Large Format Cameras Are Changing Film Language, From ‘Joker’ to ‘Midsommar’

Five years ago, ARRI announced that it would make its large-format digital camera available for rental, but it has taken a few years to understand the dramatic impact they would have on filmmaking across the industry. Greig Fraser became one of the first cinematographers to jump on board, opting to shoot “Rogue One” entirely on ARRI’s new Alexa 65. In an interview with IndieWire when the 2016 movie was released, Fraser called the camera a “game-changer” for being so “immersive,” adding that the “emotionally encompassing” format should no longer be considered only for large-scale, large-budgeted films.

He wasn’t kidding around. After “Rogue One,” Fraser would bring the camera to Europe to shoot director Garth Davies’ much smaller film, “Mary Magdalene,” a story centered on the emotional journey of Jesus Christ’s eponymous confidant. “That’s this intimate film set in 33 AD,” said Fraser at the time. “It’s all filmmaking, this idea that we need to pigeonhole technology or approach to different types of movies is so limiting.”

Now, the examples are everywhere. The large-format cameras — including the Panavision Millenium DXL, Sony F65, and ARRI’s new LF series, which joins the popular Alexa 65 — do capture images with significantly more detail, but that’s not specifically why the introduction and growth of large format digital cameras over the last few years has had such a profound influence on our big screen images. Large-format cameras also have a significant impact on a filmmaker’s use of lenses.

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For example, using a 50mm lens on a 65mm format camera produces a field of view roughly the equivalent of a 25mm lens on 35mm format, while maintaining the characteristics and optics of the tighter 50mm lens — specifically a shallower depth of field and more compressed rendering of space. In other words, the large format allows you to see wider, without going wider, as you can see in the example below. The top image was shot on a 27mm lens on a 35mm format camera; the bottom image was shot on a 60mm lens on a 65mm format camera.

The top image was shot on 27mm lens on a 35mm format camera; the bottom image was shot on a 60mm lens on a 65mm format camera.

ARRI

Initially, there was a real battle for the first large-format digital cameras available for rent. Over the last three years, as large-format digital cameras and lenses are becoming more readily available, it has become yet another paintbrush option for filmmakers who can afford it.

Director Todd Phillips is devoted to shooting on celluloid, so there was no way “Joker” would be shot digitally. The problem: The director and his long-time cinematographer Lawrence Sher also believed that “Joker” would benefit from being shot in large format and the still-limited 65mm film cameras were unavailable, tied up on the sets of both the latest James Bond and Christopher Nolan films. Three months before production began, Sher took Phillips around New York to shoot test footage at key locations using both a 35mm film camera and the Arri Alexa 65.

“Todd was really adamant about shooting film, convinced we’d just shoot 35mm like we did on his previous films,” said Sher. “We drove around to three or four different places around the city and captured imagery with no lighting in both those formats. And when we looked at them side by side, we really loved the large-format aspect of the 65.”

“Joker” is principally a character study, one that relies on both Joaquin Phoenix’s performance and his relationship to his environment, which includes a large number of interiors. It was these compositional demands that made the celluloid-obsessed Phillips pick 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,” said Sher. “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.”

Getting a camera up close to a subject while maintaining a wider field of view is nothing new — one just has to watch an Orson Welles movie or an early Coen Brothers effort to see how filmmakers working in a 35mm format have used wider lenses over the years. The difference is that Welles and the Coens embraced the spatial distortion of an 18 or 21mm lens, where objects close to the camera appear disproportionately bigger than what’s behind them. In addition to the great depth of field, the spatial distortion or seeming cartoonish-ness of a semi-fish eye effect was baked into their cinematic language. Welles’ “Touch of Evil” (trailer below) is a perfect example of this:

This effect was the exact opposite of what Phillips and Sher wanted for “Joker” inside his apartment, his therapist’s office, and various subway cars. “With the larger format, you suddenly put that 50mm [lens] up, and you’re able to feel his place in his apartment, or in his world,” said Sher. “You get a sense of the environment, but you’ve isolated him in that environment with this shallower depth of field.”

