Akira Kurosawa is my favorite director. There’s a lot of missing information on the cinematography of his films, and lots of unsubstantiated here-say. Most books or google searches would result in someone quoting he used ‘telephoto’ lenses. But did he?
It was obvious the writers never bothered to probe further, possibly due to ignorance of cinematographic techniques, lenses and so on. I searched for years but couldn’t find any definitive information on the subject.
So, as a personal exercise, I did the study myself, using a 3D modeling program to recreate scenes from 9 different movies, about 60+ shots in total. Here are the movies I picked:
- Seven Samurai
- Sugata Sanshiro
- High and Low
- Red Beard
- Throne of blood
I would have loved to add a few more, but it took too much time, and I already had the information I needed with this bunch. My goal was to:
- Find the family of focal lengths he used (not find the exact numbers, that I didn’t care about).
- Find the T-stops he typically worked with.
The conditions of the study
Before we go ahead, you need to read about the terms I use in the video and article:
Kurosawa used multiple formats in his career, from Academy to Super35 (1.85:1) to anamorphic (Tohoscope). Every time the format changes, the lens choices will change – to the get the same ‘look’.
I will be presenting the focal length assuming a sensor with an 18mm vertical height. You will need to use a crop factor to arrive at the focal length for your camera sensor. To find the equivalent focal length corresponding to the sensor you’re interested in, divide the vertical height by 18, and multiply with the focal length I’ve presented.
The lenses used by Akira Kurosawa
Here’s a video of the lenses used by Akira Kurosawa:
Important: My process is not scientific or academic. These are just simple tests I did for my personal benefit and I’m sharing as-is. Do not use it in any study or material claiming educational value. It has no educational or historic value, or informational value.
- Image copyrights belong to their respective owners. I’m using low resolution stills only for educational and informational purposes.
- Focal lengths were derived based on a sensor the height of which is 18mm.
- To find the equivalent focal length corresponding to the sensor you’re interested in, divide the vertical height by 18, and multiply with the focal length I’ve presented.
- The formats Kurosawa predominantly shot in were Academy (1.375:1), Tohoscope (Anamorphic, 2.39:1) and 1.85:1 (which I just refer to as Super 35 for brevity).
To make things simpler, here’s a table of each movie, and focal lengths used for the frames I’d selected:
|Film||Process||Original Aspect Ratio||25mm||35mm||50mm|
|Throne of Blood||Academy||1.375||4|
|High and Low||Tohoscope||2.35||1||1|
|Throne of Blood||2|
|High and Low||2|
Don’t let the absolute numbers fool you! The key takeaway is that Kurosawa used wide to mid range lenses early in his career with Academy, possibly because of the limited number of lenses available at the time. Then he moved on to anamorphic were he must have grappled with the idea of bringing his compositions from a spherical Academy format to the stretched anamorphic Tohoscope format. You can see he did admirably well.
In his later state, when he adopted 1.85:1, he went more telephoto, and used Panavision lenses for his last movies. He took what he could get, and created masterpieces nonetheless. There’s a message there, you know.
So, did Kurosawa really use telephoto lenses?
As the video shows, his bread and butter lens was the 50mm on a 18mm-vertical sensor. The 75mm comes a close second. Here’s how the 50mm would relate to some common formats:
- Super 35mm: About 35mm
- Academy: About 40mm
- Cinemascope: About 52mm spherical equivalent, about 62mm anamorphic equivalent (1.2x)
- Full frame 35mm: About 66mm equivalent
Kurosawa tended to use longer focal lengths over wider lenses. But he never shied away from using wide lenses whenever it fit in with this compositional vision. The bottom line is he used mid-range lenses for most of his brilliant work, not telephoto.
What do you think? Did you find this study useful? Let me know in the comments section below.