John Schwartzman, ASC Discusses Large-Format Optics

 

Director of Photography John Schwartzman on the set of Columbia Pictures' "The Amazing Spider-Man," starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone.
Director of photography John Schwartzman, ASC shooting The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).

I had the chance to speak with John Schwartzman recently, and our conversation turned to technology, as it often does. Soon after finishing work on The Founder, about the fast-food pioneer Ray Kroc, John had an opportunity to visit Panavision to see the new Millennium DXL digital camera, which combines an 8K imager manufactured by RED Digital Cinema with Light Iron color science and workflow optimization.

“Because it’s such a high-resolution sensor, I think it has the kind of softness that film has,” says John. “There’s so much information that it actually softens the image, just like 65mm film has less contrast than 35, and 35mm film has less contrast than 16mm. I thought the camera looked amazing, and I can’t wait to take it out.”

Larger sensors bring more than additional resolution, he says. Many cinematographers say that the way larger sensors interact with optics produces an image that “sees” the world in a way that is more in harmony with human perception.

“The sensor size alone is a beautiful thing,” he says. “65mm has the same kind of magnification that anamorphic has, but now you’re shooting spherical lenses as opposed to ‘Scope lenses. You’ll get that shallower depth of field.

“The most important question you ask yourself as a cinematographer when you choose a format for a project is, ‘What is the feeling?’” says John. “Gordon Willis [ASC] shot The Paper Chase, a movie where people sit around in rooms and talk about law school, in anamorphic. The studio gave him a really hard time, saying that anamorphic was only for Westerns and big epics. Gordon knew that it was for two people in close-up, in the same frame. It’s an actor’s format.

From The Paper Chase (1973), photographed by Gordon Willis, ASC.
From The Paper Chase (1973), photographed by Gordon Willis, ASC.

“The 40mm anamorphic lens has essentially the same field of view and magnification as a human being,” he says. “That’s why, in anamorphic, with a 40mm anamorphic lens, the audience sort of feels like they’re in the room. It’s not the same as a 20mm lens in Super 35 2.40, even though it’s the same width, the field of view is different. Objects moving to and from the lens grow or shrink in the image to a much greater degree than they do on a 40mm lens.

“In a movie like The Founder, where there are many scenes with groups of lawyers or people around tables, it was nice to be able to shoot without being on an extremely wide lens,” says John. “The head of the person in the foreground isn’t two-thirds of the frame while everyone else is tiny.”

I asked how this related to the bigger sensors like the DXL and the Alexa 65. “In 65mm format, a 75mm lens is sort of the normal field of view,” he says, “roughly equivalent to a 40mm lens in 35mm format. It just feels right. Apparently, when they developed it in the late 1950s, they realized that there was something about this format that puts you in the space. Dan Sasaki calls it ‘The People’s Format.’”

John cites the 1959 Ben-Hur, shot by Robert Surtees, ASC in MGM Camera 65, a 65mm anamorphic format that later evolved into Ultra Panavision 70, the gauge that Panavision and Robert Richardson, ASC resurrected for The Hateful Eight.

Robert Surtees, ASC (standing) observes while director William Wyler leans in to check the frame while shooting Ben-Hur (1959) in 65mm.
Robert Surtees, ASC (standing) observes while director William Wyler leans in to check the frame while shooting Ben-Hur (1959) in 65mm.

“You get these incredibly big shots, but you don’t feel that they’re wide angle,” he says. “You feel like you’re right there, in the moment. And that’s a really unique experience. It has to do with how the image size and the magnification work together. The wide angle feel can also be cool in storytelling — think of Citizen Kane [cinematography by Gregg Toland, ASC] or The Third Man [Robert Krasker, BSC], where they used wide-angle lenses in a really interesting way, and made all the sewers and tunnels feel different.

“There’s not one format that’s right,” he says. “The point is that you try to pick the right format for the project you’re doing.”

John is planning to use 65mm film negative on a forthcoming assignment, Star Wars: Episode IX, directed by Colin Trevorrow and slated to begin production in 2017 for release in 2019.

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