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Five-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins is grabbing a lot of attention these days, having served as director of photography on three recent high-profile features: Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah” and Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”
Like most studio features, all three films went through a digital intermediate, or DI, process — a method of digitally color timing and finishing a motion picture. But while DI has relatively quickly become the norm for finishing features in Hollywood, Deakins says that it still is very much misunderstood.
“It actually saves time and money on set — I don’t think they realize that,” he says. “I also don’t think they realize why it’s so important that the cinematographer sees the project through. (The latter) is a really important point, and it hasn’t been argued enough by the different guilds and societies. … I will not go into a movie unless I know that I’m going to have some sort of input or control over seeing the image in the DI process.
“There is so much power in what you can do to the image,” he adds. “It’s a little bit more open to the possibility of abuse in the sense that the intention of the cinematographer can be easily be taken away.”
Deakins is considered a pioneer of the DI process, having first used the technique in 2000 on the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” Describing the benefits of DI, he says: “When you shoot a film … it’s never really exactly what we wanted to achieve — either the sun is going in and out on daylight exterior or whatever. There’s always things that you wish you could change. Now with DI, some of them I can control a little bit.
“(For example), I can balance a shot that was done in full sunlight with something that was done with a slightly cloudy sky because I can take the contrast down on one and bring it up on another. It will never exactly match, but you can make little corrections.”
Deakins used DI to match two outdoor scenes in “No Country for Old Men.” “One is night to dawn into day, which is the night of the drug bust, and then to the river. The other is the sequence where Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is staking out the motel. He is driving along the freeway, and he comes and circles the motel and looks at the door. In both, you only had a certain amount of time to shoot all the shots that were meant to flow seamlessly as one scene, so the DI was really handy in matching.
“If you are shooting at dusk, the light is a different color an hour later. The color changes, the quality of light, the contrast — everything changes. (In DI) you can help it. Knowing I can do that in DI saves me a lot of time on set.”
The process and the gear has been evolving, and Deakins says participation is becoming less geographically dependent. “I no longer have to worry about having to do a finish on one film if I am shooting out of town,” he says.
The DP says it was not long ago that he was shooting “Jesse James” in Canada and flying back to Los Angeles on weekends for the DI session at Efilm on his earlier project, “Jarhead.”
More recently, Efilm brought a “portable” system to the East Coast while he was shooting “Revolutionary Road” there so he could participate in the grading of “Jesse James.”
“So in the evening and on the weekends, I could go time ‘Jesse James,’ rather than getting on a plane and going to L.A. and getting totally exhausted doing that,” he says. “That’s a big advantage.”
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