One question I get asked a lot is how to choose the right focal length. Do I go long in a certain situation or do I go wide? How do you know what to choose? There are different times to employ various focal lengths – knowing when to employ each is part of the craft that is cinematography. Here’s my secret sauce for choosing whether to go long or wide in a scene.
For each film I do, I put together these lens rules of engagement. On Need for Speed, we wanted to make Aaron Paul feel very heroic, so we went with slightly wider lenses and pushed in and with some lower angles. It made him seem like the hero and subsequently put the viewer right in the passenger seat next to him.
We used a lot of wider lenses in the car, close up, so we could see as much background as possible. This worked especially well in the profiles and even in the frontal shots. The profiles are a no-brainer when you’re doing car work. If you’re going 25 miles per hour, it looks like you’re going 60 in a profile, but head on it doesn’t. If you catch the background in your head-on-shot, it looks like Hoke Colburn is just driving Miss Daisy in the 1989 classic, Driving Miss Daisy. This wasn’t Needless for Speed, it was Need for Speed. We had to be really moving.
A breakdown of cameras and lenses for the Need for Speed trailer
So what we would do is, we would skew the camera slightly off-center so we would get more profile coming out, let’s say, the driver side window, as well as the rear window. The rear window always looks slow because it’s just stuff that you’re going away from. The profile’s where you gain all your speed. By using those wider lenses pushed in close I can pan over to the right or pan over to the left, if we were dealing with the passenger, to give us as much profile action flying by their driver or passenger side window as possible. It was all about the speed factor during a big car chase.
Our Mt. Kisco night race on Need for Speed
That was kind of the mantra.
Obviously, with our girl, we wanted to go with slightly longer lenses with her. I love the 100mm Cooke. I think it’s a beautiful lens for faces and for especially women’s faces. It kind of flattens them out a little bit and just makes them look stunning, so that was my choice. We used the Cooke S4 Primes on Need for Speed. A lower budget option that would give you a similar looks would be Xeens. Those lenses are right up there in image quality with Cookes. For smaller productions, those would be a perfect fit and would give you a great look for both and the wide shots for the male and longer shots for the female.
Each film has its own type of rules of engagement and lens choice. I usually kind of fix a style and composition as well as a lens choice to each character. That’s what guides me through the film. You want to ask yourself – is this person supposed to feel confined? Will there be much movement? Do we want the background to feel closer to them or jet off into the distance? Those types of questions will require answers that will help inform you on whether or not you need to be long or on a wider focal length.
When we did Fathers and Daughters, I wanted Russell Crowe to be center punched as much as possible. I came up with the idea that when he started to have these breakdowns, we would switch to off-center compositions that were definitely askew. We’d put his whole face off to the right or the left and we’d mess with focus even. That affects the viewers subconsciously.
However, with his daughter, Amanda Seyfried, we wanted her to always be off and never in the center. The camera movement with her was always less grounded. It wasn’t hand-held, we shot it all on the MoVI M10 with the Canon C500. It was settled, but it just had that kind of slight movement that created a wonderful, not-grounded, having no foundation kind of feeling, and that’s what her character was; She did not have a foundation.
Putting together these rules of engagement and selecting a specific style that you’re going to go for is very important in each project that you embark on, depending on the story.
Let’s take Into the Badlands, for example. This series liked the wider lens close-ups. The 35mm, Leica Summicrons were absolutely stunning on Sunny. Sunny, played by Daniel Wu, is an intense martial arts assassin. He looked absolutely amazing with that low 35 mm.
We also had Quinn, our character who is one of these amazing barons, a very powerful baron. The 35mm down low on him was very heroic, was incredible.
We also have this character called The Widow, and we used the same lens on her: the 35mm. Pushed in so close with a wider lens is usually not a great lens for a female. Done far back enough where you’re getting about chest up looks so good though. We would also go to a 50mm on her which looked stunning.
Each project and each piece of work that you create needs to be thought through. It needs to be worked out with the director, production designer, and key crew in order for you to understand how to best tell your story.
What kind of sets you’re building, what lenses are going to be the best for these type of sets, where the focus should land, and what focal length to choose are all super important decisions. They are all choices that lend themselves to the scope of the overall project.
I kind of like shooting on bigger sets because I don’t like to shoot on 14mm lenses to get the expanse of a room. I like to shoot more on 21 millimeter lenses so you don’t have that massive distortion, but it’s still wide enough. There’s sometimes where the distortion is absolutely cool and fits the story you’re trying to tell, in which case you’d go with the 14mm. There’s a wonderful movie called Amelie that was shot all on wide lenses. That’s a great example of how well that can be done to tell a story.
The secret sauce for me, so to say, changes with each project I do. I know that I like a certain look and that I want to infuse what I like into my projects. You want to take a look at what’s right for your project and create your own engagement rules. Rules are a means of guidance but are meant to be broken.
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