Old Lenses Give Depth to ‘The Hateful Eight’

Hateful Eight Cinematography Robert Richardson
Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Retrofitting a bloody Western with all-but-forgotten tech.

Quentin Tarantino wanted something special for “The Hateful Eight.” He knew he wanted to shoot it in 70mm — so much so that the words “in glorious 70mm” are peppered throughout his infamously leaked screenplay.

He also wanted the film to screen in a limited “roadshow” engagement, with an overture and an intermission — a throwback to old movie palace days. But when Robert Richardson, the director’s cinematographer over the past decade, stumbled onto a few near-antique Ultra Panavision lenses at that company’s facility in Woodland Hills, Calif., a new door opened.

The industry relics — used on movies like “Ben-Hur” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” but which hadn’t seen the light of day since 1966’s “Khartoum” — manifest the widest possible cinematic frame, with an aspect ratio of 2.76 to 1 (as opposed to the 1.85 to 1 or 2.35 to 1 aspect ratios of most modern productions).

However, “Hateful Eight” takes place mostly in one interior location, a circumstance that seems antithetical to a format so well suited to wide vistas and landscapes.

“I thought it could be really cool in this claustrophobic situation,” Tarantino argues. “It makes the close-ups very,
very intimate.

Some new lenses had to be manufactured, however, while the mechanics on some of the older ones had to be modified. That’s where Dan Sasaki, Panavision’s VP of optical engineering, and his team came in.

“Originally we thought this was going to be a slam dunk,” Sasaki says. “But (during) a five-hour meeting, the whole show just unraveled. We didn’t know if the infrastructure was going to exist. Is it going to look good? Will the lab be able to handle it? Will we be able (to have) the projection lenses?”

The look achieved by the old lenses duplicates what we see with the natural eye better than any other format, Sasaki says, with the camera’s prism elements evoking all of our natural depth cues.

“I’ve got half the room in the frame, minimal. If I’m moving, I basically shoot two-thirds of the room.”
d.p. Robert Richardson

The ultra wide angle also meant the camera would catch so much of the set that Tarantino could stage actors all over the frame in interesting ways to aid the visual storytelling. “Maybe it’s John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) talking about something, but then there’s also an important play going on in the background,” the director says. “You’re always able to keep track of where everybody is and what’s going on and the reality of the room.”

This greatly impacted Richardson’s lighting, however. “I’ve got half the room in the frame, minimal,” he says. “If I’m moving, I basically shoot two-thirds of the room. All I have to do is a six- or seven-foot move and a pan to recorrect, and I’ve basically shot out the set. And Quentin was doing 360. No holds barred for him. It didn’t stop his creativity.”

Ultimately Richardson was so taken with the format that he tried to rent the lenses for Ben Affleck’s “Live by Night,” which is shooting on the Arri Alexa 65 large-format digital camera Emmanuel Lubezki used for “The Revenant.” But alas, the Ultras had been whisked away to London for the production of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” by cinematographer Greig Fraser.

“The colors scream,” Richardson says. “It would be lovely if we could achieve more of this. But the cost is phenomenal, and there’s no one trying to lower that price point.”

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  1. Yirmin says:

    Uh… what am I missing here… Why should the cost be that great if the big change is simply going to a 2.76:1 format vs a 2.35:1 format…. One would think that all you really need to invest in is an appropriate anamorphic lens to shoot through and then all you existing lenses from the 2.35:1 could be used. Not sure where the cost is or why they don’t just contract out replacement of the lenses… Surely the patents are long since expired and a lens isn’t a complicated machines given the ability of computer controlled machines in manufacturing the glass elements. What am I missing? Or is this just a PR piece intended to generate more buzz around a movie that might not be able to break even?

    • Very, very complicated. It’s not just about aspect ratio. It’s about the actual look achieved by these lenses. There was a lot of work that had to be done to preexisting “prism” lenses, while spherical lenses that approximate the look of the Ultras were designed and created as well. To wit, from Sasaki:

      “An anamorphic lens consists of two lenses. You have the spherical half and an anamorphic half. We knew we really couldn’t touch the anamorphic half so we had to degenerate the spherical half to make it look like the original lenses from the ’60s. And that took the combination of having the anti-reflective coatings, in some cases, replaced, so they would have more of this kind of orangey flare, not a more modern blue flare. We had to re-space the elements, which would cause the light not to focus to a nice clean point. We actually had kind of a heel around it. And it was a combination of that, borrowing technologies from our old anamorphic lenses to make the two halves talk to each other. We finally got that figured out.”

      Then there’s the price point on 70mm film stock, which is considerable, and really what Richardson is getting at: Studios have found a cost-effective solution in digital. It’s difficult to get them to budge when the ocean liner is heading in that direction.

      But please, be snarky and think a piece of journalism is PR just because you can’t wrap your head around something…

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