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How to choose your lens?


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#1 Adam Paul

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Posted 10 February 2007 - 06:31 PM

I like watching pre-visualization clips from movie making ofs. It?s interesting to compare to the final results. I also like that they show the lens ?used?. Now I don?t know if the lens choice reflects that of the DP/Director or just some random lens the animators choose (although I doubt that) or if it even ends up being used to actually shoot the scene. But I couldn?t help to notice the lens choice is all over the place. Some ?weird? choices too. Like close ups with wide lenses like 28mm and even 24mm, which doesn?t seem right since you would have to get so close to get the head close up that it would distort the facial features. Also things like cutting back and forth from 50mm to a 48mm. Why not just use two 50mm then? Now this was from King Kong (Island arrival, T-rex fight and Bronto stampede) and from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I wonder what criteria they used to pick those focal lengths? Or what criteria is used to choose lenses in major motion pictures where they have a gazillion of focal lengths available. In the pre-visualizations I mentioned the lens choice was like all over the place, like 14m, 15mm,16mm,18mm,20mm,24mm,28mm,35mm,40mm,48mm, 50mm,65mm etc. Sometimes the difference was so little that I wonder why not just shoot with the same.
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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 10 February 2007 - 08:48 PM

Well, if you're shooting on a zoom lens, not a series of primes, you sometimes tweak the focal length -- as long as it is in the ballpark, it doesn't matter -- no one can spot the difference between 48mm and 50mm.

In fact, often you run into this problem where when you match the focal length and distance on two sets of close-ups, they don't look like they match because some heads are bigger than others. So you sometimes live with that mismatch, or you cheat by pushing in or out (on a prime lens) or zooming in or out to adjust the size of the other head.

But in terms of why you pick one focal length over another, it just depends on the style of the project and the type of lens compression or distortion, the affect on perspective, etc. that you want to achieve. A face shot up close with a wider-angle lens feels different than one shot from far back with a longer lens.
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#3 Chris Clarke

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Posted 10 February 2007 - 11:09 PM

I think it's important to appreciate the 'feel' that each focal length gives a shot or sequence. I remember reading somewhere how when prepping for Citizen Kane, Greg Toland screened films for Orson Welles and would call out the lens for each shot as they appeaared on screen to give him a better understanding of what lenses do to a story.

Lots of films I've worked on, as the shoot progresses you see the patterns emerge and can usually second guess which lens is going to be used (and put it on the finder all ready for the line up!)

A bit of an extreme example of lens choice is Delicatessen where I think almost the whole film was shot on a 25mm. Maybe a 32mm for some close ups!

Read articles in AC and ICG magazines and try to remember the lenses they mostly stuck to when you see the film in the theatre. It's all part of the neverending education.... :)
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#4 Adam Paul

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Posted 11 February 2007 - 04:30 AM

Thanks for the replies David and Chris.
As I said it was pre-visuals so I'm not even sure they stuck with the focal lengths or if they were requested by the DP or just chosen by the animator. The shot changing between 50mm and 48mm was on the top of the Empire State between Kong and Ann. I don't see the need to shoot that scene with a zoom, specially give Kong is just a 3D animation. But the lens choices were really weird. Most of the time where I would have a longer lens they had a wide one. 20mm,24mm and 28mm seems to have been used most times. I only saw a longer lens like a couple of times. It was a 65mm. That was the longest they had too. Close ups were with 24mm most of the time. I always thought it was bad to have close ups with wide angles.
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#5 Max Jacoby

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Posted 11 February 2007 - 05:30 AM

Close ups were with 24mm most of the time. I always thought it was bad to have close ups with wide angles.

