Television Cinematography Tools Survey

Readers of the Parallax View blog know that television’s current astonishing degree of cinematic quality is due to the talent and skill of cinematographers and their crews. Because the tools have evolved alongside the techniques, I thought it would be interesting and informative to gather information about which cameras, lenses, aspect ratios and formats are being used in television production today. I received responses from 106 different shows. I’m grateful to those who responded and I hope this snapshot is helpful.

The shows range from multi-camera sitcoms to high-end productions with feature film-level schedules and budgets. I hope to publish a spreadsheet version of the complete data sometime soon. For now, I’ll offer some observations.

Fifty-two of the shows — about 55% — use prime lenses more than 85% of the time. On those shows, primes are valued for image quality and their smaller size and weight factor at shorter focal lengths. Zooms are usually brought in because a particular shot demands it, or for quick adaptability. The zoom lens is still a standard tool in TV, and almost every show carries one or more.

Nineteen shows use zooms 90% or more of the time, citing production efficiency as the number one reason.

Eight shows split roughly equally between zooms and primes.

About 10% (11) of the 106 shows shoot with anamorphic glass — clearly a growing trend. Cinematographers say that the format can lend a show a cinematic feel through aspect ratio and the distinctive optical characteristics of anamorphic. In several cases, cinematographers switch between spherical and anamorphic as a means of differentiating between time periods or dramatic situations.

Several shows are shot using older lenses, and several are using modern “vintage” glass designed to have the aberrations and personality of older glass — part of a trend throughout the cinematography world that goes hand in hand with flawless digital sensors.

A significant number of shows – about 13 of the 106 respondents – are making use of older “vintage” glass, or lenses designed to mimic older glass.

When it comes to aspect ratio, 16x9 is predominant — no surprise there. Six shows are delivered in a 2:1 aspect ratio, often by cropping a spherically shot image. The 2:1 frame echoes Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC’s Univisium ideal, which he imagined would offer a universal aspect ratio for features and television.

Three shows are presented in a 2.39:1 frame.

Of course the wider aspect ratio can requires bigger sets, and anamorphic lenses come with their own issues. But as television continues to compete more directly with theatrical presentation, this trend promises to accelerate.

Capture formats and resolutions are all over the map, from Pro Res 4444 to 4K UHD, 2.8K, 3.2K, 5K and 6K, with some shows shooting 8K for visual effects shots. James Chressanthis, ASC shot Greenleaf at 8K, which was down-converted for a 4K master – his producers have an eye on future distribution technologies. The higher resolutions are also justified by archival concerns and reframing/blowup options.

Of the 106 programs submitted for this survey, just two have been shot primarily on 35mm film — both are HBO shows. Crashing is shot by Sam Levy, Brian Burgoyne, Mark Schartzbard and Eric Steelberg, ASC and Westworld is shot by John Grillo and Darran Tiernan. (Paul Cameron, ASC shot the pilot on film and earned an Emmy nomination in the process.) 

Three shows regularly use smaller film gauges — Super 8 and 16mm — for flashbacks and other specialty situations.

I hope to maintain the database going forward, and to update the public info regularly, perhaps monthly. I think the information will be gain in value as we become able to track and compare data over time. At least for now, I’m holding back info about which brands of lenses and cameras are being used.

If you sent me info, thank you! And if you haven’t, please do — my email address is [email protected]. Your feedback is more than welcome.

Please, share this information widely — the more people take part, the more valuable the database will be. 

Behind the scenes of the series Empire with cinematographer Paul Sommers, set up with an Alexa and Fujiinon Premier PL 18-85mm zoom. Photo by Chuck Hodes.

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