The 'normal' Lens
Recently it was suggested to me that we shoot a film on a 'normal' lens... a 50mm. Although I understood in essence what the director meant, as I began to unpack this notion both for him and for myself I found that the concept exploded. At the heart of his desire to keep the lens choice simple and unaffected was almost everything that is at stake in the cinematographic process. In his 'normal' lens request was the desire for an un-augmented, degree zero, human point of view that has haunted almost every filmmaker.
There are some fairly straightforward issues at stake here. Cartier Bresson did all of his groundbreaking stills photography using a 50mm Leica lens, and this focal length has entered a little into popular consciousness as the 'normal' lens. Now on a Super-35 motion camera, the target is smaller. Film cameras, for reasons of economy, chose to run the 35mm film vertically rather than horizontally... extracting smaller frames across the width rather than the length of the film. So this is fairly easily resolved. We use something in the range of a 35mm lens to give us the equivalent field of view … a 32mm being my favoured equivalent for this task. But the film plane or sensor size has to enter into this debate, this request for a 'normal' lens. With the recent return to larger VistaVision sensors on the current crop of cameras; Red's VV Monstro sensor, Sony's Venice camera and Arri's LF camera, the 50mm might again regain its reputation as the standard lens, the 'normal' lens.
But as I unpacked the idea more I found the contents would no longer go back into the 'normal' case from which they had emerged. The more I spoke and 'explained'... the further we moved away from his original desire. For on a given selection of 50mm lenses (If we return again to this full frame focal length) the rendition of the scene was so different. At the same aperture and with the same focal length an older lens design like the 1930s Cooke Speed Panchro looks radically different to something like an Arri/Zeiss Masterprime. The latter has a sharpness and flatness not present in the older lens; the classic Cooke has a famously centre weighted performance where the frame markedly softens and curves towards its outer edges; while the Masterprime resolves consistently throughout the frame. So which was the normal here, the neutral or natural lens? Perhaps the Masterprime is... where there is no 'glass' apparent in the frame. This lens is in some ways 'transparent' with no signature trace of optical 'character' in our scene... just the scene itself. So perhaps this was our normal... sharp, consistent and geometrically perfect?
I have recently had the pleasure of attending the launches of three sets of full frame motion lenses. Cooke's S7 lenses, Arri's Signature Primes and Zeiss' Supreme range... all three beautiful sets of glass with three sets of nuanced character differences. But in the marketing of all three there was mention made of the new 'organic' quality of the glass... and again I understood in essence what was being said. The current trend in cinema has moved away from some of the optical precision seen in say a set of Masterprimes to lenses that embrace some of the more 'characterful' features of the glass. Back was the softness of focus roll-off, back the slight curvature of the glass, characterful defocused areas, warmth and flare.
So to return to my conversation with my friend the director maybe I should be suggesting the Classic Panchro lenses... maybe their softer, curved optical performing 50mm was more 'normal' or natural for the scene than the optical precision of the Masterprime. Maybe all of this glass character present in the pictures was somehow more 'organic', somehow got more to the truth of the scene than the too scientific precision of the Masterprime? And so as I offered up more lens choices the clarity of my offering became even more cloudy. Some might give us more '3D pop', some were flatter in their geometry, some softer or warmer or sharper...
And then there was the elephant in each frame; the defocused area of the picture, the bokeh. Several lenses might give us a very clean spherical defocus while some a far more painterly, swirling or distorted defocused area. Now, given the push for more 'organic' optics perhaps the 18th century designed Petzval 58mm Bokeh Control lens was the 'normal' we were after. With this lens we could dial up or down the 'bokeh level' of the scene, swirling, blurring and 'painting' the out of focus area while photographing our foreground subjects.
And then there was aperture, as if somehow the choice of focal length was more scene defining than the aperture it might be shot at. Should we perhaps shoot at T1.3 where our subject had only a fine sliver of focus set against a defocused scene, or should we shoot at T5.6 where there was less focus differential between the two. Which would be our 'normal'? Or would we mix the apertures across the scenes, some characters shot at T1.3 separated from the world around them and some at T16 who were more firmly seated into the scene, sharing equal focus with the walls and windows that surrounded them. The aperture we would ultimately shoot at would wildly alter the look of our 50mm lens and be more or less disruptive to the reality we were after.
