Roger Deakins: The Academy’s Unluckiest Visionary Genius

Even before the release of Blade Runner 2049 last week, talk was building that cinematographer Roger Deakins was all but a shoe in for an Academy Award next year. Watching the film, the pre-release buzz was right on the money. Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most beautifully shot films of the 21st century so far, and Deakins put in some serious work to capture the world first introduced over three decades ago with the original Blade Runner.

Winning an Academy award next year would be a stunning cap on an eventful career, one that’s already found Deakins with 13 nominations for Best Cinematography. That’s 13 nominations, and 0 wins, mind you.

Going 0-13 is bad enough, but it’s made all the worse when you consider many of the 13 films Deakins was nominated for are among the best and best looking films made in the modern era. Unfortunately, nearly every nomination found Deakins going up against a work that was, objectively, always going to win.

It’s quite possibly the unluckiest streak in history, but no matter. Even without the Oscars taking up space on his shelves, Deakins has a body of work for which any artist would be proud. Maybe it’s true what the say, and that being nominated really is reward enough. Still, if you’re gonna lose, and it’s nice to know you lost to some other great films and brilliant artists. Any other year and Deakins would’ve won for sure. It seems as though he just has the absolute worst luck.


Nominated for: The Shawshank Redemption

Lost to: John Toll, Legends of the Fall

Deakins’s first Academy Award nomination found him going up against some huge names as well as some beautiful movies, including the legendary Owen Roizman (who had previously shot The Exorcist and The French Connection, and was nominated this year for Wyatt Earp). While everyone considered Don Burgess a shoe-in for his work on Forrest Gump (which took home Best Picture that year, an award that feels more and more like a mistake with every passing year), Deakins lost to John Toll for Legends of the Fall, a beautiful looking film in its own right. Still, Deakins’s loss here feels like another chapter in the criminal overlooking of The Shawshank Redemption done by the Academy that year. Frank Darabont is one of the few directors who have ever gotten Stephen King right, and Deakins’s work here was a large part of why the film worked (and continues to work) so well. Deakins managed to capture both the darkness of Andy Dufresne’s wrongful imprisonment and the lightness of hope that he never gave up during his ordeal. Nearly a quarter century after its release, the movie feels as timeless as it ever felt; it remains essential viewing for both fans and scholars to this day, as it most likely will for a long time coming.


Nominated for: Fargo

Lost to: John Seale, The English Patient

Deakins has a long history of collaboration with the Coen brothers, beginning in 1991 with Barton Fink. For his third outing with the Coens, Deakins pulled out all the stops to showcase the oppressive winters of the North Midwest region. Even his wide shots feel confining, with nothing but snow and bitter cold surrounding the images for as far as the eye can see. He even manages to work in an impressive homage to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (Kubrick homages are one of the hallmarks of early Coens, with various Easter eggs peppered throughout their works) in the scene where Carl and Gaear kidnap Mrs. Lundegaard. Deakins lost that year to John Seale for his work on The English Patient, itself a beautifully shot film even if its win felt more like an award to Seale himself (who had previously lost twice for Witness and Rain Man). Even with his loss, this was a film that solidified the raw genius of Deakins, and his work here is a huge reason why Fargo still holds up to this day.


Nominated for: Kundun

Lost to: Russell Carpenter, Titanic

Martin Scorsese’s biopic on the Dalai Lama is a marvel of artistry and technique, if somewhat ponderous as a narrative. Still, there’s no denying the intrinsic beauty of the film, which was brought to life by Deakins brilliantly. This year found Deakins going up against a few powerhouses, including Dante Spinotti for the still glorious L.A. Confidential and Russell Carpenter, who won for Titanic. That year, everyone sank in the wake of Titanic, and his loss was no real surprise. A year earlier or a year later and who knows? It’s certainly difficult to deny that Deakins worked magic on this picture, and two decades later his work here remains one of the only memorable aspects of Kundun. If nothing else, Kundun proved that his two previous nominations were no fluke. Deakins was (and remains) a man whose skills are unquestionable.


Nominated for: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Lost to: Peter Pau, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Another Coen brothers joint made all the more memorable by the stunning work of Roger Deakins. At the time, O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the first major film to use digital touch ups in order to achieve the exact shot the brothers desired. Trees were transformed to showcase the dirty desperation of the Depression Era south, water was turned muddy and brown. These days, digital grading is the norm, but back then it was a novelty, one that only enhanced Deakins’s stunning cinematography. Deakins managed to capture the epic scope of the Coens’s retelling of The Odyssey which brought together mythic traditions both classic and modern. The work was visually stunning and kinetic, but not enough to overcome Peter Pau’s work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Like his previous nomination, it seems like bad luck that he was up against a film so groundbreaking. That is almost a theme of his entire oeuvre.


Nominated for: The Man Who Wasn’t There

Lost to: Andrew Lesnie, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

His next nomination was yet another collaboration with the Coen brothers (whose names will appear several more times on this list), one that found Deakins working in black and white. This stunning homage to classic noir found Deakins using all of his powers to portray a world rooted in reality yet tinged by the fantastic. Black and white hadn’t looked this good in decades, and the shadowy results would have most likely won in any other year, except this year was the kick of the Lord of the Rings and their three year domination of Academy Awards hype. Also working against him was the relative obscurity of this film amongst the Coens catalogue. Compared to their other work, this was a small, fairly unknown work that didn’t really get its due until well after it initial release.


