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The Greatest Story Ever Told


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#1 Ignacio Aguilar

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Posted 09 January 2011 - 01:25 PM

A big commercial and critical failure, George Stevens’ “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was shot circa 1963, but remained unreleased for another two years. MGM spent millions of dollars on this version of the life of Jesus, which went severely so over budget that such directors as David Lean and Jean Negulesco came to shoot some scenes to help his fellow director to finish the picture on time. It may not be the best movie about Jesus (I consider Nicholas Ray’s own “King of Kings” to be the superior one), but Stevens’ version has some amazing cinematography. And as it was usual for epics at the time, the film was shot in Ultra Panavision 70 (5-perf 65mm anamorphic with 1.25x1 squeeze), and both released in 70mm flat screens or curved Cinerama screens.

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Cinematographer William C. Mellor died from a heart attack while shooting it, and was replaced by Loyal Griggs, with whom Stevens was familiar from “Shane”, made ten years before. Instead of going to the places where the depicted events were supposed to have had took place, or going to any other foreign country (for instance, Ray’s picture was shot in Spain, while Zeffirelli’s famous 1977 TV version was shot in Tunisia and Morocco), the filmakers decided to stick to the USA, shooting most of the film in south Utah or north Arizona, in the Colorado River area, and accurate or not, it gives the film a very distinct look.

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Location exterior work is really impressive in terms of camera placement and composition, taking full advantage of the 2.76:1 frame, and it gives the film a really classic and epic look. Not even some obvious hand-painted matte paintings to insert old buildings on the landscapes detract from the experience. Interiors, all of them shot on sets, are also full of classic blocking with wide-angle lenses, with every actor carefully positioned on each frame. Close-ups are barely used, as the tremendous definition of the Ultra Panavision 70 format when projected on the big screen made them less necessary.

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But what makes this picture very interesting from a contemporary cinematographer point of view, is how dark much of the footage looks. Stevens, who started his career as a director of photography, Mellor and Griggs lit many sets with a lot of contrast, hard sources and very little (if any) fill light. And since they were shooting with the only film stock available back them (I believe it was Kodak 5251, with a speed of 50 ASA in tungsten light), the parts of the frame unreached by the lights are really, really dark. They never pursued realism or a naturalistic look, just a very stylized and heavy threatrical look, but it is so atmospheric and overwhelming at times that it almost looks like a horror picture. Even the color palette is very muted, dominated by blacks, grays and browns. Very different stuff than most epics from the era.

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But they not only took risks when shooting in the soundstages, some location work is really impressive as well not only in terms of framing, but also because they went as far as letting the actors play complete scenes in silhoutte, backlit or with the backgrounds correctly exposed, with no artificial lights used on the subjets in the foreground, which is more common these days, but very interesting for a big-budget production shot in 1963.

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Of course, there are some odd shots here and there, typical from the era (i.e. close-ups shot in studio mixed with location footage), and even the crucifixion scene was shot in the soundstage for some reason and it looks exactly like that, but “The Greatest Story Ever Told” contains some amazing cinematography and shows some really nice Hollywood’s craftmans at their best.

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Any opinions?
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#2 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 09 January 2011 - 01:37 PM

Yes, a lot of quality craft work for a film that gets remembered for John Wayne as the centurion.
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#3 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 09 January 2011 - 01:38 PM

This is one of my favorite movies for ultra widescreen composition. Yes, I've always thought that it was rather dark and moody compared to most studio color cinematography of the day, where the concern was how it would look in a drive-in theater. I wonder if George Stevens (a former cameraman) was behind that -- "Shane" is also on the dark side at times.

Of course, being an anamorphic 65mm movie, the video transfers may be working with older 35mm dupe copies rather than the original, so some contrast may be built into the elements that they have available. Or maybe not.

Some of my favorite wide shots:

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Great score by Alfred Newman.
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#4 Joseph Arch

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Posted 30 January 2011 - 09:41 AM

That's the largest wide screen film I have ever seen.

Why did they choose to do it that way?
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#5 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 30 January 2011 - 12:25 PM

That's the largest wide screen film I have ever seen.

Why did they choose to do it that way?


The widescreen craze started with 3-camera/projector Cinerama, which had a 2.66 : 1 aspect ratio on a curved screen. You have to imagine these old movies on a curved Cinerama screen, which to some extent, slightly shortened the width from your perspective in the audience.

I took a frame from the older (unrestored) DVD of "How the West Was Won" and distorted it in Photoshop into what some people today call "Smilevision" (the new blu-ray of the movie has one version like that to watch) to give the impression of being shown on a curved screen, but you have to imagine it wrapping around your head into your peripheral vision:

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5-perf 65mm Todd-AO was an attempt to create what Michael Todd called "Cinerama from one hole" as opposed to needing three camera movements and three projectors. But Todd-AO was 2.20 : 1, not 2.66 : 1. MGM asked Panavision to create a 65mm process that could be blown-up to 3-panel Cinerama prints (2.66) or 70mm prints (2.20) or down to 35mm CinemaScope (2.35). They settled on using a 1.25X anamorphic lens on a 5-perf 65mm camera, creating a 2.75 : 1 image that could be optically printed to 3-panel Cinerama (three 6-perf 35mm prints). Or it could be shown with anamorphic lenses in 70mm, or converted to spherical 70mm, etc. It was called MGM Camera 65 for "Raintree County" and "Ben-Hur" but then renamed Ultra Panavision.

But by the early 1960's, a lot of these big formats were dying out -- "Greatest Story Ever Told" was started in 3-camera Cinerama but switched to Ultra Panavision within a few days, "How the West Was Won" was shot in 3-camera Cinerama (and when I say "3-camera" it was actually one camera with three 6-perf 35mm movements, mags, and lenses) but that was one of the last things shot in the process, and Ultra Panavision was used for just a handful of 1960's movies. By 1963, Cinerama Corporation gave up on the 3-camera format and were bought out by Pacific Theatres, who gave up on the 3-panel Cinema projection format.

Cinerama history:
http://www.widescree...een/wingcr1.htm

Ultra Panavision history:
http://www.widescree...een/wingup1.htm
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#6 Joseph Arch

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Posted 30 January 2011 - 01:30 PM

Reading the links now.

Thanks
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#7 Jim Carlile

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Posted 01 February 2011 - 04:52 AM

Interesting semi-OT note about the locale: many of the exteriors for this film are now underwater. It was gradually filling up at the time due to the Glen Canyon Dam. That's why there's so much water spread all over the place.

A few years ago the level was starting to drop because of a drought, but now it's slowly gone back up.
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#8 Ignacio Aguilar

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Posted 01 February 2011 - 05:18 AM

Yes, Glen Canyon Dam was finished in 1963 and started filling Lake Powell right after "TGSET" shot all its scenes. The production was running behind schedule and the initial filling became a serious problem (Charlton Heston claimed he directed the scene of the capture of his character, John the Baptist, because Stevens had to leave in a hurry to direct other scene somewhere else). This lake was also used a few years later (ca. 1967) for the initial scenes of "Planet of the Apes", also with Heston, with the water levels much higher than four years before.
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#9 Jonathan Bowerbank

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Posted 05 February 2011 - 06:39 PM

Haven't seen it in a while, but what images stuck in my mind the most were the close-ups of Max von Sydow. They just had that framing and style to them, worthy of a living "deity".

I'll have to watch it again :)
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