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View Full Version : Favorite Filmmaker's Favorite Focal Lengths



Adam C Lubkin
04-27-2007, 10:27 AM
We have another thread going about YOUR favorite focal lengths. The idea of this one is to compile notes on focal lengths favored by directors and/or cinematographers you admire. To get this started, I'll repost a quote I posted in the other thread. It's from cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, on working with Ken Loach, in the April issue of American Cinematograper:

"There is never a shot that is wider than your field of vision"..."We carry everything from a 40mm to a 200mm, but we tend to stick to five lenses: 65mm, 85mm, 100mm, 135mm and 180mm. No matter how small the interior, you only see the detail because the camera pans around it."

Apparently Loach has him take the same visual approach in all his films, so these notes should apply to My Name Is Joe and Sweet Sixteen as much as The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

David Mullen ASC
04-27-2007, 10:47 AM
Over the years, we've seen directors & DP's favor certain choices. For example, much of "Citizen Kane" was shot on a 25mm (Academy) and Orson Welles was one of the first people in Hollywood to use the new 18mm a lot, for "Touch of Evil".

Spielberg loves the 27mm Primo or the 29mm Z-Series at Panavision apparently, even for close-ups. Terry Gilliam often shoots with a 14mm (although lately cropped to 2.40 for scope release).

Wes Anderson favors the 40mm anamorphic (2.40); he used a 27mm Primo for most of "Bottle Rocket" (1.85). Polanski favors the wide-angle lenses, in the 18mm range, and he used the 40mm anamorphic for "Chinatown". You have to remember that a 40mm anamorphic has the horizontal view of a 20mm spherical.

Hitchcock preferred the 50mm lens; most of "Psycho" was shot on a 50mm. Ozu insisted on using 50mm, shooting entire movies on this one focal length.

Ridley Scott says that he's happiest when he can use 75mm and longer for his masters. He prefers zoom lenses.

Kurosawa shot some of his interior scenes for "Red Beard" on a 500mm anamorphic lens, stopped down to f/22 for depth of field. He generally shot above 100mm with multiple cameras (usually with zooms in his last few movies).

Steve Gibby
04-27-2007, 10:59 AM
In view of the wide diversity of favorite lens choices by directors, DPs, and cinematographers, the timeworn colloquilism "Opinions are like noses, everybody has one", could effectively be modified into "Opinions are like favorite lenses, everybody has one".

My favorite lens is the lens that best illustrates what I'm trying to communicate to the audience with the shot...and my "favorite" lens varies from shot to shot accordingly...

David Mullen ASC
04-27-2007, 05:53 PM
Assuming space is not a determining issue, the main reason you pick one focal length over the other is perspective control, i.e. spatial compression or expansion, which not only affects how some objects look, but also affects how dynamic a moving camera or object will look.

Many action directors follow James Cameron's advice to shoot lateral movement with long lenses to increase the sense of speed, and to shoot forward & backward movement with wide-angle lenses for the same reason.

A good lesson how different focal lengths look is the end scene in "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" when Eli Wallach discovers the cemetary where the gold is buried. The cemetary is laid out in a series of rings and Wallach goes around the circle starting in the middle and working his way out in a spiral pattern to the outer rings. The camera mostly shoots a 360 degree panning shot from the center of the circle and as he gets farther away, zooms in to compensate so that by the time he is running around the outer rings, the background in the panning shot is a fast blur. What's great about the sequence is the Ennio Morricone music that goes with it, building louder and louder as the panning gets more and more extreme.

Adam C Lubkin
04-27-2007, 07:49 PM
Kurosawa shot some of his interior scenes for "Red Beard" on a 500mm anamorphic lens, stopped down to f/22 for depth of field. He generally shot above 100mm with multiple cameras (usually with zooms in his last few movies).

Wow, that's pretty hardcore. Love Red Beard. I've always wondered why it isn't mentioned more often. One of the supremely great movies, IMHO. When I saw the stills you posted the other day I got to wishing it was screening around here soon.

Adam C Lubkin
04-27-2007, 08:06 PM
Edited.

David Mullen ASC
05-06-2007, 09:47 PM
Many action directors follow James Cameron's advice to shoot lateral movement with long lenses to increase the sense of speed, and to shoot forward & backward movement with wide-angle lenses for the same reason.

A good lesson how different focal lengths look is the end scene in "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" when Eli Wallach discovers the cemetary where the gold is buried. The cemetary is laid out in a series of rings and Wallach goes around the circle starting in the middle and working his way out in a spiral pattern to the outer rings. The camera mostly shoots a 360 degree panning shot from the center of the circle and as he gets farther away, zooms in to compensate so that by the time he is running around the outer rings, the background in the panning shot is a fast blur. What's great about the sequence is the Ennio Morricone music that goes with it, building louder and louder as the panning gets more and more extreme.

I found some frames that show the layout of the cemetary, and two frames showing the telephoto panning shot and then a later one with a longer telephoto lens, where you can see how the compression makes the panning speed look more dynamic:

http://www.davidmullenasc.com/goodbadugly1.jpg

http://www.davidmullenasc.com/goodbadugly2.jpg

http://www.davidmullenasc.com/goodbadugly3.jpg

Shawn Nelson
05-06-2007, 10:04 PM
Wow David, thanks. I had never heard that advice, but it makes such good sense. Did you hear this from Cameron himself or did someone else develop this rule of thumb? Any other advice like it?

wshultz
05-06-2007, 11:09 PM
Yes, thanks David. Did you include your favorite focal lengths? I was under the impression lenses got changed a lot during filming.