Nominated for: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Lost to: Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood

Deakins held nothing back in 2007 and, as a result, he was nominated not once but twice for his epic cinematography in 2008. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a relatively minor film in the grand scheme of things (especially compared to his other nominated work that year) but the technical mastery of the film is a marvel to witness. Notably, the train robbery sequence found Deakins utilizing little light and bleaching techniques to achieve its stunning look. He also invented a technique to create a blurry edge around the frames of many shots—using various lenses on various cameras, Deakins calls these combinations “Deakinizers.” Unfortunately, not only was Deakins going up against himself (which would no doubt split the votes of the Academy) but also against Robert Elswit for There Will Be Blood, which ultimately (perhaps even rightfully) took home the Oscar.


Nominated for: No Country for Old Men

Lost to: Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood

The other Deakins nomination for 2008, another collaboration with the Coens, is also one of the great motion pictures of the 21st century, making it high on the list of potential greatest films of all time. There isn’t a single shot of this masterpiece that you couldn’t frame and hang on the wall of any museum with a photography exhibit. Deakins captures the foreboding atmosphere of both West Texas and the Corman McCarthy narrative with epic shots that are at once devastatingly beautiful and intimate. Even the wide shots that showcase the awesome expanse of the West Texas horizon feel, somehow, close.


Nominated for: The Reader

Lost to: Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire

Deakins was nominated this year alongside Chris Menges. The story goes that Nicole Kidman was originally cast in this film, with the condition that a hiatus be built in to allow Kidman to work on Australia (a film you probably only just this second remembered existed). To do this, Deakins shot around her schedule, shooting all the scenes that didn’t involve Kidman prior to the agreed upon shut down. Unfortunately, Kidman ultimately had to withdraw from the film due to her pregnancy, leaving the production in disarray while Kate Winslet was courted to replace her. Meanwhile, Deakins had begun production on Doubt and was in the middle of pre-production on the Coens’ A Serious Man, so Menges was brought into complete the film. Even without being as technically marvelous as Deakins’s other nominations, the end result of the collaboration was solid and mostly seamless, but unable to topple the momentum of that year’s winner, Slumdog Millionaire.


Nominated for: True Grit

Lost to: Wally Pfister, Inception

Yet another collaboration between Deakins and the Coens, the remake of True Grit was a stunning work of the modern western genre. Having already established himself as a master of the form with both The Assassination of Jesse James and No Country for Old Men, Deakins once again brought his cinematic mastery to the table for one of the greatest remakes ever made. As with No Country, Deakins was able to portray a vast, epic story (which took place in a vast, epic setting) as shockingly intimate and human. This was also the last film Deakins shot on actual film before fully embracing digital technology (which is now the norm for the industry). As stunning and beautiful as True Grit looks, that ol’ Deakins luck was in play again. This year found him going up against the legendary Wally Pfister, who took home the award for his work on Christopher Nolan’s Inception.


Nominated for: Skyfall

Lost to:  Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi

Franchises usually tend to burnout right around the third or fourth entry, and while James Bond has certainly had its share of ups and downs of the decades, its twenty-third entry might just be its best (well, one of them, at least). A big part of that was Deakins’s stunning work on the film, which managed to keep the realism of the latest entries intact while still paying homage to the more fantastic elements of the earlier films in the series. Unlike most action films (and James Bond films) Skyfall was shot mostly using a single camera, giving the film an intense, character driven focus that brought new depth to the series. Unfortunately for Deakins, this year found him going up against Life of Pi, an impossibly beautiful and technically stunning film that was more than deserving of the award.


Nominated for: Prisoners

Lost to: Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity

This film marked the beginning of a working relationship with director Denis Villeneuve, under whom Deakins as earned two nominations (with a third all but assured thanks to Blade Runner 2049). Prisoners had an atmosphere of oppressive despair that was captured beautifully thanks to Deakins and his use of source lighting. This created a stunning effect of shadow and light, perfect for the tone and themes of this dark, depressing film. His touch here is subtle, but it’s hard to imagine this emotional thriller working with anyone but Deakins. Darkness, light, and movement are played with intricately throughout, adding a heavy weight to the film’s emotional core. It would’ve been an absolute gimme come Oscar season, were it not for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, the film for which Emmanuel Lubezki took home the statue.


Nominated for: Unbroken

Lost to: Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman

While there’s not too much to enjoy in this biopic of runner turned warrior turned prisoner of war Louis Zamperini’s life, Deakins’s work is certainly something to behold. Deakins employed multiple styles in shooting this film, and each act has a unique look and feel that adds to the overall themes of the film. Beyond that, there are several stunning, complex, and intimate tracking shots that make Unbroken, if nothing else, a technical marvel to behold. Once again, however, he found himself on the losing end to Emmanuel Lubezki, who won this time with Alejandro G. Iñárritu, shooting his single shot masterpiece, Birdman.


Nominated for: Sicario

Lost to: Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant

Like the previous collaboration between Deakins and Villeneuve, much of the tension and excitement of Sicario comes from Deakins’s work. Sicario was a more kinetic film than is typical of the Deakins oeuvre, but the master lit and photographed the scenes in a way that conveyed not just the action, but also the claustrophobic intensity of the film. Its best scene, the long and drawn out tunnel scene utilizing night vision goggles, was a masterpiece unto itself, which only heightened the additional work surrounding it. Throughout the film, Deakins uses light and space to convey the ever-narrowing scope of this twisting narrative and, as ever, character is front and center. Once again, however, he found himself up against, you guessed it, Emmanuel Lubezki, who took home year another Oscar for his work on Iñárritu’s powerful, The Revenant.

Blade Runner 2049 is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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