The Cinematography of “Sicario”

Despite all the controversy surrounding this year’s Oscar nominations, 2016 saw outstanding work from many filmmakers, including those recognized by the Academy. One of the most deserving Oscar nominations went to the cinematographer of “Sicario”, Roger Deakins (the film also received two other nominations: Original Score for Jóhann Jóhannsson; and Sound Editing for Alan Robert Murray). Roger Deakins is an accomplished Hollywood cinematographer – some call him the best DP to have never won an Oscar (despite his twelve nominations, before this year’s). He is also someone who shares his knowledge freely. Therefore, he is the perfect person to learn from.

To get a taste of the visuals of “Sicario”, please watch the movie trailer

By the way, the film was directed by Denis Villeneuve, written by Taylor Sheridan and stars Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin.

While watching the movie, two things stood out for me with respect to cinematography. Firstly, there were a lot of long wide shots – when showing action, but also in dialogue scenes. For example, there is the scene where the Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) characters argue after going into Juarez, Mexico and kidnapping a cartel boss. In such a fiery exchange of dialogue, you almost always see close-ups of the actors. I really liked the approach taken by Villeneuve and Deakins. They captured the whole exchange in one wide shot. The seriousness of the conversation and the actors’ agitation were evident, even though the camera did not come close to them.

Deakins has mentioned Jean-Pierre Melville – a French film director who worked (mostly) in the fifties and sixties – as an influence on him, especially for this movie.

Deakins: “Melville is quite similar, especially ‘Red Circle.’ The tension builds from something that seems very normal. It’s about composition, holding the shot. The pacing and action are very naturalistic, because it’s so fast and brutal.” (source: The Wrap)

And here is Deakins again on how “Sicario” builds tension: “Sometimes we were building that by an image of the dust in the sunlight—you know, the dust particles. There’s so much tension in that. We built tension by holding a shot a lot longer than somebody else might—you’re watching the shot and you’re wondering what’s going to happen now. It’s that kind of thing.” (source: Deadline)

And also: “That’s the thing about the whole movie, in a way. It’s very matter of fact. This is the way it is. This is what happens. You’re not trying to make an action movie or a drama. This is it. You’re just showing it.” (source: Entertainment Weekly)

Deakins started his careers making documentaries and has, evidently, carried over this naturalistic approach to fictional material. Unfortunately, this type of approach doesn’t always sit well with A-list talent, who usually wants to be shown in the best light. Deakins has even gotten himself in trouble a few times, as he mentions in this Variety interview. Nevertheless, he insists that one has to light characters, not movie stars.

Emily Blunt clearly has full confidence in Deakins, as evidenced by the ending scene where Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) pays her a visit in her apartment. As she goes from the bright balcony into the dark living room, she enters a shadow and stays there, giving a long look to whoever entered the apartment – at this point, the audience does not know it is Alejandro. Although the lighting is not flattering to her, it does enhance the sombre and edgy mood of the scene.

When it comes to lighting, the most talked-about scene takes place at night at a secret cross-border tunnel where all the characters wear night vision goggles. Typically, a cinematographer would fake moonlight to light such a scene. However, Deakins felt that they could not justify this, since the characters wore the night vision goggles. Therefore, he and the director decided to show the scene almost exclusively through the characters’ point-of-view and film it using night vision and infrared (thermal imaging) cameras.

Actually, Deakins did use one light for the scene – a 1000 watt source located at about 150-200 feet away from the subjects (he had it suspended above the set on a 60’ crane). To further soften the light, he bounced it off a 12×12’ board. Although one would imagine that such a light source would have a minimal effect, the experienced cinematographer reckoned that it would add a little bit of edge, contrast to the scene. As Del Toro admits in this interview (3:10 min. mark), he had serious worries about the lighting the day the scene was shot, but was blown away when he saw the final results.

Now, once the actors entered deeper into the tunnel, they were lit with the light bulbs hanging on the walls, because the lights were justifiable as a part of the set.

Roger Deakins is famous for working effectively with the available light, which usually means just the sun (when shooting outdoors). He often gets asked how he achieves these great results. As he explains in various interviews, there is no easy way. One has to prepare meticulously and film fast. Also, he often films shots from the same sequence at different times of day (or on different days), this way gaining more time and using the optimal position of the sun for each camera angle. For a discussion of a specific example, please watch from the 15 min. mark in this video (and at the 9:30 min. you can also hear how he lit the tunnel scene).

For those interested in learning about lighting with natural or available light, Tom has a new set of tutorials available – “Lighting Dozen – Natural Light”. It is available for purchase in the web store.

For more insight on the cinematography of “Sicario”, I recommend an interview done by the American Society of Cinematographers. The discussion gets technical at times, but you can get a lot out of it (the only downside is that not all of the examples are applicable to indie filmmakers because of the relatively vast resources Deakins had at his disposal).

One of the repeating points in the ASC interview is that Deakins oftentimes bounces lights or the sun – using 8’x4′ or 12’x12′ polystyrene (or just “poly”) sheets, for example. That is a technique that can be used on a shoot of any budget. Also, a cheaper alternative to the poly sheets are foam(core) boards (Tom talks about the use of white and black foam boards in his “Lighting Dozen – Natural Light” tutorials.

You can buy “Sicario” on Amazon or watch it on Amazon Video

As I mentioned at the beginning, besides being a master of his craft, Roger Deakins is someone who shares his knowledge and experience. With that very purpose in mind, he has a website, which I recommend visiting.

Also, here are some of the more interesting video interviews with Deakins (or about him). On second thought, all of his interviews are interesting.

As a sidenote, I found surprising a comment from Deakins to a question posed in an Entertainment Weekly interview. The interviewer remarked that there must be a long line of people wanting to work with him; that people are probably fighting to get him on their projects, to which Deakins answered: “People think that, but it’s completely the reverse. Frankly, I’ve not read a script in three months, and that’s not an exaggeration.”

More than anything, I think that this speaks volumes about the nature of work in Hollywood. Even for those at the top of their profession, there can be long quiet periods. So, for those of us working in the indie world, we can take comfort in the fact that we can always practice our craft and do what we love – we don’t have to wait for big, complex projects to get approved, for deals to be made.

7 thoughts on “The Cinematography of “Sicario””

  1. Deakins is simply the most talented cinematographer alive since Sven Nykvist (also a great lover of poly bounce) whom I knew and worked with.

    Sven was never great at reading a script in English, but with Bergman and Tarkovsky he could add his vision. Deakins would probably make a brilliant script consultant if he changed careers as his understanding of what the director and the script are aiming at is uncanny… Actually, he can probably do anything.

    I missed Sicario in theaters, but when Istarted watching the screener, with no opening credits, I thought “wow, this is good camera work” — but I also thought it was probably the work of the grader…

    As the film progressed I thought: I must hire this DP! He’s amazing! And when the end credits came up I thought: “oh, Roger Deakins well that explains everything…”


  2. Thanks Tom,

    This is a great cinematographer and I have been following his work and many of his films for some time. I, too, thought Sicario was brilliant especially in tems of the lighting. I will be picking up a copy of your Lighting Dozen soon…tchau.

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