There is no fixed rule for everything. You use the lens that's best for the style that you shoot in. It also depends on the actors' faces, some can take wide-angles better than others.
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#6 A. Whitehouse

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Posted 11 February 2007 - 07:11 AM

Thanks for the replies David and Chris.
As I said it was pre-visuals so I'm not even sure they stuck with the focal lengths or if they were requested by the DP or just chosen by the animator. The shot changing between 50mm and 48mm was on the top of the Empire State between Kong and Ann. I don't see the need to shoot that scene with a zoom, specially give Kong is just a 3D animation. But the lens choices were really weird. Most of the time where I would have a longer lens they had a wide one. 20mm,24mm and 28mm seems to have been used most times. I only saw a longer lens like a couple of times. It was a 65mm. That was the longest they had too. Close ups were with 24mm most of the time. I always thought it was bad to have close ups with wide angles.


I would imagine that at the end of a film like king kong set at the top of the empire state building they would want to put as much of the impressive backgrounds in shot and in focus because its costing them so much to produce. Also the scale of it all would be harder to depict, or would be less impressive, because of the compacting qualities of a longer lens.
I would imagine that lens choices which might seem out of the ordinary when shooting a scene would often be the influence of the director as I would tend to associate unique lensing with particular directors rater than camera people who need to be more flexible professionally.
While a change of 2mm between lenses might seem minute in the grand scheme of things imagine what these pre-visuals are being used for on a picture like king kong. Multiple units shooting different elements all being handed to large post production teams in order to create the finished shot. I would think that those little changes made early on in pre-vis (a fairly perfect environment creatively) would become fairly set in stone quite quickly. How many boxes of lenses must these productions have? And does anyone have much experience with these pre vis programs? I remember there are good examples of the exactness of previs on the fight club dvd where they are compared side to side with the final version. Also on the digital domain home page.

www.digitaldomain.com

Sasha
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#7 Adam Paul

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Posted 12 February 2007 - 10:56 AM

Sasha, it makes sense. I was just suprised with the number of different focal lengths they had and with so many close ups with a 24mm. I always thought close ups should be done with lenses longer than 50mm so the actor's face wouldn't look funny. I'm still wondering how they got away with doing close ups of Adrien Brody with a 24mm. He has a big nose!
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#8 Thomas Worth

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Posted 12 February 2007 - 12:45 PM

I always thought close ups should be done with lenses longer than 50mm so the actor's face wouldn't look funny. I'm still wondering how they got away with doing close ups of Adrien Brody with a 24mm. He has a big nose!

Are you absolutely sure that the gate size specified for previs was 35mm? They could have previs'd with an HD or smaller sized gate. With a smaller gate, those lens choices wouldn't necessarily be out of the ordinary for close ups. They could have just shifted the lens choices longer across the board after deciding on 35mm as the principal format.
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#9 Paul Bruening

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Posted 12 February 2007 - 01:56 PM

Hey,

This is the kind of posting that makes peeps here mad at me, but, I'll say it anyway.

Of course, artistic freedom is essential. And any lens should be available to the DP and Director to suit their creative expression. Yet, there are loose conventions for lens use and they have been established for some very good reasons. While the reasons and their importance are debatable, all of them revolve around the concept of "suspension of disbelief". There are, roughly, three categories of commonly used lenses: wide angle for scene establishment, settings, and broad action; medium length for character interactions; and portrait length for faces. What these lengths are depends on the format you shoot on.

I didn't set these rules of thumb, so, please refrain from flaming me. The industry has leaned on these rules and uses them more than their variants.
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#10 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 12 February 2007 - 02:01 PM

It could simply be that they created a shot in pre-viz with a 50mm, but then decided to widen-out a little on the computer, creating a defacto 48mm. Doesn't mean that they have to shoot the plates with a 48mm therefore. Probably as you zoom in and out of your previz, the software automatically changes the effective focal length read-out, hence why you end up with these oddball numbers.

