American Cinematographer - April 2017 - 12
So here we are. We've scouted, had numerous meetings with the director, and paid close attention to the wish
list of shots. It's time to complete the movie's equipment list, comprising cameras, accessories, supports and
lenses. We'll order a couple of zooms, a set of primes, and specialty items "for use as needed." The list always
ends up larger than expected, and after it's been submitted, production inevitably asks, "Do you really need
In fact, we don't. We can shoot a movie with just one camera and one lens! I have tried a few times
to exclusively use a 32mm lens, moving the camera to create close-ups and wide shots with the same angle
of view, and found it surprisingly effective. The practice instills a certain calm that seizes the day. It feels like
you better understand the environment in which you are shooting; the movie's world becomes logical and
traceable. It also creates a feeling of intimacy with the actors; it feels like the camera is moving in concert with
them, and they never need to ask where the frame cuts off - they simply know. There is an inherent logic in
moving the camera closer for a close-up and farther away for a wide shot.
Likewise, all of the set technicians suddenly understand what the camera is doing. There's no more confusion about
booms in the shot, no more frustrations about shooting wide and tight simultaneously at the expense of quality sound. And
shots no longer change as the camera rolls because of a director's demand to go "tighter, tighter" on the zoom.
Also, there are the economic benefits of the approach: Not only does the camera budget drop dramatically, the pace
of work on set definitely increases. Indeed, by restricting yourself to this one focal length, the whole process of shooting the
film seems to settle into a level of sanity and reason. It all begins to prove the point: Less is, in fact, more!
The choice of focal length, of course, is ultimately up to you, the filmmaker. Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Orson
Welles, Terrence Malick and others have cited the 28mm as a frequently used focal length. It's a lens that has been a gold
standard in shooting motion pictures for more than a century.
Roman Polanski has also favored the use of very few focal lengths. For The Pianist, he and cinematographer Pawel
Edelman, PSC worked almost exclusively with 27mm and 32mm lenses; for Oliver Twist, they favored a 21mm and a 27mm.
As Polanski told this magazine [Sept. '05], "A wide-angle lens gives you more depth of field, which is important when things
that happen in the background have to be sharp. ... Of course, there is also more sensation of movement with a wide angle
because you see more of the perspective change."
The Godfather was mostly photographed at one focal length; the same with Manhattan and many other films shot
by Gordon Willis, ASC, who preferred a 40mm lens for his spherical work and a 75mm for his anamorphic films. Those
choices, he felt, reflected his eyes' natural view.
For their collaborations on films like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, director Wes Anderson and cinematographer Robert Yeoman, ASC have predominantly favored a single anamorphic lens. Orson Welles made extensive use of a thennew 18mm when he made Touch of Evil with Russell Metty, ASC. And almost every shot in I Am Cuba - directed by Mikhail
Kalatozov and shot by Sergey Urusevskiy - used a 9.8mm lens.
Choosing a focal length is like picking a paintbrush or a color palette. An endless amount of meaning can be attached
to the selection, but in the end it's a very personal choice.
To be honest, I could do 90 percent of my work on 32mm and 40mm spherical lenses - and I often have. And if I'm
shooting anamorphic, I can live on a 60mm. The assistants do not even have to ask in the morning - they put the lens on
the camera knowing it's most likely the one I'll use.
Gordon Willis used to always say "40 and 40," which meant a 40mm lens 40 inches off the floor. Given Gordy's example, who could argue that less is not more?
Kees van Oostrum
Photo by Jacek Laskus, ASC, PSC.
Less is more!