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Oscar Cinematography Survey: Here’s the Cameras and Lenses Used To Shoot 35 Awards Contenders

The world's best cinematographers explain how they created the visual language of “Roma,” “A Star Is Born,” “Black Panther,” “Vice,” and more.

Cinematographer James Laxton on the set of IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, an Annapurna Pictures release.

Cinematographer James Laxton on the set of “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Picture

“Leave No Trace”

Director Debra Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough on the set of LEAVE NO TRACE, a Bleecker Street release.

Director Debra Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough on the set of “Leave No Trace”

Scott Green / Bleecker Street

Format: Arriraw 3.4K
Camera: Arri Alexa Mini
Lens: Leica Summilux full set plys 15mm Summicron for the woods scenes and Vantage Hawk T1’s for the city scenes.

Michael McDonough: In choosing the Alexa Mini we had a small compact camera that was great for the copious handheld work but still rendered a wonderfully cinematic image. My main objective was doing justice to the characters’ feelings for their environment and bring the audience inside that world with the same feelings the characters had for it. I aimed to express that harmony through a warm and gently contrasting feeling in the look of the woods. The city was a much colder and harsher environment outside of their choosing and again, the cinematography aimed to compliment that mood. The Leica lenses were especially matched to that opening sequence and the Hawks gave the harder ‘edge’ to the city scenes.

Prime lenses of wide and medium focal length meant I would be close to the actors in the woods but the goal with the camera operating was not to be intrusive, to observe without judging, to be quiet and still. In the city by comparison, we used longer focal lengths to suggest separation between the characters themselves and between Ben and Tom and their new environment.

“Mary Poppins Returns”

Dion Beebe (center) on the set of Disney’s MARY POPPINS RETURNS.

Dion Beebe (center) on the set of Disney’s “Mary Poppins Returns”

Jay Maidment

Format: 2.8K ARRIRAW
Camera: Alexa XT and Alexa Mini
Lens: Panavision Anamorphic G series

Dion Beebe: [Director] Rob [Marshall] and I felt strongly about shooting Anamorphic both as a nod to the original and that we wanted to deliver a wide screen movie experience. We were very aware of the built in expectations that come with the title character. She demands a big canvas. The choice to embrace digital capture over film has a lot to do with how Rob and I have evolved working together. Our earlier movies (“Chicago,” “Memoirs,” “Nine”) were all film – 35mm Anamorphic. Rob however is so detail orientated that the large, high definition screens became an important part of his ability to direct action, choreography and monitor the details within the frame. I am comfortable with both film and digital capture and appreciate that different project will require different solutions. Its great to have the choice.

“Mary Queen of Scots”

Actor Margot Robbie (left), Director of Photography John Mathieson (right) and crew members on the set of "Mary Queen of Scots"

Actor Margot Robbie (left), director of photography John Mathieson (right) and crew members on the set of “Mary Queen of Scots”

Liam Daniel/Focus Features

Format: Panavision DXL WS 2.40 8k
Camera: Panavision DXL
Lens: Sphero 65 primes with Primo 70 zooms

John Mathieson: I had been waiting for a totally new Panavision Camera since the Genesis, which shoot some good looking films, “Apocalypto” being one I remember well. Hugh Whittaker and Charlie Todman were keen for me to try out their camera and choose a lens system for it. It compares closely to a 65 or 70mm film camera in format and that meant that all of those 70mm lens sets which have been dormant for quite a while were open to me. I chose the Sphero 65s and the 3 new Panavision Primo 70 zooms which were excellent. I had never shot a film on such a large format and I enjoyed the difference and depth of a lavish spherical image and the high resolution and range of colour the DXL gave me.

“The Old Man & the Gun”

Director of Photography Joe Anderson on the set of THE OLD MAN & THE GUN. Photo by Eric Zachanowich. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Director of Photography Joe Anderson on the set of “The Old Man & the Gun”

Photo by Eric Zachanowich

Format: Super 16mm film cropped to 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Camera: Arri 416.
Lens: Cooke S4s and 3 Canon zooms: 8-64mm, 6.6-66mm (which we called the devil zoom) and the 11.5-138mm.

