“Joker” uses several iconic films from the 1970s as touchstones of inspiration, from Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” to Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” but one of the key differences separating the comic book drama from its 1970s influences is “Joker” was shot on digital, not celluloid film. While speaking at Poland’s Camerimage Film Festival (via Variety), “Joker” cinematographer Lawrence Sher said shooting on film was an original priority for director Todd Phillips. Sher and Phillips have worked on several film projects together, all of which shot on celluloid. Variety reports the “Joker” team planned for a 70mm film shoot (which means shooting on 65mm film stock and distributing on 70mm), but Warner Bros. execs “quashed those plans.”
Sher did not give a reason for Warner Bros.’ rejection of a 70mm shoot, although shooting on film is a costlier endeavor than digital. The studio had every reason to want to keep the “Joker” budget as low as possible considering the film was a tougher sell on paper than other comic book films like the various PG-13 Marvel movies. Phillips has been vocal about the film’s lower-than-normal tentpole budget (estimated in the $60 million range) being a driving force behind the studio allowing him to make an R-rated character study version of a comic book film.
With a 70mm shoot prohibited by Warner Bros., Sher and Phillips eyed a 35mm shoot. While 35mm would’ve kept “Joker” on film, it would lose the desired large format scope of 70mm. “Todd was really adamant about shooting film, convinced we’d just shoot 35mm like we did on his previous films,” Sher told IndieWire earlier this year, “We drove around to three or four different places around [New York City] and captured imagery with no lighting in both [35mm film and Arri Alexa 65 formats]. And when we looked at them side by side, we really loved the large-format aspect of the 65.”
Large format was key to capturing the desired look of “Joker.” Sher told IndieWire’s Chris O’Falt that “Joker’s” compositions were designed to stress the relationship between Joaquin Phoenix and his environment, including many interior settings. For this reason, “the celluloid-obsessed Phillips picked the digital Alexa 65 over 35mm film.”
“We were often going to be quite close to Joaquin physically, in proximity, in his apartment in some of those scenes,” Sher told IndieWire. “A camera three feet away from him, which also has a real psychological effect of connecting you to a character and feeling that sense of intimacy, but now we didn’t need to shoot it on a 21mm or a 24mm.”
When speaking to IndieWire, Sher also mentioned that the still-limited large format film cameras were being used on the sets of the new James Bond and Christopher Nolan movies, which also led the “Joker” team to digital. Ironically, Warner Bros. ended up giving “Joker” a limited theatrical release in converted 70mm and 35mm presentations. IndieWire has reached out to Warner Bros. for further comment.