Focus On Film

Deakins, Coen Brothers Take on True Grit

Published on website: December 06, 2010
Categories: 35mm , Feature Films , Focus On Film , VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219/7219
Director of photography Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC on the set of True Grit. (Photo by Wilson Webb, ©Paramount Pictures 2010)

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC will receive the American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award in February, recognizing an extraordinary body of work. But Deakins, who counts eight Oscar® nominations among his honors, has no plans to slow down. In December, his most recent collaboration with Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit, hit theater screens around the globe.

True Grit is Deakins’ 11th feature film with the Coens, going back to Barton Fink in 1991 and including such other acclaimed films as Fargo; The Big Lebowksi; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; The Man Who Wasn’t There; No Country for Old Men; and A Serious Man, among others. Also among his 50 or so narrative credits are The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Kundun and The Shawshank Redemption.

Jeff Bridges on the set of True Grit. (Photo by Wilson Webb, ©Paramount Pictures 2010)
Dempsey Chapito (l) and Jeff Bridges (r) on the set of True Grit. (Photo by Lorey Sebastian, ©Paramount Pictures 2010)
(Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC (l) and Jeff Bridges (r) discussing a scene on the set of True Grit surrounded by crew. (Photo by Lorey Sebastian, ©Paramount Pictures 2010)
(Jeff Bridges (l) and Hailee Steinfeld (r) in True Grit. (Photo by Wilson Webb, ©Paramount Pictures 2010)
Matt Damon on the set of True Grit. (Photo by Wilson Webb, ©Paramount Pictures 2010)
Josh Brolin on the set of True Grit. (Photo by Wilson Webb, ©Paramount Pictures 2010)
Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC setting up a shot on the set of True Grit. (Photo by Wilson Webb, ©Paramount Pictures 2010)
Hailee Steinfeld on the set of True Grit. (Photo by Wilson Webb, ©Paramount Pictures 2010)

True Grit is best known as the 1969 John Wayne vehicle that finally brought “The Duke” an Oscar. That film was photographed by Lucien Ballard, ASC. The Coens went back to the source material, the novel of the same name by Charles Portis. In their version, Rooster Cogburn is played by Jeff Bridges and the young girl who hires him to seek vengeance for her father’s murder is played by Hailee Steinfeld.

“In our film, the girl is much younger, closer to 12 years old,” says Deakins. “When I read the book at Joel’s suggestion, I realized there was much more to it than there was in the original version of the film. This innocent young girl finds herself in an alien landscape, the Old West, which was changing. You see how this experience with a drunken old sheriff affected the rest of her life.”

After close to two decades of filmmaking together, Deakins and the Coens understand each other implicitly. They value simplicity and unfussiness in the imagery. Most of the conversation about how the film should look took place during scouting. Finding the right locations required an extensive search.

The story takes place in Arkansas and Oklahoma in late winter. The locations had to look authentic, but also had to be accessible at the right time of year. Some locations in Utah were considered but eventually rejected because locals mentioned how mud made transportation difficult in late winter. The filmmakers eventually settled on unfamiliar landscapes in New Mexico and outside of Austin, Texas, where a tiny town called Granger was dressed to portray Fort Smith, Arkansas, in the late 19th century.

Still, weather and conditions had a big impact on the shoot. On the first day, Deakins found himself and his crew in 2 feet of snow. But they still managed to get a scene on film that day. “We managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat,” recalls Deakins. “The weather was so fickle that we had to change the schedule and adapt throughout. Still, in spite of that, it was a fun and interesting shoot. The weather isn’t anybody’s fault. You just try to do your best under the circumstances.”

The filmmakers chose the Super 35 format, which resulted in a widescreen 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Deakins used ARRI cameras, including an ARRI 535B, and ARRI Master Prime lenses. The film stocks were KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 and KODAK VISION2 200T Color Negative Film 5217.

The shoot included many scenes on horseback, and Deakins used a wide variety of methods to track the action with the camera. Most of the methods had in common a Libra stabilizing head. Sometimes the Libra head was mounted on a Humvee with a small Technocrane, and other times on a Giraffe crane. “I think the most successful and flexible method involved an Aero Crane mounted on an electric golf cart,” he says. “Each shot was different, so there was a lot of variation.”

Deakins said that composition was complicated by the significant difference in height between the two main characters. “It was kind of interesting trying to get a two-shot on horseback,” he says. “Still, you want that feeling – that’s what you’re after – so you just have to film what’s there.”

Situations ranged from blinding hot sunlight to nighttime in a forest. A long sequence featuring a climactic shootout occurs over one night and into morning. “I wanted to stay away from a very hard moonlit source,” Deakins says. “We had so many shots to shoot in a short space of time. I couldn’t use three Musco lights as I had on a night scene in No Country, so we brought in 55 18K HMI lights. We set them up separated by 5 or 6 feet to create a run of about 120 feet. The sequence was broken into three different stagings, so these 55 lamps were arranged in three different positions, which allowed us to go from one scene to another without a big relight. I could turn on one bank of 28 for one scene, then another combination for the second scene, and so on as the actors were moving around the hillsides. That gave us a crosslight for each segment of the sequence, rather than a sidelight for one segment becoming a front light for another angle.

“There was no diffusion on the lamps, and they varied in distance from the subject from about 450 feet to maybe 900 feet,” he says. “It was a way to create a big wash of light. It’s a technique I use a lot, but usually with much smaller lights. In this case, I spotted some of the lamps in the middle of the row, so that the middle of the wash of light was actually stronger than the outside. That softened the shadow and gave a slightly softer overall effect. Around the camera, we used silver or white reflectors to bring some of this light into the faces.”

The footage was scanned at 4K for a digital intermediate at EFILM in Los Angeles with colorist Mitch Paulson. Deakins and the Coens insist on a 4K pipeline throughout. “I did a little fine tuning,” says Deakins. “I desaturated somewhat. We didn’t want anything green, but by the time we got to Texas, it was early June. We removed the leaves from some trees, and did some CG work to handle others. I used the DI to deal with any remaining green and to marry the two landscapes.”

Deakins says that the finished film has some elements in common with a traditional Western, but adds, “Still, in many ways I don’t think you’ve seen this film before. It’s always interesting with Joel and Ethan. This was one of the hardest films we’ve done together, but even given that, we had a lot of fun.”