Cinematographer Roger Deakins Switching From Film to Digital Camera

15 BIZ DIGCAMERAS Roger Deakins
Courtesy of Sony

Deakins with an Alexa camera on the set of Andrew Nicchol's "Now."

Committed to shooting on film through such films as “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit,” he tells THR how the new Arri Alexa digital camera got him to change his mind.

After dozens of films and NINE Oscar nominations, cinematographer Roger Deakins is going digital.

Considered one of the pre-eminent directors of photography by his peers, he has remained committed to shooting on film through such movies as No Country for Old Men and True Grit, dismissing many of the images shot in recent years with digital cameras as "rubbish."

Although many independent filmmakers were quick to adopt digital cinematography because it can be cheaper, for a master of the art like Deakins, it's been a question of aesthetics: To his eye, digital has not always captured the richness of film.

But with the rapid advancements in digital cinematography, Deakins is becoming a convert. He shot his most recent film, Andrew Niccol's Now, using the new Arri Alexa digital camera. And as he prepares to shoot the next James Bond movie, which Sam Mendes will direct this year, he tells The Hollywood Reporter, "I'm probably going to use Alexa on my next shoot — it seems very likely."

Other top cinematographers also are taking up the Alexa as the move to digital reaches a tipping point. Caleb Deschanel used the new camera for William Friedkin's upcoming Killer Joe, and Robert Richardson chose it for Martin Scorsese's 3D movie Hugo Cabret, using select Alexa cameras with 3D rigs from Pace — which were developed by Vince Pace and James Cameron and used for Avatar.

Not everyone is ready to go digital, though. Wally Pfister, who won the cinematography Oscar this year for Inception and is prepping for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, says he and Nolan "prefer to shoot on film." Pfister is interested in shooting an image at the highest possible resolution, especially because Nolan intends for his movies to be seen in Imax, and says film remains preferable on that count.

Deakins, however, says Alexa offered what he needed when shooting Now, a futuristic thriller starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried. "I was looking for a different look, with a lot of saturation, sparkle," he says. "I did a test on Alexa, and it looked right for the movie. We were doing a lot of night shooting in downtown L.A. It wasn't a big-budget film, so we were using existing streetlights and boosting with a practical light. I wouldn't have had enough exposure or the range or shadows with film."

Munich-based Arri, a trusted name among cinematographers, introduced the Alexa a year ago, and CEO Glenn Kennel says there already are more than 1,000 of them in use worldwide. (The camera lists for about $75,000, but most productions rent them.)

The Alexa can be used to shoot HD data files but also is capable of shooting raw images, referred to as ArriRaw, which contain twice the resolution of HD. To take advantage of that, Arri worked with third-party suppliers to develop a complex workflow process to record data and carry it through the postproduction process, which is among the biggest challenges in digital cinematography.

The first Hollywood feature to use an ArriRaw workflow is the Tom Hanks starrer Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, directed by Stephen Daldry with Chris Menges as director of photography. "What was developed is an image workflow that supports the full dynamic range of the camera and gives cinematographers a dependable look and feel," says Bill Feightner, executive vp and CTO at post house EFilm, a Deluxe company that also supported Deakins' workflow on Now. "It's as if the camera was plugged into the post equipment."

Deakins sees that as a real advantage and also plans to use ArriRaw on his next film. As for the Alexa, he says: "What's not to like? I think it has more range than film. It's the color rendition that strikes me. Film also looks monochromatic versus Alexa. There is more variation in the human face than is being picked up on film."