Basic Cinematography

Why does The Revenant look so 3D and Life-like? What makes the 65mm format Special?

Here’s a simple explanation of why 65mm cinema looks so life-like and three dimensional.

To know what I’m talking about, you must first see the trailer:

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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:

Sensor size comparison Alexa 65 IMAX

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:

  • Distortion
  • 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?

19 replies on “Why does The Revenant look so 3D and Life-like? What makes the 65mm format Special?”

Not to sound like an ignorant director amongst masterful DPs, but can the look of a 35mm be achieved with the ease and convenience of a digital?

The 35mm look fascinates me… I really do feel the depth of field difference (perhaps more than others, of course.) To me it highlights the foreground, while the subject in the background still feels very present and interesting. I think it would be perfect for dramas (I’m thinking crime drama, specifically) when you want to catch the background person’s reaction/actions.

Could a speed-booster recreate the same rendering of a large-format sensor on a small-format sensor?
If so, it would seem to me that the two factors in this “3D effect” (spatial rendering) come down to the lens and how much of its image circle is used.

Sareesh Sudhakaran There really isn’t. Try this. Take a FF35 A 5d or A7s or whatever. Put it on a tripod so it doesn’t move between shots. Now either take a wide-ish zoom, like a 24-70, or a few primes that cover a similar range, or if you want to simulate the difference specifically between S35 and the Alexa 65, just take a 24mm and a 50-ish mm (54 if you want to be more exact. Or any two lenses that a have a ratio of around 2.25. So, a 35mm and an 80mm, or a 45mm and a 100mm, etc…). Now, starting with the long end of the zoom or longest prime, snap a shot with several objects at various depths in the frame. Preferably not people because they will likely move around a little and skew the results. Now zoom in at various intervals, or switch to each wider prime and snap a shot at each focal length, making sure to choose the same focus point for each, and making sure not to pan or tilt the if you really want to be fancy, you would change the for each focal length to maintain the same actual aperture and thus depth of field for each shot, and compensate for exposure with ISO or shutter speed. So if you were at f/2.8 at 24mm, you’d need to be at about f/8 at 70mm to maintain the same 8.5-ish mm actual aperture diameter) Now take the photos into photoshop or whatever, and crop the wider shots to match the exact framing of the longest focal length. This is exactly what happens when you go to smaller and smaller formats, except it’s the sensor that gets smaller, so the image gets cropped at the point of capture. You’ll see that the perspective is exactly the same for every shot. (depth of field will be deeper as you go to the crops of wider lenses if you didn’t maintain actual aperture) 

Because the didn't move. So the perspective stays the same. Because perspective, or compression and expansion of space, has to do with the relationship between the distances between objects and their distance to the position of the Not focal length. (a quick search led to this brief explanation with examples

Focal length (in it’s simplest sense with simple lenses) is just the distance from the lens to the image plane. And focal lengths only have the characteristics of being wide angle or telephoto with the frame of reference of the format size. For example, a 24mm is not always a wide angle with stretched perspective. And an 80mm is not always a telephoto with compressed perspective. The magnification depends on the format size and perspective depends on the distance to the subject(s).  

And the results going from Alexa 65 down to S35 are about the same as going from S35 down to S16. The physics don’t change. And people don’t talk about or see those differences in the rendering of space going from S16 to S35 that you think provides.

So, again, any special characteristics you are seeing or feeling on larger formats are either from the design and characteristics of specific lenses, which can affect many things including  bokeh, and contrast and focus separation and fall off, etc… The same way that 10 different 50mm lenses made to cover FF35 will all have their own look and characteristics. Or the shallower depth of field that some larger format lenses provide. And certainly with anamorphic the design of the anamorphic elements. But it’s not specifically the format that gives that look.

