinematography couple behind such acclaimed films as the gritty border war drama Sicario, the dream-like utopia Blade Runner 2049 and the courageous World War I journey 1917, laugh when they look back on winning the awards.

"It's more terrifying," James says, "like, 'Oh God, I've got to give a speech.'"

They laugh because the award's value is attached by others, especially those who have never owned or even touched one. For them, the true value comes from the film and from those many people whose names may be seen for a few seconds onscreen in the closing credits.

"I don't know how to put this," Roger says of the accolades. "I'm not sure it had that much significance, other than I work with a lot of people or we work with a lot of people over the years. I think it means a lot to all those people, the crews we work with."

"It really is an honor that you share with the collaborators," James adds. "I had a million texts from the first assistant cameraman and the prop guy, everybody, and they shared in it and you just make sure you mention them in your speech."

The two came to Dallas last weekend as part of a special live event series with the Dallas Film & Creative Industries Office (aka, the Dallas Film Commission), which screened their films at places such as the Texas Theatre and presented live Q&As with aspiring filmmakers and artists at Southern Methodist University.

"We like meeting new people and talking to students," Roger says. "It's a nice thing we like doing. We like giving something back."

The Deakins' film collaborations go back by decades with filmmakers such as the Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, Angelina Jolie and Sam Mendes. These projects have earned them 16 Oscar nominations and back-to-back Oscars for Best Cinematography — for Blade Runner 2049 in 2018 and 1917 in 2019.

Of course, awards and accolades aren't a priority among their achievements. The work always comes first, because each new project is a chance "to do something that makes you feel more satisfied than the last time," Roger says.

And the end result isn't always so satisfying, but that's a motivator in itself, he says.

"At the end of the shoot, you might think, oh well, some things came off a bit better than you thought you could ...  thought they would be a particular challenge, but in general, every time you pick up the camera, it's a compromise," Roger says. "So at the end of the shoot, you never feel like you've got 100% or even 50% but if you got 50%, you're doing well from what you hoped to achieve and that's why you do it again."

One of the major challenges is seeing the first cuts of a film and realizing the shots they missed while they were filming, James says.

"The first time we see the cut of a movie, we are disappointed because we only see the things we didn't get to do, the compromises we had to make with the shots that are in there," she says. "Then about five years later if we happen to see it on the television, we'll look at it and go, 'I guess it's not that bad.'"

Even so, they've impressed many audiences with their extreme attention to detail and the challenges they've tackled. In 1917, for instance, the camera seems to follow Lance Corporal Schofield, played by George MacKay, in one, real-time, continuous shot as he braves a path across the front lines to deliver a message that carries the fate of hundreds of lives.

"Actually, [1917] was one of the easiest shoots because we spent so much time working out what the shot was and where we wanted the camera to be relative to the actors, and the sets were built with the shot in mind and then we practiced," Roger says. "We got the specific pieces of technology we needed to manipulate the camera in a certain way and we practiced it so much. We had the actors with us for a month or so, so we could practice these complete shots. The day of the shot, we were just waiting for the right light because we needed it to be cloudy."

"One of the bigger stretches was when [Roger] figured out what [he] wanted to see and then we had to figure out how to do it," James adds. "That was very stressful, and did we make a mistake? That part of the process was pretty hard."

The camera work doesn't stop for Roger when the director says "cut." Over the years, Roger has carried his own camera onto film sets and pretty much everywhere he goes, just as a hobby. During the pandemic, he and James started going through his photographs of natural landscapes, settings that often punctuate some of his most famous films.
Filmmakers James, middle, and Roger Deakins, right, talked with local filmmakers and fans during a weekend of live Q&As and screenings around Dallas.
Zach Huggins
"I've always taken photographs on and off all my life," Roger says. "Just during the pandemic, I was going through them and I thought I should be doing something with them. I shouldn't just put them online."

The couple published the photos in a book called BYWAYS that James says was just a natural extension of her husband's love for storytelling with powerful images.

"There's a difference in that a still frame tells the whole story in one frame while in motion pictures, there's a lot more going on," James says. "It's a good release for [him]."

The book also gives them time to travel on tours to meet the next generation of filmmakers and learn about the stories they want to share with audiences in film communities like Dallas.

"It seems very active and diverse," Roger says of North Texas.

"There seems to be a lot of passion, which is great," James says.

"It gives me hope that so many people are just trying to do their own thing," Roger adds. 
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.

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