‘Empire of Light’ Cinematographer Roger Deakins Illuminates His Process

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Photo Source: Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

The central image of Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light” is a dazzling tableau of neon and sparks. Troubled cinema manager Hilary (Olivia Colman) spends a chilly New Year’s Eve with her charming younger employee, Stephen (Micheal Ward), on the roof of the seaside theater where they work. The glow of the marquee is all that lights the duo before fireworks explode over the ocean, bathing Hilary and Stephen in reds and golds. It’s a remarkable piece of cinematography—one that proved particularly daunting for legendary director of photography Roger Deakins. 

“How do you light a rooftop at night and not destroy the light of the fireworks? Because when the fireworks go off, you want them to be the major focus,” he says. “Of course, then the discussion is [that] we could do the fireworks with CG, which would be much easier.” 

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But if you want computer-generated fireworks, you don’t hire Deakins, the closest thing Hollywood has to a household name in the world of cinematography. Over nearly 50 years, he’s built his career on one iconic movie after another—from a sizable bulk of the Coen brothers’ filmography to Frank Darabont’s “The Shawshank Redemption” to his back-to-back Oscar wins for Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” and Mendes’ “1917.” 

That kind of credibility buys you a shot at using real fireworks. “For me, it all had to be in-camera,” says Deakins. Much of “Empire of Light” was shot on location at the abandoned Dreamland Cinema in Margate, England. Together with production designer Mark Tildesley, Deakins added just enough light to the roof to properly illuminate the scene. A false skylight; a small motif above the entry doorway; the neon lights on the theater’s distinctive brick tower, “Dreamland” temporarily swapped with “Empire” for the shoot; and a strip of LED lights running beneath the parapet, which give the illusion that Colman and Ward are being lit from below by the theater’s marquee. 

“Every light you see there was put in. It’s a lot of prep and a lot of cable running,” Deakins says with a laugh. “But we hardly used any lights on stands or anything in addition; I built the whole thing into the set with Mark.” 

Empire of Light

That hands-on approach extends to the entire movie. When the Dreamland lobby didn’t work for filming, Deakins suggested building a set three doors down in an empty lot for interior shots. This allowed his crew to install adjustable LEDs directly into the space. It was a decision that worked not only for practical purposes—“You can dim them up and down and they won’t change color temperature,” the cinematographer says—but for story reasons as well. 

“Sam wanted [the lobby] to be a kind of womblike, inviting space, and the outside is this harsh, endless ocean,” Deakins says. “Especially the opening scene, when it’s snowing. You come in from the snow into this place that is cold and gloomy; and then the lights come on, and suddenly it comes to life.” 

The film’s emotional climax sees Hilary, recovering from a whirlwind romance and a devastating mental-health episode, sitting down to watch a movie in the theater for the first time. This scene also presented a unique set of challenges for Deakins—even after the crew cleared out the bingo machines that had been occupying the space. The light from the theater’s digital projector wasn’t bright enough to allow the camera to capture Colman. So the DP placed a fake screen as close to the actor as possible and rested the camera in front of it. 

The result is that the illumination comes from above, bounces off the screen, and dances across Colman’s face. “All the light is interactive,” Deakins says. “It feels real because it is real. I’m just cheating the space a little bit.”

Turning that problem-solving instinct into stirring images lets him put a personal stamp on his work—which he insists is essential for any cinematographer. 

“Just use your eyes. Study not just films and paintings and photography; study life around you,” Deakins says. “Your personality comes out in your work. If you don’t have that personality in the way you see, what have you got? You’ve just got technique, and technique is for naught, really.” 

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 29 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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