“Lights, camera, action!” – the traditional cue reflects the most important element in any film set: the light.
A good cinematographer, or director of photography, can fix a faulty script, mask a mediocre set or make an otherwise bleak and empty character seem deep and mysterious.
Light is what a cinematographer uses to paint a set or to define a character and, while some directors chose to do their own, most of them know better.
In Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz is introduced with only half of his face illuminated, showing a man whose soul has been overtaken by the darkness of the jungle.
In a film running nearly four hours long, Kurtz appears for about 20 minutes, but his bald head emerging from the darkness remains the most iconic image of the film.
The brilliance of Kurtz’ lightning was not the work of its director Francis Ford Coppola, but of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.
Storaro won an Oscar for his work. He was one of the greats. His closest successor, however, remains to this day unrecognised by the Academy.
At 68, Roger Deakins has been nominated a total of 13 times for his work in movies like The Shawshank Redemption, Sicario, Fargo, and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.
Look closely at some of his latest films, and you’ll find his barren landscapes give them an almost dreamlike appeal. The way the light hits the characters making them sometimes godlike, barely human.
He works well with directors who believe silence can speak louder than words, or that a character can be the sum of its surroundings.
It comes as no surprise that Deakins became the right-hand man of some of the most talented filmmakers working today. The Coen brothers work around his schedule to start shooting a film. So does Sam Mendes.
His latest ally is one Denis Villeneuve, the Canadian boy-wonder who shot his way to the Oscars with the likes of Prisoners, Sicario and Arrival.
Their last collaboration was the massively hyped, less-than-profitable sequel to Blade Runner.
The film divided critics and fans, but seems to have lost itself on the way to the Oscars.
Forgotten by most predictions, it now looks destined to thrive only in technical categories.
One it cannot miss, is Deakins’.
Whether you loved or hated Blade Runner 2049, it is unanimous that it is a spectacle of colour, light and shade.
Deakins created a bleak and haunting world, which Villeneuve profited from. It could even be argued the director indulged him too much.
Watching Blade Runner 2049, you can feel scenes stretching a little more than they probably should. It is the look of a director in love with his photographer.
The same can be seen in No Country For Old Men and Jesse James. Both films are auterish westerns – a genre which gives Deakins the freedom to play in the sun, a skill he mastered while shooting documentaries in Africa.
Born in Devon, son to an actress mother and a builder father, he started off as a cameraman and moved on from docs to music videos, which he directed himself.
It wasn’t until he was found by the Coens that his career in Hollywood sparked.
So why hasn’t this auteur, this ally of great filmmakers, been awarded by the Academy after so many years in the industry?
Lately, he seems to be beaten every time be his closest rival, the Mexican Emmanuel Lubezki.
Lubezki tends to work closely with his Latin American peers Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Inarritu, both of which have stolen the Oscars spotlight in recent years.
His work in The Revenant, Birdman and Gravity was preferred to Deakins’ in Prisoners, Unbroken and Sicario. When the director suffers, often so does the photographer.
This year he faces tough competition again, although mostly at the hands of a young bunch of talented cinematographers.
Names like Helene Louvart, Sean Price Williams and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom are well known in the indie circuit, and could catch the attention of the Academy.
But only one name this year has the strength to threaten Deakins.
Hoyte van Hoytema, the giant who replaced Wally Pfiser as Christopher Nolan’s right-hand man in his latest film Dunkirk.
Pfiser is the reason why Nolan’s films all look so “Nolan-like”, and Hoytema managed not only to capture the same essence, but add something of his own.
Lubezki himelf is on the race again, but this time he picked the wrong team. His work in Terrence Malick’s insipid Song To Song will go largely unnoticed, damaged by a director whose style has gotten the best of him.
This will be Deakins’ 14th nomination.
For the 14th time, the Academy will have the opportunity to shine a light on one of cinema’s great contemporary masters.
They better not miss it.