To know what I’m talking about, you must first see the trailer:
See how the images look so three-dimensional? So life-like, as if you are there witnessing the action yourself. Many of these were shot with the Arri Alexa 65, about which I’ve written in detail.
This kind of imagery is not unique to The Revenant, but anything shot on 65mm. Snowden was mostly shot on the Alexa 65 but the trailer is just a flag. Here’s the trailer of The Master, shot on 65mm film:
The Hateful Eight is also shot on Panavision 65 film:
What gives 65mm (or medium format) footage the 3D life-like look? That’s what we’re here to find out.
Oh, by the way, just in case it wasn’t obvious – if you don’t see the 3D-look, or least don’t feel it looks different, then skip this article.
Angle of View
Here’s how the 65mm sensor compares to full frame 35mm:
The crop factor for 65mm is about 0.7, as explained in this article. So let’s say you want to shoot a wide scene with a 24mm lens on a Sony A7s or a7R II. Now you want to get the same angle of view on 65mm. You’d need a 35mm lens.
How does this change contribute to its look? Let’s see.
How lenses render space
Here’s an image shot on a 35mm lens on a full frame 35mm camera (all apertures are at f/5.6):
Here’s an image shot on a 50mm lens on a full frame 35mm camera, it was pulled back to get a similar perspective:
We tried to achieve the same angle of view, but something’s different. Let’s discount perspective, because obviously the camera had to move to achieve the same frame. We’ll also ignore bokeh because that’s coming next. What else is different?
What’s different is how the ‘space’ is rendered. Because the 50mm is a longer lens, the background is brought closer. Secondly, on the 35mm, the features are more distorted.
Now let’s come back to our previous example. If Emmanuel Lubezki wanted to frame a wide vista with a 24mm equivalent, but used a 35mm on the Alexa 65. The angle would be wider, but the space would be more compressed than what you normally see on full frame 35mm. If you are coming from a Super 35mm background, the difference would be even more striking.
Here’s the same scene from a stitched file for a 35mm lens equivalent (50mm on 65mm approximation; achieved with a two-shot stitch, 70mm, f/5.6):
We get the same angle of view as the 35mm, but the subject to background relationship of a 50mm. Of course, this is a simulated example because I don’t have a medium format camera or 65mm camera with me, but this is the effect you’ll see, more or less.
So, we don’t have to move the camera. We just change lenses to get the same angle of view, but the ‘look’ is totally different.
Wait, there’s more.
Plane of focus and circle of confusion
There’s one more significant factor that contributes to the 65mm or medium-format look. And that’s bokeh. Basically, every point that lands on a sensor is a ‘circle’, as explained in Driving Miss Digital. If something is out of focus, the circle of confusion is larger.
The thing about this is, the way the point blurs depends on its focal length. E.g., here’s a graph that shows the difference in circle of confusion relative to where an object is, if a scene is focused at 4 feet (f/2.8, 50mm and 35mm lenses):
Don’t let the graph intimidate you. All you have to know is, as the objects in the scene go further away from the plane of focus, it blurs faster on telephoto lenses. This means, for the same f-stop, a 65mm sensor will provide two unique features:
- If full frame 35mm is the shallow depth of field king, then 65mm is the shallow depth of field emperor. You can see that quite clearly in the above image. You get a 35mm angle of view, but with a 50mm bokeh (the bokeh on the image is too much because I had to stitch two 70mm frames, but you’ll get bokeh similar to 50mm).
- Objects in the scene at various depths are more distinctly separated (like layers in lasagna) so the image tends to have more ‘pop’ and 3D-like qualities. Psychologically, our eyes and brain work in tandem in the same way, as we try to pick objects one at a time.
Can you achieve the same look with 35mm or Super 35mm?
You could try to achieve the same out of focus characteristics by using a larger aperture. E.g., if you get one look with a 50mm f/2 on 65mm, you could get the same separation with a 35mm f/1.4, theoretically. What you will not get, is all three factors combined:
- Angle of view – you get
- Rendering of space – you don’t get
- Bokeh characteristics – you get
So far, I’ve made all these calculations assuming the lenses used are theoretical and perfect. Add to this one more consideration: The design of lenses. Lens design is complex. To make a lens in equivalent focal lengths for different formats will not deliver the same results optically. This is what constitutes the secret sauce of a lens. To learn more about these, check out the following articles:
Would you lose the 65mm look when projecting at 2K?
No! That’s the cool part. You’re just scaling down the image, so it should be fine. However, if you’re going to shoot 6.5K and then crop like David Fincher, you’ll lose a lot of the magic that makes 65mm unique. As long as you don’t crop, the 3D-like look will be noticeable even on Youtube, as the above videos show quite clearly.
Would you get the same look with a Red Epic Dragon 6K or Red Weapon 8K?
No! The resolution is not a factor here. Don’t let the fact that both are 6K fool you. The Dragon is slightly bigger than Super 35mm, while the Weapon is Vistavision (slightly bigger than full frame 35mm). You’ll never get the 65mm look with these cameras.
The sensor size and optics is what decides. It can’t be faked, except if you stitch video – but just try doing that practically!
Is this the same as anamorphic lenses?
In many ways, you could argue it is, but here are the unique characteristics of the anamorphic format:
- Loss of resolution
- Oval bokeh
- Straight-line flare
- 3D-like imagery
It’s a matter of taste. As far as I’m concerned, 65mm gives most of the benefits of anamorphic without the things I don’t like about anamorphic. However, it’s not fair to call 65mm a replacement to anamorphic. There are enough differences to warrant the existence of both.
So, which is better – Super 35mm, full frame 35mm, anamorphic or 65mm?
That’s like asking whether you like mom or dad better, or whether chocolate is better than vanilla. It’s a naive question. All of these give their own unique looks. Just as 35mm cannot give you the 65mm look, 65mm cannot give you the 35mm look! And neither can give you anamorphic flare!
Get it? They are just tools. Pick one and shoot.
To summarize, here’s what makes 65mm or medium-format more three-dimensional and life-like:
- The use of longer focal lengths for ‘equivalent‘ wider shots
- Faster transition to out-of-focus areas for greater separation
- Unique characteristics of medium format lenses
- Higher resolution definitely helps to create a sense of life-like presence, though this is true of all formats
What do you think? Do you see the 3D-look?