IN TIME Set Visit: Cinematographer Roger Deakins Switches to Digital

     October 7, 2011

Cinematographer-Roger-Deakins-image slice

Earlier this year, I got to visit the set of In Time, the new sci-fi thriller from writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, The Truman Show). While it was exciting to be on a film set and watch stunt work and interview stars Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried, the real highlight of the day was seeing nine-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins working with digital for the first time.

Deakins used the Arriflex ALEXA camera system to shoot In Time, and camera’s capabilities seem almost as futuristic as the film’s settings.  Read on to learn about how a modern master is pushing the technological envelope.

in-time-poster high resolutionDeakins, for those who don’t know, has shot almost every Coen Brothers movie since Barton Fink, as well as The Shawshank Redemption, Sid and Nancy, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, just to name a few. He is easily among the top ten cinematographers working in Hollywood today*.

A 35-year veteran of the industry, Deakins made the switch to digital for In Time, employing the brand new Arriflex ALEX digital camera system. In Time will be only the fifth film commercially released in America to employ this camera. Other releases include Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Lars Von-Trier’s Meloncholia and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers.

Of the several films to utilize the ALEXA, I have see Final Destination 5 and Drive, neither of which looked like film, and Meloncholia, which is perhaps the best looking movie that Von Trier has ever shot digitally. When compared to the similarly themed Antichrist, which boasted a more accomplished cinematographer and shot on the RED One system only two years ago, there is simply no comparison. The blacks are truer on the ALEXA, and though is still doesn’t look quite like film, it does carry an inviting and unique hyper-real shine that compliments work like Von Trier’s excellently.

The ALEXA represents Arriflex’s first major push into the digital world, (though they have released previous professional grade digital cameras) and aims to do battle with the RED Epic, which will make its’ American cinema debut with David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

in-time-Justin-Timberlake-Amanda-SeyfriedWhile I can’t speak for the RED Epic as I have not seen it in action, I can attest that the capabilities of the ALEXA are stunning. There were two, large, color-calibrated monitors projecting full fidelity video straight from the camera. In real time. And color timed. This may not seem like much, but it’s actually amazing.

Without getting too far into technicals, what this means is that I got to watch several takes of Deakins’ work, as he was doing them, in a pretty good approximation of what they will look like on screen. This opens up a huge number of doors for experimentation and could serve to speed post-production and save massive amounts of man-hours.

In an interview with Steve earlier this year, Deakins claims that the ALEXA gives him superior exposure latitude, which basically means that he can shoot things at night or with very little lighting and still get a picture, whereas he could not with film. To my knowledge, no prior digital system actually had a wider exposure latitude than actual film.

Cinematographer-Roger-Deakins-imageBut the evidence was there on the monitors. The set featured very few large lighting rigs and the most impressive shot of the day looked to be filmed in almost natural light.

The shot in question was a dolly in and out as a silhouetted Timberlake throws open a bank vault and encourages a mob of people to take as much time as they want. It wasn’t a very showy shot or even all that complex, but the detail of the shadows and the clarity of the image coming right out of the camera were like nothing I have ever seen before.

This is the kind of advancement that could change the way movies are made. And regardless of whether Deakins’ comments about exposure latitude were literal or not, the color-calibrated screens represent the first time I have seen digital do something that film simply can’t.

The times, they are a changin’ and In Time is part of the new wave.

*Other names of note, in no order: Bruno Delbonnel, Edward Lachman,  Emmanuel Lubezki, Steven Soderbergh, Bill Pope, Vilmos Zsigmond, Matthew Libatique, Vittorio Storaro, Emmanuel Lubezki and Christopher Doyle.

For more coverage from my In Time set visit:

20 Things to Know About IN TIME from Our Set Visit Plus a Detailed Report and New Images

Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried On Set Interview IN TIME

Director Andrew Niccol and Producer Eric Newman On Set Interview IN TIME


Around The Web
  • Keegan

    In what world is Anthony Dod Mantle more accomplished than Roger Deakins? I had to read that line several times to make sure that I wasn’t hallucinating…

    • Bonobo

      I believe the intended meaning was that Anthony Dod Mantle is more accomplished than Von Trier’s most recent collaborator, Manuel Alberto Claro, who shot Melancholia.

      • Hunter D.

        Yes. Bonobo is correct. Sorry for the confusion.

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  • henry

    hey! really enjoyed the article. I really appreciate collider spending some time to dive into the technical side of filmmaking. I would love more of this in the future.

    I do have to say that I noticed one small mistake in your article. I am also very excited to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but it isn’t the first american film to come out shot on the red epic. Just a few weeks ago, we saw Contagion which was shot on the epic by soderbergh himself. and I looked it up to see to my surprise, there have been a few shot on the epic that have come out already.

    and I believe that I read in American Cinematographer magazine a few months ago that the new spider-man film was the first to get it’s hands on the camera, but post-production is taking so long on it. totally could be wrong though.

    anywho, great article.

    • Hunter D.

      According to IMDb and a quick google search, Contagion shot on the RED Mysterium-X , which is similar to, but separate from the RED EPIC.

