Old Lenses Give Depth to ‘The Hateful Eight’

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

Hateful Eight Cinematography Robert Richardson
Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

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.”