Alfonso Cuarón is another example of a wide-lens filmmaker, one who prefers longer takes with deep focus and a wider field of view. Dating back to “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” Cuarón has made a conscious effort to explore cinema through the relationship of foreground and background, or a character and the world around them. In “Roma,” that ability to not only show more of that world around main character Cleo, but to bring that world up closer to the viewer gives the largely observational film an immersive feeling — a feeling Cuarón, in previous films, would often rely on camera movement to achieve.

Prior to “Roma,” Cuarón relied almost entirely on 18 and 21mm lenses (with a 35mm in the mix) on “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Children of Men,” and “Gravity.” When his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki convinced him to shoot “Roma” in a larger format (in that case, the Alexa 65), Cuarón struggled to find the equivalent of his old standby 35mm lenses that had become so familiar.

Leaving his comfort zone turned out to not be a bad thing for Cuarón, whose instinct with “Roma” was to go “tighter.” “Those two lenses that we used [on ‘Roma’], the 25 and the 35mm, they just end up providing this very interesting compromise between depth of field and size of the frame,” said Cuarón. “It just brought the background a little bit closer than what I was used to, but also in a wider scope. That just added information.”

“Roma”

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Cuarón ended up with the feel and intimacy of a slightly tighter frame, with the background and foreground appearing closer together, but he was actually seeing wider than he ever had before. In her review of “Roma” for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis captured the contradiction of the film’s intimacy and visual scope. “Working on a panoramic scale often reserved for war stories, but with the sensibility of a personal diarist. It’s an expansive, emotional portrait,” wrote Dargis. “Many directors use spectacle to convey larger-than-life events while reserving devices like close-ups to express a character’s inner being. Here, Cuarón uses both intimacy and monumentality to express the depths of ordinary life.”

In this year’s “Midsommar,” director Ari Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski play with this spatial dynamic of large format cinematography in a different way.

“Midsommar”

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“I designed scenes so there was always something happening in each plane: background, foreground, midground,” said Aster. While Aster and Pogorzelski chose the large format Panavision Millennium DXL2 camera because of the way it captured the color and detail of their sun-lit fairytale, the ability to move off the 27mm lens they relied on for the 35mm “Hereditary,” and switch to 40, 50, and 55m large format lenses made a huge difference in how they captured Aster’s three-plane staging. “You could get these beautiful vistas, but not making things feel like they’re super far away,” said Pogorzelski. “You could play with focus a little bit more as in a cinematic language of choosing what’s in focus.”

Shooting on 65mm film stock has been around for more than a half century, but was traditionally reserved for films like “Lawrence of Arabia” that were “epic” in scope. What’s been fascinating over the last three years is how smaller and often more intimate films have begun to utilize the kind of large format cinematography normally used on “bigger” films. There are few films more intimate than Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” which features bold, almost extreme close-ups of the film’s two lovers looking right at the camera.

“You have the same sort of presence of being, of seeing like you’re in a close up of someone, but now you also see much more expression, and much more of the physical performance someone is giving,” said cinematographer James Laxton, who shot “Beale Street” on the Alexa 65. “So it just feels like you’re really close in a moment with a character, within the character’s space, in a way more traditionally we would be seeing just less of the performance. It’s like you kind of get this sort of intimate close up feeling, when watching a scene with a 50mm lens, but now we’re seeing much more of that person. That performance and how the character is framed in their space is just different, in a way that’s almost trippy at first.”

“If Beale Street Could Talk”

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The Alexa 65 has now become the standard digital camera used to be blown up to shoot IMAX films. Large format cameras are standard on many of the biggest franchise films, Marvel included. That idea of a big sensor or film negative being used on a big film still existing. And while on big and small films alike the cameras can offer a sense of scope, we are seeing a new generation of filmmaker use its more immersive properties and in a way that is changing the spatial relationship between camera/viewer with character and environment.