Large-Format Cameras and Lenses

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Large-Format Cameras and Lenses

The other day my brother Alex and I were talking about large-format cinema cameras and what makes that acquisition format special, considering that the Oscar-winning film THE REVENANT used the Alexa 65, and just prior to that DP Robert Elswitt, ASC photographed the underwater vault sequence in MISSON: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION with the same camera. He needed the highest resolution and frame size for the extensive CG work required to pull off that amazing, high-tension moment.

Large-format cinema, primarily 70mm films from the late 50s through late 60s have always fascinated me, starting with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.


David Lean’s singular film is spectacular for so many reasons, only one being it’s a 70mm epic ADULT DRAMA. This kind of film does not get made anymore… the sheer scope of the production alone puts it a category that Hollywood eschewed after Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW!. One might argue that THE REVENANT is an epic film… but it’s not. Yes, it was shot on Arri Alexa 65 cameras and the vistas where jaw-dropping, but it’s a simple revenge tale set on massive backdrop with maybe 5 characters that you get to know intimately and who make an impact on the film.

I’m not taking anything away from Inarritu’s film, but it doesn’t stand  anywhere near LAWRENCE, and neither does any of the 65mm/70mm productions we’ve seen since 1980… Kenneth Branagh’s faithful and full-telling of HAMLET was amazing, a bit tedious, yet also not an epic.

Even  Christopher Nolan’s IMAX-infused films aren’t epic adult dramas (he might be abel to enter Lean’s shadow with his upcoming DUNKIRK. However, he’s going to have overcome the high bar Spielberg set with SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

These upcoming Star Wars films are trying approach epic, but they’re popcorn movies designed for everybody. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA probes deep into a man’s soul and tries answer questions about his existence in the light of a major theatre of war during World War II… that’s what made that film exceptional… as well as Peter O’Toole coming out of nowhere to make himself and international star, Alec Guiness, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif gave performances of their careers.

There was a compelling article on the American Cinematographer website detailing DP John Schwartzman and his foray into large-format cameras. Schwatzman recently completed shooting THE FOUNDER, about the fast-food pioneer Ray Kroc, and when it was done he visited Panavision to see the new Millennium DXL digital camera, which combines an 8K imager manufactured by RED Digital Cinema with Light Iron color science and workflow optimization.

How many filmmakers had given up Panavision as a HD camera source, since its previous entry – the Genesis – never really caught on (as Red, Arri, and Sony pretty much dominate the HD market for feature films). Mel Gibson’s APOCALYPTO was shot on the Genesis… that might have been the most beautiful and intense film to use that camera system. (Side note: back when producers were converting 2D films to 3D digital, why the fuck didn’t someone ask Mel to a conversion for APOCALYPTO? Probably ’cause he was at the lowest depths of his persona non grata status… but he looks to win back people with HACKSAW RIDGE).

Schwartzman had some revealing insight about the unique nature of the large-format camera, and their lenses.

“Because it’s such a high-resolution sensor, I think it has the kind of softness that film has,” says John. “There’s so much information that it actually softens the image, just like 65mm film has less contrast than 35, and 35mm film has less contrast than 16mm. I thought the camera looked amazing, and I can’t wait to take it out.”

Larger sensors bring more than additional resolution, he says. Many cinematographers say that the way larger sensors interact with optics produces an image that “sees” the world in a way that is more in harmony with human perception.

Achieving an image that more closely approximates a person’s vision is one of the Holy Grails filmmakers seek. And that’s not the coolest thing about the large-format camera system, but it’s part of the 3-way tie for the number thing that’s dope about large-format image acquisition.

“The sensor size alone is a beautiful thing,” Schwartzman continues. “65mm has the same kind of magnification that anamorphic has, but now you’re shooting spherical lenses as opposed to ‘Scope lenses. You’ll get that shallower depth of field.”

“The most important question you ask yourself as a cinematographer when you choose a format for a project is, ‘What is the feeling?’” says John. “Gordon Willis

[ASC] shot The Paper Chase, a movie where people sit around in rooms and talk about law school, in anamorphic. The studio gave him a really hard time, saying that anamorphic was only for Westerns and big epics. Gordon knew that it was for two people in close-up, in the same frame. It’s an actor’s format.

From The Paper Chase (1973), photographed by Gordon Willis, ASC.

From The Paper Chase (1973), photographed by Gordon Willis, ASC.

“The 40mm anamorphic lens has essentially the same field of view and magnification as a human being,” he says. “That’s why, in anamorphic, with a 40mm anamorphic lens, the audience sort of feels like they’re in the room. It’s not the same as a 20mm lens in Super 35 2.40, even though it’s the same width, the field of view is different. Objects moving to and from the lens grow or shrink in the image to a much greater degree than they do on a 40mm lens.

“In a movie like THE FOUNDER, where there are many scenes with groups of lawyers or people around tables, it was nice to be able to shoot without being on an extremely wide lens,” says John. “The head of the person in the foreground isn’t two-thirds of the frame while everyone else is tiny.”

Schwatzman continued to expouse on the large-format sensors like the DXL and the Alexa 65. “In 65mm format, a 75mm lens is sort of the normal field of view,” he says, “roughly equivalent to a 40mm lens in 35mm format. It just feels right. Apparently, when they developed it in the late 1950s, they realized that there was something about this format that puts you in the space. Dan Sasaki calls it ‘The People’s Format.’”

John cites the 1959 BEN-HUR, shot by Robert Surtees, ASC in MGM Camera 65, a 65mm anamorphic large-format that later evolved into Ultra Panavision 70, the gauge that Panavision and Robert Richardson, ASC resurrected for THE HATEFUL EIGHT.

Robert Surtees, ASC (standing) observes while director William Wyler leans in to check the frame while shooting Ben-Hur (1959) in 65mm.

Robert Surtees, ASC (standing) observes while director William Wyler leans in to check the frame while shooting Ben-Hur (1959) in 65mm.

“You get these incredibly big shots, but you don’t feel that they’re wide angle,” he says. “You feel like you’re right there, in the moment. And that’s a really unique experience. It has to do with how the image size and the magnification work together. The wide angle feel can also be cool in storytelling — think of CITIZEN KANE [cinematography by Gregg Toland, ASC]

CITIZEN KANE (1942) Dir: Orson Welles, DoP: Greg Toland, ASC

CITIZEN KANE (1942) Dir: Orson Welles, DoP: Greg Toland, ASC

or THE THIRD MAN [Robert Krasker, BSC], where they used wide-angle lenses in a really interesting way, and made all the sewers and tunnels feel different.

THE THIRD MAN (1949), Dir: Carol Reed, DoP: Robert Krasker

THE THIRD MAN (1949), Dir: Carol Reed, DoP: Robert Krasker

“There’s not one format that’s right,” Schwartzman says. “The point is that you try to pick the right format for the project you’re doing.”

Schwartzman is planning to use 65mm film negative on a forthcoming assignment, STAR WARS: EPISODE IX, directed by Colin Trevorrow and slated to begin production in 2017 for release in 2019.

So there you have some reasons to shoot on Arri 65 (or whatever other large-format camera system) with the older 70mm lenses… to give cinema that something special we don’t see on TV (and probably can’t).

By | 2017-10-30T11:12:59+00:00 October 8th, 2016|Film, Technique|0 Comments