For all you know, they might do all the production work for the efx shot with 50mm lenses, but in the final composite slightly zoom in digitally and create a defacto 52mm shot!
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#11 Max Jacoby

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Posted 12 February 2007 - 02:31 PM

People need to realize that if you shoot Super 35 (2.39) then a 50mm is no longer a 'normal' lens, but a 27mm is. The vertical angle of the 50mm in 1.33 is about 21 degrees, but once you start cropping to a 'wider' format, you reduce that angle. So to get that same vertical 21 degree angle in 1.85 and 1.66 you have to go to 35mm and 32 mm (if my memory serves me well).
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#12 Adam Paul

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Posted 13 February 2007 - 11:10 AM

Are you absolutely sure that the gate size specified for previs was 35mm? They could have previs'd with an HD or smaller sized gate. With a smaller gate, those lens choices wouldn't necessarily be out of the ordinary for close ups. They could have just shifted the lens choices longer across the board after deciding on 35mm as the principal format.


No, I'm not 100% sure. I will watch it again and see if they mention the gate size. But I would think it was indeed 35mm since the widest lens was like 15mm.

Hey,

This is the kind of posting that makes peeps here mad at me, but, I'll say it anyway.

Of course, artistic freedom is essential. And any lens should be available to the DP and Director to suit their creative expression. Yet, there are loose conventions for lens use and they have been established for some very good reasons. While the reasons and their importance are debatable, all of them revolve around the concept of "suspension of disbelief". There are, roughly, three categories of commonly used lenses: wide angle for scene establishment, settings, and broad action; medium length for character interactions; and portrait length for faces. What these lengths are depends on the format you shoot on.

I didn't set these rules of thumb, so, please refrain from flaming me. The industry has leaned on these rules and uses them more than their variants.


Paul, that's exactly what I have learned and the reason I was so surprised with the lens choices.

Wide (estabilishing shots, master shots, action and the like)
medium (over the shoulders, two shots, and so on)
Long (close ups)

People need to realize that if you shoot Super 35 (2.39) then a 50mm is no longer a 'normal' lens, but a 27mm is. The vertical angle of the 50mm in 1.33 is about 21 degrees, but once you start cropping to a 'wider' format, you reduce that angle. So to get that same vertical 21 degree angle in 1.85 and 1.66 you have to go to 35mm and 32 mm (if my memory serves me well).


Max, you really seem to know your stuff when it comes down to lenses and aspect ratios. You always shime in with great info on lenses. That could well explain why most shots were around 24mm-28mm. If 27mm would be the equivalent of a 50mm for 2.39 that would explain it. I didn't consider the fact Kong was S35 shot for "scope".

Edited by Adam Paul, 13 February 2007 - 11:05 AM.

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#13 Leo Anthony Vale

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Posted 13 February 2007 - 02:49 PM

Wide (estabilishing shots, master shots, action and the like)
medium (over the shoulders, two shots, and so on)
Long (close ups)


Another thing to consider is that the distance of the subject from the camera from the camera produces an effect on the intimacy of a scene.

A wide angle close up puts the viewer inside the action. A larger shot with a long lens makes the viewer an outside observer.

'The Hill' is shot almost entirely with wide lenses which progressively get shorter as the movie goes along, which ups the tension.
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#14 John Holland

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Posted 13 February 2007 - 03:00 PM

Leo , "The Hill" what a amazing film , thought i was only person who had seen it . Best thing Connery ever did , and Ossie Morris B+W images rough and ready and so right ,brilliant movie.
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#15 Kirill Nersesyan

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Posted 16 February 2007 - 01:05 PM

I just want to say that I have just worked with a DP who used a very wide range of lens from the very wide to telephoto and a zoom lense and sometimes we have made a specific close up with a very wide lens. I was just watching the pre premier screening footage and some of the times this effect totally worked and added to the feeling of the "being inside the story", but some other times this effect was not right for the shot and somehow extracted from the film in a sense that this part became to "real-life" and I had a sense of the reality tv type, if you know what I mean. Sorry for the bad English and thus a hectic narrative :)

Edited by Kirill Nersesyan, 16 February 2007 - 01:06 PM.

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