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Cinematographers Weigh Pros, Cons of Large-Format Cameras for Tentpole Movies

Cinematography, perhaps more than any other aspect of filmmaking, has experienced tremendous change as a result of shifting technology. One of the biggest disruptions has been the creation of bigger, high-resolution images using digital cameras with large sensors.

The trend rose to prominence with 2015’s “The Revenant,” for which DP Emmanuel Lubezki earned his third consecutive Oscar. About 40% of the film was shot with the large-format Arri Alexa 65, a camera introduced in 2014. When the Alexa 65 debuted, a big question among DPs was whether such a high-resolution, data-rich image was necessary — or even desirable. The camera’s sensor is equipped with a huge active-imaging area, even larger than the film gate in Arri’s 65mm film camera, and significantly larger than a 35mm film frame, the industry standard for many decades.

Other entrants among higher-resolution cinema-grade cameras include Sony’s F65 and Red’s Weapon. Among questions that arose: Would the exponential increase in data, and the attendant headaches and expense, be worth it, artistically and financially? And would the additional resolution result in harsh images and a hyper-realism that some thought would destroy the magic of cinema?

Today, those concerns appear to have been overblown. Advocates say that larger formats have been successful largely because their image is more immersive and subconsciously perceived as closer to human vision.

Big Picture: Ben Davis used both vintage Panavision lenses and the Alexa 65 for “Doctor Strange.”

The trend is especially evident among tentpoles. While some cinematographers are loathe to give up the option of film emulsion for certain stories, many others agree that the larger digital formats deliver images that are pleasing and incredibly detailed without the plastic or crispy feel of early digital cameras.

The trend toward large-format digital has driven a concurrent evolution in lenses. The choice of “glass” has always been a crucial decision for any cinematographer’s aiming to create a specific
look, but the advent of digital has made lens choice even more important. Large-format sensors require lenses that work with the bigger target, and lens-makers have quickly met the demand by fashioning new products. Examples include Arri’s 65mm lenses, which use Hasselblad glass, Panavision’s Primo 70 line, and Vantage Film’s Hawk65 anamorphics.

Cinematographers have also gone retro, reviving and restoring long-mothballed lenses that sometimes date back to the widescreen formats of the 1950s and ’60s. Robert Richardson, who resurrected the Ultra Panavision 70 film format on “The Hateful Eight,” shot his most recent assignment, “Live by Night,” using the Alexa 65 and Super Panavision 70 and Sphero 65 lenses. The Panavision 70s were reportedly those used on “Lawrence of Arabia,” a title long revered by camera pros.

“The Panavision vintage lenses had a soft and creamy patina that mixed beautifully with the attributes of the Arri Alexa 65,” says Richardson. “I was continually surprised by the quality of what we captured. At this time, 65mm film cannot be compared to a larger digital sensor, but that might prove to be a false statement in the years to come.”

The wide range of release formats is also a consideration for DPs. For “Ghost in the Shell,” Jess Hall created a look that paid homage to the original anime series.

“I’ve been searching for a digital camera that had the resolution to handle all kinds of [movie] distribution, along with the ability to reproduce the subtlety of color that’s very prominent in anime,” says Hall. “I also felt that the perspective in anime — wide angle, but with no lens distortion — was an important feature to bring to the movie.”

In this new large-format world, the trend is to adapt the lens to the job at hand. For example, Panavision’s lens guru Dan Sasaki tailored a set of Sphero 65 lenses to Hall’s specifications for “Ghost.”

“I have a set of older Cooke lenses I like, but they won’t cover the larger image area of the 65mm sensor,” says Hall. “Dan translated some of those qualities to the Spheros.”

In the upcoming “Doctor Strange,” DP Ben Davis combined the Alexa 65 with vintage Panavision lenses.

“I found that on the Alexa 65, close-ups look stunning,” says Davis. “My fear was that it would be too clean, too sharp, but the additional information in the highlights and shadows, in combination with those lenses, created the very natural feel I’ve been looking for in digital cinematography.”

Davis acknowledges that the new technology is more expensive. “But in terms of the overall budget,” he says, “it’s insignificant.”

The Red Weapon 8K is the latest camera to enter the large-format fray. Henry Braham recently became the first DP to use it on a feature, Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy 2.”

“We were looking for a great, big-screen theatrical experience,” says Braham. “I really liked the 8K because of the intensity and astounding quality. It’s a very rich, engaging image, and there’s almost an added dimension to it because of the amount of detail in the texture.”

Again, Panavision’s Sasaki helped out by tuning the geometry of the Primo 70 lenses to fit the 8K format.

“The resulting sharpness and the range were what drew me to the lenses,” says Braham. “These cameras bode well for the future of filmmaking, and hopefully for the business side as well.”

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