Oscar predictions: Cinematographer Roger Deakins (‘Empire of Light’) on track for 16th career nomination

Celebrity cinematographers are exceedingly rare. More often than not, credit for a film’s visual assembly goes to its director, while DPs can be overlooked. Roger Deakins, typically as famous as the directors with whom he works, is an exception. The legendary lensman is ranked fifth in our combined Best Cinematography Oscar odds for “Empire of Light,” his latest project under Sam Mendes. The movie stars Olivia Colman as Hilary, a lonely cinema manager living on the British coast. A chance at fleeting happiness arrives in the form of Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young man who gets a job at the theater. Their May-December romance is complicated by personal and broader political factors at the turn of the ’80s.

SEE ‘Empire of Light’ cinematographer Roger Deakins: ‘You’re trying to create a reality that all fits together as a whole’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

Comparing “Empire of Light” to “1917”—Mendes and Deakins’ previous collaboration, for which the DP received his 15th Academy Award nomination and second win—Deakins told The American Cinematographer (the American Society of Cinematographers’ monthly publication) that the war epic required less from him than this quiet romantic drama. Because of its single-take conceit, “1917” leaned heavily on the production design by Dennis Gassner, he explains: “By the time we came to shoot [‘1917’], it was fairly straightforward there weren’t any surprises. But with a film like [‘Empire of Light’], you’ve never got enough money and time, and you’re at the beck and call of location problems and traffic control.”

Because “Empire of Light” isn’t composed of technically audacious long takes and relies instead on setting-evoked mood, Deakins was much more involved with this project’s art direction in order to get the color right. A particular challenge was shooting two locations as one. The structure within the town of Margate the team had settled on, an entertainment center call the Dreamland, had a lobby that didn’t suit Mendes and Deakins’ vision, so production designer Mark Tildesley built a stand-in on an empty lot a few doors down. “It was a matter of discussing with Mark and set decorator Kamlan Man which lights would work, both photographically and as part of the design of the space,” he shared.

SEE Mark Tildesley (‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ and ‘Empire of Light’ production designer): Both films are ‘about the landscape and about the place’ 

Deakins used a fleet of LED panels to emphasize warm interior colors and distinguish the theater from the cold, drab world beyond its doors. “I wanted to contrast the oranges and browner hues [of the lobby], and the reds and purples of the cinema, with the muted, desaturated bleakness of the English coastline, particularly in winter.” However, not every scene shot outside Hilary and Stephen’s workplace has the unforgiving palette of “1917.” Moments between the two—at a carnival or during a trip to the beach, for example—are filled with vibrant arrays that represent the excitement of new romance.

Deakins went into depth about one such moment with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery. For the scene of Hilary and Stephen sharing a New Year’s Eve toast on the theater’s rooftop, the DP needed to provide them with adequate exposure but not diminish the dramatic lighting effect of a fireworks display in the background. “[Mark Tildesley] and I built in this skylight…so there was a light source that didn’t light the whole world, it just lit that area so the conversation had a place to be, but it didn’t take away from the fireworks when they were standing at the front of the roof looking out over the sea.” Expressing his and Mendes’ aspiration to create an authentic experience for the viewer, he added, “We could’ve done it on stage, and we could’ve done a whole digital background, and put in the ocean, and all the rest, and it might’ve been easier to control, but what you would’ve lost would’ve been the reality of it.”

SEE Oscars Rewind: A look back at Olivia Colman’s jaw-dropping Best Actress win for ‘The Favourite’

With 15 bids to his name, Deakins is tied with Robert Surtees (“Ben-Hur,” “The Graduate”) as the third-most Oscar-nominated cinematographer of all time. If “Empire of Light” makes the academy’s cut on Tuesday, he’ll be two nominations away from tying the record (18), which is currently held by Leon Shamroy (“Cleopatra,” “Planet of the Apes”) and Charles Lang (“A Farewell to Arms,” “Some Like It Hot”). He first won for “Blade Runner 2049,” just two years before “1917” gave him a second victory. Deakins’ late surge into Gold Derby’s top five is being bolstered by the movie’s inclusion among the American Society of Cinematographers and BAFTA’s lineups.

“Empire of Light” hasn’t been the most visible contender this season, and should the academy replicate the film’s ASC and BAFTA notices, Deakins will likely be its only representative at the Oscars. However, that wouldn’t be a career-first. He was a solo nominee for the Joel & Ethan Coen‘s “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners.” It’s difficult to see how the academy resists the love letter to movie theaters he and Mendes have crafted.

PREDICT the 2023 Oscar nominees through January 24

Make your predictions at Gold Derby now. Download our free and easy app for Apple/iPhone devices or Android (Google Play) to compete against legions of other fans plus our experts and editors for best prediction accuracy scores. See our latest prediction champs. Can you top our esteemed leaderboards next? Always remember to keep your predictions updated because they impact our latest racetrack odds, which terrify Hollywood chiefs and stars. Don’t miss the fun. Speak up and share your huffy opinions in our famous forums where 5,000 showbiz leaders lurk every day to track latest awards buzz. Everybody wants to know: What do you think? Who do you predict and why?

SIGN UP for Gold Derby’s free newsletter with latest predictions

More News from GoldDerby