Like many other creative choices on a film set, the cinematographer’s decision on what lens to use can shape the way an audience interprets a film. For instance, the focal length of a lens can dramatically alter the way we experience things onscreen. An ultra-wide-angle lens creates warping and misrepresents characters, presenting them with a cartoonish look. In contrast, a standard lens conveys naturalism as it mirrors the perspective of the human eye. Telephoto lenses mimic the view from a telescope or binoculars, making this lens a standby for films about surveillance or voyeurism. Great cinematographers, however, can use different focal lengths for various situations, thus enriching their movies. So let’s dive into several examples of cinematographers using wide-angle, standard, and telephoto lenses in uniquely creative ways.
Wide Angle Lens (35mm and lower)
Most filmgoers recognize the distortion effects of the ultra-wide-angle or fisheye lens. It characteristically exaggerates depth, which makes the foreground seem unnaturally large, and the background falls off at an abnormal distance, all while bulging the edges of the frame. Russell Metty’s work on Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, which was filmed almost entirely on an 18mm lens, takes advantage of the lens’ distortion to lend the film a nightmarish atmosphere. Directors like Tim Burton, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Terry Gilliam – whose trademark use of the 14mm lens has led other filmmakers to call it “The Gilliam Lens” – have also used the ultra-wide angle lens to heighten the otherworldly aspect of their films.
One of the significant benefits of the wide-angle lens is its ability to collect more light compared to longer focal lengths. For The Revenant, Emmanuel Lubezki exploited the low-light capabilities of 12mm to 21mm wide-angle lenses to accomplish the arduous task of shooting an entire film using only natural light, which naturally resulted in Academy Award for Best Cinematography. For Lubezki, these lenses gave the audience an experience of immediacy, “a little like watching everything through a window; it’s clean, and there’s no texture between you and the character.”
Another cinematographer fond of the wide-angle lens is Janusz Kaminski. A Deeper depth of field is a characteristic for most wide-angle lenses, and Kaminski capitalizes on this trait in his collaborations with Steven Spielberg. In these films, Kaminski usually employs no lens longer than a 27mm since Spielberg is fond of staging action using wide shots and extended camera movement. For instance, In Minority Report - a true scene blocking master class, Kaminski’s choice of wide-angle lens and camera movement allows Spielberg to seamlessly shift our attention from background to foreground, from close-up to master shot. For Kaminski, he and Spielberg “often let[s] the emotions play in a single wide shot.” The wide-angle lens thus becomes the best tool for the two to accomplish intricate staging and scene blocking.
Standard lens (35mm – 70mm)
The standard lens, especially the 40mm and 50mm lens, is a favorite among cinematographers for its removal of distortion and its reputation for being the most accurate representation of human vision. The legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis was the most famous proponent of the 40mm lens, also known as the “Gordy Forty” as a tribute to Willis. The late Willis had a clear preference for the 40mm lens, but even he would hesitate to call it a one-size-fits-all solution. Willis’s inclination for the 40mm lens was simple; it produced a natural-looking picture that would not rob any attention from the story. In this sense, Willis was a classicist, and in his masterpiece The Godfather, he’s able to maintain a level of visual consistency, a purity of sorts, by filming scenes strictly at eye-level through the use of the 40mm lens. Willis wanted his work to be inconspicuous, in total service of the story, and it ironically turned him into an icon.
Keeping visual consistency seems to be the driving factor for using standard lenses, even on the other side of the world. Yuharu Atsuta, the principal cinematographer of director Yasujiro Ozu, helped shape the Japanese director’s unmistakable visual style. The technique is composed of the director’s famous “tatami shots”: low-angle shots imitating the viewpoint of a character sitting on a tatami mat. Atsuta limited himself to the 50mm lens for a variety of shots: master shots, mediums, and close-ups. The standard lens gives incredible variety to the compositions, where each gorgeously-framed shot can stand on its own without disrupting the flow of Ozu’s storytelling and visual style.
Many directors who decide to shoot the majority of their films on a single lens tend to go for the standard lens. For example, ninety-percent of The Godfather was shot on a 40mm lens. Chinatown was mostly shot on an anamorphic 40mm lens. The critically-acclaimed Call Me by Your Name, shot by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, was solely shot on a 35mm lens.
Telephoto Lens (70mm and higher)
If wide-angle lenses distort images through exaggerated depth, then telephoto lenses distort images by flattening space, seemingly compressing background and foreground together. Telephoto lenses are usually reserved for particular situations – such as binocular shots – because of their ability to magnify action from a distance. However, the shallow depth of field and softness of these lenses makes them the perfect tool for abstract compositions.
No mainstream director used the telephoto lens with such bravado as the late Tony Scott, who rarely allowed his cinematographers to use a lens with a focal length lower than 100mm. Scott and his cinematographer Tobias Schliessler shot As seen in The Taking of Pelham 123, primarily on 135mm-420mm and 24mm-275mm zoom lenses, as to exploit the lens rack-focus capabilities. The cinema duo locked in these lenses for their capacity to produces a parallax effect during camera movements, giving this scene an electric kineticism impossible without the telephoto lens.
An extreme example of the telephoto lens tendency to compress space is displayed in the airport scene in Koyaanisqatsi (shot by Ron Fricke), shot on a 1000mm lens with a 2x extender, where the collapse of foreground and background enabled by the telephoto lens gives the illusion of an airport landing on a busy freeway. Because long lenses collapse space, characters in motion can also appear more like blurs or streaks, emphasizing the abstracting capabilities of these lenses. Akira Kurosawa, late in his career, mostly used telephoto lenses to turn figures into pure shape and color moving on his canvas while offering a detached, distanced God’s point of view to his movies. As we’ve seen with the wide, standard, and telephoto lenses, the practitioners of filmmaking have broadened the function of these tools to serve their artistic ambitions.
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