David Mullen ASC
05-06-2007, 11:24 PM
Cameron said this in an interview about "Terminator 2" when asked to describe how he picks lenses for shooting action scenes. It's all about whatever increases the energy level of the movement.

I don't have a favorite focal length myself, although if I had to shoot an entire feature on one lens, it would probably be a 50mm anamorphic, because it matches human widescreen vision very well. It has the neutral perspective of a 50mm spherical in terms of how the lens enlarges or shrinks the subject, but it sees horizontally like a 25mm spherical lens. So it's a wide-angle lens that doesn't feel like a wide-angle lens.

John Allardice
05-07-2007, 12:01 AM
I think one of the reasons that the 50mm anamorphic feels right is, because it matches the human FOV nearer than any other lens....its roughly 2 1/2 times as wide as it is high, it blurs a little at the edges,theres CA and flares at extreme angles, and older ones have a certain amount of barrel distortion (and I dunno why we all associate a little barrel distortion with human vision, but we all do....theres a siggraph paper in there somewhere)......and whilst our brain filters out out-of-focus areas, I'd be really interested to know, based on the mathmatical formulae of aperture, focal length and such, what our apparent depth of focus would actually be...I'll bet ( at night, indoors) it wouldn't be too far off a 50mm anamorhic at around 2.8

Jason Murphy
05-07-2007, 07:18 AM
IIRC, Robert Bresson, who is one of my favorites, shot pretty much all of his movies with 50mm's, much like Ozu. He was pretty adamant about this.

And certainly, Cameron wasn't the one to come up with the idea of using long lenses to telephoto lateral action. If you look at Kurosawa's 'Rashomon' (1951), this is precisely how he shoots the woodsman running away from the murder scene early on in the film. I'm sure there are examples of directors who had this figured out before this, too.

As for favorite filmmakers, I know that Hou Hsiao-hsien (another one of my faves) favors 85mm's and some 135mm's for shooting many of his interiors.

David Mullen ASC
05-07-2007, 07:33 AM
Even if telephotos were used earlier (I'm sure some of the exciting panning shots in the chariot race in the Silent Era "Ben Hur" used longer lenses) it was Kurosawa who really made the use of long lenses for action scenes (and multiple cameras, even though the silent "Ben Hur" did that too) famous, particularly for the final battle in "Seven Samurai".

krd
05-07-2007, 07:40 AM
Scorsese famously dislikes long lenses, though making exceptions for his own favorites (e.g., Kurosawa). In Rashomon, Kurosawa shot at least one running sequence in the woods by positioning the camera in the middle of a circle, and having the actor run around the perimeter. With the telephoto, it looks like lateral motion and can go for as long as the actor can keep it up. Seems obvious in retrospect, but still, good trick.

Fassbinder thought the 32mm was closer to human perspective than the 50mm -- Ali, Fear Eats the Soul is a good example, I believe he used only the 32. Subjectively, I have the same impression: 32mm somehow seems more "natural", though clearly the 50 also conveys that sense, with just a bit of compression visible on shots with a deep background-- Ozu's night shots in the bar district of Tokyo and those receding electric signs, and his hallway interiors, for example.

I suspect Hou uses longer lenses out of necessity -- a lot of his stuff is on the street, and he must be concealing his camera. Also, his love of slow lateral tracks, indoors. They probably wouldn't work with wider lenses(?) And he seems to want to isolate his characters in those long takes. Very little DOF in his shots.

But apart from Hou, the art-house bias definitely seems to tilt toward wide rather than long, and maybe the opposite in Hollywood?

David Mullen ASC
05-07-2007, 08:17 AM
You also have to factor in that a 50mm in the classic 1.37 Academy format would show more of a vertical space than when it's cropped down to widescreen 1.66 or 1.85 -- so to get the same overall "neutral" feeling in perspective, you may end up with a 40mm or 35mm for 1.85, for example.

There is an old trick called a "western dolly shot" (not to be confused with the wooden dolly of the same name) which basically means to use a long lens and have actors on horseback, doing a dialogue scene, do a slow circle around the camera, keeping the same distance to the lens. It looks like a lateral pan / track as long as the circle is big enough. Useful for doing shots where the camera is panning with someone running through the woods and you don't want to have to adjust focus.

It seems movies in general have been falling into a longer-lens, shallow-focus look, partially because of the multiple camera technique, which is easier when using long lenses. It's hard when a camera is up close to the subject with a wide-angle lens to fit a second camera on the subject and not see the first camera.

Ruairi Robinson
05-07-2007, 08:46 AM
It seems movies in general have been falling into a longer-lens, shallow-focus look, partially because of the multiple camera technique, which is easier when using long lenses. It's hard when a camera is up close to the subject with a wide-angle lens to fit a second camera on the subject and not see the first camera.

It also means you can cut anything to anything, and not have to worry so much about continuity, or geography. Hence: bad action scenes with no sense of space.

Quote from Terry Rossio (one of the writers of Pirates of the carribean, and surprisingly honest re: his involvement co-writing Deja Vu)


The problm with Tony Scott movies, which is completely in keeping with what is stated in the article, is the *exact same effect* can be achieved by taking your rough footage, putting it in a blender, hitting PUREE for a half a second, and then cutting together the result.

What's great is, anticipating this process, you don't even have to block scenes or camera movies, just roll five cameras on everything from a distance with a long lens and take what you get.

Yeah, it's disjointed, kalaidoscopic, unnerving ... but like finger painting, it's just too easy.

http://www.wordplayer.com/forums/moviesarc07/index.cgi?read=84375