Large Format changing Film Language?

I haven’t seen an article on large format cinema lately, and since watching Roma on Netflix last year, I was excited to hear about the latest with regards to this new platform.

Indie Wire Article: Large Format Cameras Are Changing Film Language, From ‘Joker’ to ‘Midsommar

It’s interesting to hear what working professionals are saying but what I found was that there are a lot of opinions in here that, to me, sound highly debatable.  It makes me wonder if some of the information is merely justification for workflow choices influenced by financial or scheduling concerns.  If yes, then it stands to reason that creative goals have been forced into the back seat by marketing departments and profit margin.  If these justifications are so highly subjective, then this particular case study of large-format Digital is an example of how the mere existence of new technology has put the brakes on traditional storytelling.  As with any new tradition in these times of post-industrial social change, we, the Gen-Xers who experienced the old traditions first-hand, have an obligation to ask the question: Was there anything wrong with the old one that just got displaced?

 “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.”


Lawrence Sher, Director of Photography (Joker 2019)

It sounds like Sher is saying that given a shallow depth of field (D.O.F) lens, the wider perspective of large format gives the space and depth needed to give the viewer environmental information.  If you look at the photo example of the comparison between 35mm/27mm vs 65mm/60mm what you see is the exact same field of view.  The only difference being shallow D.O.F like Sher says.  And yes, it does isolate him in that environment.  Technically his statements are correct but where I disagree is with regards to the psychological affect of how the viewer is given a greater “feel” of  “his place.”  To feel a character’s “place” in their environment, it seems to me that you’d opt for deep focus, like Orson Welles and Gregg Toland did in the opening scene of Citizen Kane (where we see the boy outside the window playing with his sled and the foreground fully in focus) or in the way that Cuaron (as the article points out) used wide angle lenses in some of his signature films.  I think that the sample photos in the article show what I’m talking about.  With the deep focus 35mm format shot, you notice that there is more depth in the corner of the room.  Maybe this is because of differences in depth of field or spacial depth or even a tiny bit of wide-angle distortion?… maybe it’s a little of all three.  Granted, it’s a subjective conclusion, but using the tighter lens on the larger format appears to do the opposite of what they intended in pre-production.  I’m sure that lots changed from the time that the test shoots happened and the production phase was under way but it speaks volumes for us when judging the effectiveness of fancy new gear.  Changing the format/lens combination doesn’t seem to give all the advantages the article suggests.  But that shouldn’t take us by surprise because how often can you have your cake and eat it to? So often, as filmmakers, we have to choose one main style over the other and then adjust techniques as necessary, so with format/lens combo the choise is 1) Use 35mm, go wide “subjective camera” and explore the character in relation to his environment, OR, 2) Use 65mm, go tight ” objective camera” and isolate the character from the environment.  If you needed both, Director A may choose to start with option #1 explore, then use some other technique like lighting or blocking to get the former and Director B may standardize option #2 and adjust lighting/blocking to get the later.  Director C may choose to run the large format to achieve objective camera for most of the scene and, in lieu of switching to a fish-eye lens, just adjust the blocking and use an extreme close up to get the effect of subjective camera.

Now, these three scenarios are suggested given a situation where one is stuck out in the field without the flexibility of a studio, and even here the tried-and-true 35mm format holds up next to the new kid on the block.  Let’s zoom out a little and consider: what if you shoot in a studio where you have control over the environment?  Space is no longer a constraint making the large format D.O.F advantages moot.  Or, if you’re a new wave filmmaker and don’t have the resources to shoot in a studio, tradition dictates that you simply write your script to accommodate the proper film language by shooting in the environments to which you have access that also allow for adequate space and light.  I would also point out that one common way to isolate a subject in his environment is to just simplify the background, which is handled by set design rather than the camera department.  This is a key contribution to cinematic language that goes back to the experimentation done by early Russian filmmakers like V.I. Pudovkin, experiments that have been built upon by those who have engaged in the study of semantics and semiotics relative to art and design.

I don’t put any stock in that idea of wide-angle lenses being “cartoonish.” The article uses this negative connotation, referencing the technique used by Welles and the Coen brothers, suggesting that these techniques are antiquated… ridiculous!  In the well-established canon of film language, wide angle distortion imbues a feeling that we have gone subjective, that we have entered the mind of the character in the same way that a novelist would “go subjective” by describing what the character is thinking in prose.  Likewise, I don’t believe that the camera’s physical proximity to the actor has any direct psychological influence on the viewer (unless they’re talking about a close up vs. a medium shot, but perspective changes are possible in all camera formats, even the old VHS camcorders of the 1980’s.)  Actually, there is one possible affect that camera proximity would have on the viewer but it’s indirect and unpredictable.   Close proximity will influence the performance of the actor, but in what way would be relative to each actor’s unique response, whether positively or negatively to the camera and operator being in their personal space.

Ultimately, the characteristics described in the article regarding large-format digital vs. good ‘ol 35mm can be described collectively as “immersive experience.”  If you’ve been following the development of this large format roll out, you probably have read other articles that quote industry heavy weights who have come to the conclusion that, aside from a noticeable increase in resolution, 8K is not much more immersive than 35.  I can vouch for the resolution improvement of 70mm release prints on film-originated projects (having seen Spartacus years ago projected in 70mm at the Paramount Theatre on a super-big screen.)  However, having seen Joker (2019) in 70mm at Alamo Ritz (small screen) I can say that the Joker presentation didn’t look any more immersive that any other film I’ve seen that was shot & screened in 35mm.  Why the discrepancy?  I’m not sure, but my take-away is that the final effect of large format on the viewer is marginal at best (and even then, extremely subjective.)

So, in conclusion, I don’t subscribe to the hype contained in this article which was most likely written in an effort to generate content for the purpose of filling space, but I do appreciate that it was written.  The dialogue continues… and it also gives me a reason to write my own article and fill some space of my own 😊.

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