And in looking specifically at the trailer for the Revenant, most of those shots have deep depth of field. So all we’re really looking at is very wide lenses very close to the action. And, it turns out, you can usually get shallower depth of field with wide lenses on S35 and FF35 formats, and thus a more “large format look” than larger formats because there simply aren’t any fast, wide larger format lenses. The fastest wide lenses for the Alexa 65 are the 24mm T/4.8, 28mm T/4 and 35mm T/3.5. So if you are shooting a 12mm or 14mm T/1.3 Master prime wide open on an Alexa M ( the combo on which I think most of the movie was shot), you will get less depth of field than the roughly equivalent 24mm or 28mm wide open on the Alexa 65 because they have a larger actual aperture. You’d need to be around T/2.5 on those lenses to get the same DOF as the Master Primes at T/1.3 on S35.
And just speaking of DOF, in most cases across the board FF35 has faster equivalent options, meaning larger actual apertures at equivalent focal length AOVs, than 6×4.5 or 6×7. Other than the few exceptions in the “normal” focal length range for the larger formats and a few obscure and uncommon lenses.

In my experience, most of the differences that people attribute to larger formats have to do mainly with the design and thus characteristics of specific lenses. And then to a lesser degree those few lenses that provide shallower depth of field, and also the different aspect ratios of those formats. But none of it is because the space is rendered differently. The background isn’t brought closer and features aren’t less exaggerated. If you do proper tests on different formats you’ll see that that’s not the case.

You are mistaken in the idea that the rendering of space is different between formats. I used to think the same thing. But the ONLY difference between formats, given that you have lenses with equivalent AOV on each format, is depth of field. That’s it. And of course whatever increased resolution the larger format may provide, if any. And any characteristics that specific lenses may have. For example, my 50mm Helios looks totally different from my 50mm EF lens, even though they both have the same focal length and thus AOV on the same format. Or the same way that a set of Cooke S4s have a very different look compared to a set of Leica Summilux Cs.
I’ve tested it from super 8 up through 4×5 stills. Magnification, and thus the rendering, or compression or expansion of space, doesn’t change by using longer focal lengths for wider angles on larger formats, given that you have matching FOV at the same subject to camera distance. Because although the lens is longer, the format is also larger. So the AOV of the lens gets wider in direct proportion to the increase in format size. This is all assuming that the image circle of the lens can cover the larger format.
In your test above you say the camera had to move to do your 50mm stitch test. So that camera move accounts for any differences you are seeing in compression of space and mistakenly attributing to format characteristics. Because none exist given properly equivalent lenses, which would require no camera move between formats. And perspective is a function of camera to subject distance.
There was just an article in American Cinematographer on the same subject with examples of stills from S16, S35, and FF35, which illustrates these points. Although it’s an overly complicated test and it seems that the author doesn’t realize that the only difference between formats is depth of field even as its illustrated in the examples.
It’s a common misconception that people have been making with the excitement over cameras like the Alexa 65 and 8k Dragon. And as I said, I used to think the same thing. But the only difference is that larger formats have less depth of field at the same f-stops. The reason being that f-stops are a ratio of focal length divided by the diameter of the aperture. So on a larger format, which requires longer focal lengths to match the AOV on smaller formats, the same f-stop is actually a physically larger aperture. For example, the actual aperture of a 25mm lens at f/1.0 (to make it an easy calculation) is 25mm. While a 50mm at f/1.0 is 50mm. So while you get roughly the same AOV, and thus the same magnification and compression given the same subject distance, with a 25mm on a S16 format and 50mm on S35, the actual aperture is larger on the 50mm lens if you maintain an f/1.0 for both. And actual aperture size is what determines depth of field.

Sareesh Sudhakaran maheelrp
What I indicate was, the 3D look could not be the result of 65 mm sensor, since major part of the film was shot on Super 35 sensors. I think that the use of ultra wide angle lenses with camera movement have contributed more for that look.

Interesting argument. According to Lubesky (American Cinematographer, January 2016 – p.40) only 13% of the Revenant was shot on Alexa 65. Rest was Alexa M (primary camera) and XT.

Sareesh Sudhakaran barefootplacekicker No worries. As an aside, word is that ”The Hateful Eight” is shot on 70mm, using

Should point out that your trailer for ”The Hateful Eight” is actually from William Eubank’s movie, ”Love”, done with Angels and Airwaves.

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