Joe Anderson: I wanted the cinematography to be fun in “The Old Man & The Gun.” I wanted the camera to be light on its feet and unselfconscious. Curious and expressive enough to whip and zoom around spontaneously. We chose to shoot on Super 16 because the film is set in the early 80s and Super 16 is the best time machine. But you have to be careful because sometimes the format can come off looking like your grandparents’ home movies. We wanted the movie to stand up well on the big screen, so I choose to shoot with a slower film stock. I shot with 200 speed film which I underexposed a bit. This created a lovely amount of grain while still having a solid high definition image.

The slower film stock and the story itself inspired a different lighting approach than we are accustomed to using today. Film seems to like having a little bit softer contrast than digital cameras do so I lit scenes more flatly and used more light than I typically do. This approach really made our cast look great and also served as a bit of a nod to the lighting style typical of the time when our movie was set.

I don’t necessarily love relying on crazy old lenses to create a look. I shot with Cooke S4s which are my favorite lenses. A lot of newer lenses use aspherical elements to cancel out distortion, but this creates unnaturally flat images. A big part of the cinematographer’s job is to create dimension and because of 16mm’s smaller field of view, separating a subject from the background can be difficult. The Cookes did a great job of helping to make our characters stand out and be larger than life.

“On the Basis of Sex”

Cinematographer Michael Grady on the set of ON THE BASIS OF SEX, a Focus Features release.

Cinematographer Michael Grady on the set of “On the Basis of Sex”

Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features

Format: 2.8K Arri Alexa with
Camera: Arri Alexa
Lens: Panavsion Primos detuned to period look and feel of lenses in which the film took place. Full spectrum of focal lengths but the softer feel of the detuning process and slight coating removal allowed for a period feel to the lenses.

Michael Grady: Well, a few years ago we would have certainly shot film and I would have gone for super 16mm. In today’s digital world, it is increasingly difficult to create looks that deviate from the clean sterile aesthetic inherent in digital shooting. Here, I focused on the lens choices, lighting, and the amazing art direction to sustain our appropriate period looks. By slightly detuning primo lenses with subtle coating removal and mechanical alterations that remove some of the crisp sharpness from the lens, I hope that we created a photographic feel that is reminiscent of the times. Ultimately, I tried to have the film’s mechanics and mode of operation use an aesthetic analogous to early 60s and 70s American filmmaking. More formal compositions and less fireworks in the choices of the cinematography. I tried to be more rigid and create composed shots simply because that seemed to echo Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s persona in every way. She is strong, composed, and direct. I tried to shoot the film in that same manner.

Further, I also feel like she is a real super hero. Forget Superwoman or Wonder Woman, Justice Ginsberg is a absolutely real super hero in the flesh. No tights or cape needed; only a robe I guess. In all, I hope that we framed and presented her story with elegance and restraint. Those words seem to describe her demeanor. The presentation of her story had to be framed echoing those same strong, restrained, ideas. No stylistic extravagance was needed.

“A Private War”

"A Private War" cinematographer Robert Richardson and director Matthew Heineman

“A Private War” cinematographer Robert Richardson and director Matthew Heineman

Keith Bernstein

Format: 2.8K arriraw
Camera: ARRI Mini
Lens: Zeiss super speed lenses

Robert Richardson: The intention within “A Private War” was to take a verite approach to the material. I needed a light camera and lens package since we would shoot handheld and steadicam for most of the film. The lighting was to be as natural as possible with the exception of a few hand-picked sequences in London. The remainder was shot in Jordan in not cinematically friendly environments. Matt (the director) comes from the documentary world and he wanted truth in all aspects of the film – from script to performance to camera. This was our compass.

“A Quiet Place”

Left to right: Director of Photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen, Emily Blunt and Director/Writer/Executive Producer John Krasinski on the set of A QUIET PLACE, from Paramount Pictures.

Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (left) on the set of “A Quiet Place”

Jonny Cournoyer

Format: 35 mm film, 4 perf
Camera: 35mm Panavision Millennium Cameras
Lens: Panavision’s C series, T Series and Spherical Zeiss SP

Charlotte Bruus Christensen: When it comes to choosing format and lenses for a story, I always react to the very early conversations with a director. On “A Quiet Place,” John Krasinski expressed the desire to have a timeless quality, a sort of nostalgic quality that will take audiences back to a particular kind of film. We agreed that darkness was going to play a big part in this story, alongside the primary color red. I wanted to photograph that darkness, as appose to creating the contrast in post. I personally still really love the way celluloid film photographs black – it keeps the shadow areas alive in a more interesting way. 35mm film was our choice of format for more than one reason. The concept of the story required big close ups to “hear” silent movement so to say, as well as a decent amount of make-up – dirt and suntan. Also, the director and I agreed that a somehow poetic feel to a modern horror movie would serve this story, and we felt that film was going to support that mix of genres.

The choice of C-series lenses was based on the desire to shoot widescreen. I personally love the warmth and softness they bring and knowing that the color red and a warm interior look was our goal, this was a perfect choice. Yet, the challenge became close focus. The story contains very little dialogue and performances of a quiet nature. I soon realized that photographing distance or closeness for the sound design to develop was an important element. “Little sounds” far away versus “little sounds” close to our lens was obviously going to inspire the sound design. Dan Sasaki from Panavision helped us mix in and match a few T-series lenses, which had a better close focus alongside a spherical set of Zeiss lenses for night scenes.

“The Rider”

Cinematographer Joshua James Richards on Chloe Zhao's "The Rider"

Cinematographer Joshua James Richards on Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider”

Format: 3.2k pro res 4444
Camera: Arri Amira
Lens: Zeiss Ultra Primes

Joshua James Richards: Chloe and I knew going in that we’d be shooting in a wide range of uncontrollable locations and often challenging lighting conditions. This called for the Amira’s versatility and ergonomic ease, which is so important on shoots like this. It’s a lightweight camera that is so well balanced on the shoulder, yet with the Arri sensor you’re still getting the highest cinematic image quality, with great skin tones and dynamic range. Whether it be a run-and-gun rodeo situation, chasing horses galloping through the badlands, or intimate family scenes in a dimly lit trailer home, the Amira holds up.


Director and cinematographer Alfonso Cuaron on the set of "Roma"

Director and cinematographer Alfonso Cuaron on the set of “Roma”

Format: Arri Raw 6.5k
Camera: ARRI Alexa 65
Lens: Arri Prime 65 – 35mm, 28mm, 50mm

Alfonso Cuarón: The film is about memory and you can only approach memory from the standpoint of the present. It’s the present looking into the past. It is meant to be a contemporary black and white photography looking into the past and that meant embracing the digital format in the best possible expression of today and the Arri Alexa 65 offers that. It’s a look that is completely pristine without grain, and has dynamic range and amazing resolution. We were not trying to disguise it with a “cinematic look” but instead embraced the digital look.

“Sorry to Bother You”

"Sorry To Bother You" cinematographer Doug Emmett and director Boots Riley

“Sorry To Bother You” cinematographer Doug Emmett and director Boots Riley

Peter Prato

Format: ProRes Open Gate 3.4k
Camera: Arri Alexa Mini
Lenses: Cooke Anamorphic/i

Doug Emmett: Boots and I were adamant about shooting anamorphic. We love the look and scope that the anamorphic lens brings to the digital image. “Sorry To Bother You” was shot on an extremely tight budget with very few lights and a sparse crew. The Alexa allowed us to embrace anamorphic on the streets of Oakland at night. I’m happy shooting the camera at higher ISO’s and introducing digital “grain” – the effect of shooting at 2000 iso and with anamorphic glass is beautiful and a bit less harsh or plastic-y looking. Boots insisted on making imperfect images that reflected the inequitable world our characters inhabited. Our use of color was usually specific and discovered through conversations on theme and desire. However, in some instances we eschewed norms and just said the to hell motivation and cranked that Skypanel to 11.

The Oakland landscape is a colorful collision of various artistic influences, passionate voices, and energetic troublemakers. The city has an electricity I haven’t seen in any other American town – inspiration abounds with graffiti on every street corner, super unique wardrobes, and delicious foods prepared by passionate locals. My hope was to capture the essence of this city by seeking out Oakland creatives and channeling their energy into Boots’ film. This movie was made by a community of thoughtful and talented people who were moved by this revolutionary script.

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