      The film was originally announced as the first EPIC production, but the camera wasn’t ready in time and they couldn’t push production without losing some of the cast members, so they moved to the MX.

      Red State appears to have employed the MX in addition to some Cannon 7D footage (No idea how those two mesh.)

      I think the confusion is that the MX and the EPIC both use the same processor and are both hitting the market at almost the same time. The MX is basically an upgrade of the RED-ONE while the EPIC is another generation. I could be wrong on this. These guys seem to know what they’re talking about, however.

      Some sources say that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides employed the RED EPIC. But this article from THR says that the film used an update of Cameron’s Pace system and the RED MX and does not mention the EPIC at all. Considering they were specifically focusing on tech in that article, I think they would have referenced the EPIC had it been used.

      In summary, my head hurts, but I’m still pretty sure that Dragon Tattoo is the first EPIC film, especially since the EPIC was codenamed Tattoo.

  • billyjean


    i would say that Deakins is the best. PERIOD! alot of DPs can make a really beautiful image, but Deakins stands out because he never goes for the “flash”. it’s always about performances. and his style of lighting an actor is unmatched. it’s always simplistic, and yet with such striking clarity.

    • Hunter D.

      An earlier version of this article actually called him “one of the best, if not the single greatest.” But after thinking it over, I decided that such superlatives sound like hyperbole and take away from the credibility of the story.

      I agree that Deakins is a man of great restraint. While I will go see a movie specifically because it was shot by Libatique, his name is not an assurance that the film will actually be good. For example, She Hate Me was gorgeous to look at, but deeply unfocused and none too subtly homophobic. While the narrative problems are certainly not Libatique’s fault, his cinematography might have added to the problems by consistently calling attention to itself in an already overstuffed film.

      Conversely, Deakins always chooses the shot that serves the narrative. Even when he is ‘showy’ (such as the final moments of A Serious Man), he is ‘showy’ for the good of the story, never for the benefit of his ego.

      Even if I didn’t get to visit the set of In Time, I would definitely be seeing it opening day. Action cinema has suffered from horrific cinematography for years now, and the idea of Deakins’ clear-minded precision showing all the youngsters how it’s done excites me greatly. Dude hasn’t made an action film since 1998 (The Siege) and even that wasn’t exactly an action picture.

      Is this Deakins’ first straight actioner? I haven’t seen all of his films, but looking over IMDb I don’t recognize any other out-and-out action films. Now I’m even more hyped!

      • billyjean

        plus BOND 23! man oh man! Deakins will nail it. if it was going to be shot on “film”, then it’s a surefire “one of the best looking film” of 2012. but since it’s digital, there is that thing we’re not sure of, and it’s kind of exciting what he’ll come up with.

        also, Isn’t Captain America shot on digital? there are certain scenes that DEFINITELY looked digital(in the action explosions)

      • Hunter D.

        Captain America used 5 different camera systems to shoot. It looks as though the ALEXA was one of them. Good catch.

        I believe that film was done entirely digitally.


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  • Nick Pineau

    Shouldn’t Wally Pfister be on that list of the top 10 cinematographers in Hollywood today?

    • Hunter D.

      He is indeed quite good, but any top 10 list is going to miss a few, or a few dozen, key names.

    • Hunter D.

      He is indeed quite good, but any top 10 list is going to miss a few names of note. Pfister is definitely A-list, and not just because he shoots big movies.

  • hrumble

    Hunter, beginning of the fifth paragraph after “Drive”— did you mean “neither of which look like digital”? Because, from someone who has filmed with both film and digital, Drive certainly looked like it was shot on film.

    • Hunter D.

      Drive had a superb look, but it did not feel like film to me. It felt more dreamlike and less grounded. It worked for the feature thematically, but it didn’t feel like 35mm. Of course, I saw the film on a digital projector, so that might have been part of it too.

  • Frank

    I hate to say this and I don’t think I’m taking anything away from Deakins, because he says so himself that what you’re always looking for is the simplest route between two points, especially with naturalistic lighting. But I think the problem with a lot of Red stuff not looking natural is because most amateur D.P.’s are afraid to shoot with natural light. They think if it doesn’t look like something unnatural on the monitor, they must not be doing their job. Or they make up some obtuse film related reasons about why you can’t light for the monitor on set… then in post, the film looks like a soap opera. Clearly, that’s exactly what Deakins is doing, taking advantage of digital by knowing what he’s getting right on the set… Harris Savides said the same thing about how he lit Zodiac. He even related how he said to Fincher at one point, “The only reason you have me here is my taste, you can pretty much light this yourself now with these cameras.” Every single time I’ve ever heard someone like Deakins or, say, Kubrick and his various D.P.’s get praised, you look at the on set photos, even with something like Barry Lyndon, and there’s hardly any lights being used. They simply boost the way the natural light is hitting to get an exposure, that’s it. There are other elements to the way they get their colors and contrast, but I really believe that most of the problem with digital so far has been that gear heads are trying to be artists and overthinking the way things should be done.

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