Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins have collaborated on some of the most visually stunning movies in recent years. In this video, Villeneuve and Deakins discuss their approach to visual storytelling in films like Sicario and Prisoners. Specifically, how cinematic lighting was used in their favorite scene from Sicario, how “cutting the frame” in composition focuses the audience, and how framing characters in wide shots can be just as effective as cutting in with close-ups.

In the first chapter, Deakins describes the technique of “cutting the frame,” in which shooting through a doorway or using the architecture of the set helps simplify the image. This effectively reduces the visual information and allows the viewer to focus where you want them to. In certain contexts or genres, this film composition technique can also create tension, as if these characters are unknowingly being watched.

In a scene that concludes Kate’s (Emily Blunt) character arc in Sicario, she is threatened by Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) who holds a gun to her head to sign a document. As Deakins and Villeneuve point out, it’s such a simple scene in terms of cinematography techniques and film composition — two people sitting at a table talking. But the real visual storytelling is carried by the cinematic lighting. Kate is more evenly lit and exposed, while Alejandro is backlit, lurking and dangerous in the shadows.

For the final chapter, Villeneuve and Deakins talk about the director’s preference for holding shots or even entire scenes in wide shots. The example they point to comes in Sicario after the extraction/border shootout. As the rest of the team heads into the building, the camera stays wide to capture a tense argument between Kate and Matt (Josh Brolin) in the distance. Instead of cutting in with standard coverage, Kate is left alone, isolated in a wide shot. This type of visual storytelling challenges the viewer by breaking the rules of film composition.

As you approach visual storytelling in your next project, remember these tips. Use cinematic lighting to enhance the power of a simple dialogue scene; shoot through doors or around corners to focus the audience’s attention and/or create tension; and experiment with wide shots when showing a character in context as a more effective way to communicate their mental state.