And what of our actors? If lighting had no impact on our actors was there a more natural or neutral depth we might shoot at. I thought of the actors enduring the enormous amounts of light it must have taken to shoot the deep focus used on Citizen Kane with its slow film stocks and decided my suggestion we shoot at T16 might work against the naturalism of the performances... an optical naturalism at odds with the needs of the actors. Similarly we might try shoot on Leica's 50mm Noctilux f 0.95 lens... it's ultra fine cross section of focus would need very little, if any, light. But then the naturalism of the performances might be squashed by the demands of focus. We could embrace a more 'verite' operator-focus style where characters moved in and out of focus as the operator struggled to keep their eyes sharp (for not much else would be in focus). But then the heavy 'signature' of this focus hunting would probably work against the naturalism and normalcy we had been after. Equally if we issued rigorous and demanding focus marks and positions for our actors we might drain the life out of their performances.
And where in this scale of focus depth did our 'normal' lie. Would it be too graphic and 'two dimensional' to use shallow focus, or was the placement of our characters more firmly in their surrounds with deeper focus more natural or more neutral. Or might the sharpness of everything take us back out of the scene as we were forced to examined the bricks and curtains of the location?
And we had not begun to move the camera yet...
What if our 50mm lens were close focusing, or a macro even? Would the spatial distortions of our subject still be 'normal' if we had them a few millimetres from the front of the glass, the room dropping wildly into de-focus... would this still be 'normal'? I thought of Chivo's beautiful work on The Revenant where at times he is so close to his actors that their breath fogs the lens. Interestingly here the naturalism celebrated in the press was rendered on extremely wide lenses at deep focus apertures... most of the film was shot on 14mm and 16mm Masterprimes shooting at what looks like T11... a complete undoing of our 50mm. So what distance did we imagine placing our subjects at in relation to our 'normal' lens? And equally important what distance did we anticipate our audience would be from their screens and how big were these screens? All of these optical scales and geometries would wildly affect the natural rendition we were after. The camera's spatial relationship to its subjects would impact as much as the lens used.
And once this distance was decided how might we move the lens. Perhaps we might just watch the scene from a tripod, uninterrupted... the presence of the camera now totally invisible... just our 50mm lens between us and the scene. Maybe any movement, close ups, editing even, were working against us. Or maybe it was exactly from the pioneering filmmakers' destruction of this Proscenium arch, in their hungry exploration and manipulation of the space that modern cinematography was born?
Or, if it was to be naturalistic then perhaps the documentary trope of handheld was best suited? We might place the audience into the scene as virtual participants, moving and breathing with the actors as we leaned in or across to get a better view of the proceedings. Maybe this human movement was more natural and organic and would help with our lens choice? Or perhaps, as David Fincher famously feels, this handheld work is antithetical to the naturalism of the scene. Perhaps the handheld signature of the camera screams out the presence of a third party in the room, permanently drawing the audience's attention to the presence of the fourth wall and the filmmaker's holding, shaking and moving of it. Perhaps the elegance of Fincher's carefully orchestrated camera moves is more invisible … maybe this mastering of precision grip equipment was the new 'normal'?
And at what height might we place the lens... should it be at the height of the adult audience... or, since the shoot in question follows the lives of children... do we exist at the height of our child protagonists? Or do we vary this, do we look up at the adults in the scene, or down at the kids. These elevations are so famously manipulated in a film like Silence of the Lambs that it begins to feel artificial for a modern audience, too overworked and thereby at odds with our quest for the 'normalcy' of the 50mm lens.
Or do we forgo spherical optics entirely and shoot anamorphic... I won't do justice here to the anamorphic equivalent debate, but let us just say we shoot on a 50mm anamorphic lens. If films are perhaps more about other films than they are about reality... a sort of Baudrillarian hyperreality... then maybe we tap into this history better by shooting on the anamorphic lenses so loved by cinematographers in the heyday of 70s and 80s cinema. Perhaps, unlike Roger Deakins, we like the distorted defocus character, the elliptical bokeh, the stray horizontal flares and the aggressive focus breathing (and let's not get into flare quality on our lenses here!) maybe this complete artificiality; entirely at odds with the spherical optics of our own eyes, has more in common with our history of cinema... and so maybe this anamorphic 50mm is more 'normal', this look more natural to the world of cinema?
Exhausted, we decided to call it a day before the lighting debate, the effects of hard and soft light on our lens choice, of flares, filters, veiling glare, of camera gamma, optical low pass options, de-bayering algorithms, screen size and viewing platforms, post process effects...
In parting, I suggested we shoot handheld with the Angeniueux Optimo 30-80mm...