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‘Murder on the Orient Express’: Kenneth Branagh Embraced Agatha Christie and the Immersive Spectacle of 65mm

Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos captured scale and intimacy aboard the working, moving set for the eponymous luxury locomotive.

Kenneth Branagh stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”

“Murder on the Orient Express”

Nicola Dove


It’s been a banner year for 65mm film — first “Dunkirk” (predominantly shot with IMAX film cameras) and now “Murder on the Orient Express” (shot with the last four existing Panavision 65mm cameras). And both involved Kenneth Branagh as actor and actor-director, respectively.

However, his dual role as master conductor of this celebrated murder mystery and as Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s famed Belgian detective, is more than a mere nostalgia trip. It’s a reminder that the theme of revenge is as relevant today as it was in the 1930s, and that 65mm film can be upgraded to today’s immersive experience. (There were about two dozen 70mm prints struck for exclusive engagements globally, including the ArcLight Hollywood.)

Featuring an all-star cast of suspects (Tom Bateman, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley) and a vainly mustachioed Poirot, the trip aboard the eponymous luxury locomotive proved a great visual and logistical challenge for Branagh’s go-to cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (“Cinderella,” “Thor”).

Kenneth Branagh and Daisy Ridley star in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”

“Murder on the Orient Express”

Photo Credit: Nicola Dove

“The number one thing for us from the beginning was an immersive experience, and that 65 film really could  give us something textural and colorful,” said Zambarloukos. “Ken always gives the reason for using film as ‘that velvetyness.'”

Most of it was shot at Longcross Studios outside of London without resorting to green screen. They built a train set with real carriages and constructed a hydraulic system to create movement, placing nearly 2,000 LED screens both inside and around the train displaying an authentic-looking environment. The cinematographer shot footage in New Zealand for the screens, benefiting actors and viewers alike.

A Bravura Entrance

The entrance into the train station comprises a 2 1/2-minute shot choreographed with the cast and extras (with a lone invisible cut as they wipe past a window). “We basically travel along the entire train, through the whole station, and walk with Poirot as he enters the train,” Zambarloukos said. “And we really cross all of the characters without presenting them. It just feels like a flow that lets you get swept away.”

“Murder on the Orient Express”

A Piece of Cake

One of the more memorable encounters occurs when Ratchett (Depp) unsuccessfully tries to hire Poirot as a bodyguard over a piece of cake. “We cross shot it simultaneously on Johnny and Ken with two cameras to capture their performances,” said Zambarloukos. “And that allowed a very flowing edit to happen where you cut mid-line from actor to actor.

Johnny Depp stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”

“Murder on the Orient Express”

Photo Credit: Nicola Dove

“The great thing about shooting in New Zealand, knowing that we were going to commit to this footage with these LED screens, meant that they knew what landscape is outside of them. We chose the widest landscape so they actually felt that they were exposed in an empty train. And Ken asked Johnny to use a fork instead of a spoon for the cake. It’s a bit more aggressive. It’s the little details that matter, layer upon layer.”

Channeling ‘Dial M for Murder’

The discovery of the murder victim was shot outside the compartment with Poirot and three other characters, high above, inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder.” However, the cinematographer utilized another cinematic influence as well: the theory of distance by Soviet director Artavazd Pelechian in opposition to Sergei Eisenstein, in which you separate the most powerful images as far apart as you possibly can to create a sense of gravity and suspense.

"Murder on the Orient Express"

“Murder on the Orient Express”

“With those four guys clustered around the doorway, it was more economical than trying to divide the small space between the four actors,” the cinematographer added. “The other thing was that the 65mm aspect gave the audience the chance to wander around in the prolonged shot. You can actually see the filaments vibrating in the lamp bulbs. We didn’t plan it that way but it created a minimalist tension that happened to be there.”

The Darkest Shot

With the presence of Gad as Ratchett’s assistant, MacQueen, you had the benefit of his great sense of humor along with a surprising outcry of emotion. “When we did the rehearsal, he went so deep into it, that it visually needed to be shot in that chiaroscuro way,” said Zambarloukos. “Ken saw it and asked if we could go a little darker in homage to the master painters like Georges de La Tour. And we embraced it and it’s the darkest scene in the film.”

Josh Gad, left, and Johnny Depp star in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”

“Murder on the Orient Express”

Photo Credit: Nicola Dove

Making Steadicam History

Finally, the last shot of Poirot leaving the train proved to be the biggest challenge. At three minutes and with the use of three heavy cranes, it also became the longest 65mm Steadicam shot in history, The final beat follows Poirot from his carriage as he continues his way down the entire length of the train and then outside at Brod Station.

“Murder on the Orient Express”

“The 65mm camera is never meant to be used in this way. Zambarloukos said. “The camera is absolutely huge and weights a ton. Really what you use it for is to leave the frame there for the audience to enjoy and the for the eye to roam.  And we did a lot of that. But we challenged ourselves and allowed the audience to be swept away when it was appropriate.”

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