HDR: Part 10 - Large Format Cinematography And Lenses

Most film and TV jobs start with some simple questions, as Gregory Irwin puts it. “What is it, where is it, when is it.” In April 2018 Irwin found himself asking those questions of cinematographer Lawrence Sher, with whom he’d collaborated on five previous films beginning with John Hamburg’s I Love You, Man in 2009, as well as the 2019 production Godzilla: King of the Monsters, directed by Michael Dougherty, and the three Hangover films by director Todd Phillips. Sher’s call concerned another Phillips collaboration which would go on to gross over a billion dollars; it was to star Joaquin Phoenix and titled simply Joker.

For Irwin, involvement in a project of such huge scope was nothing new. Having started as a 19-year-old intern on M*A*S*H in 1980, his career includes credits on so many prominent feature films that it’s difficult to adequately summarize. The list includes Starship Troopers, Star Trek Beyond, Fight Club, Pearl Harbor, the entire Fast and the Furious franchise, and Interstellar, among dozens more. Irwin’s long association with Sher on Phillips-directed productions made it, he says, “a built-in deal. In this case Larry shot me a text. We’re up!”

Having been booked for Joker in April, Irwin started eight weeks of prep in late July, and almost immediately found himself dealing with the issues of large format photography. “The reason why that prep was so long was that the LF cameras came out but lenses did not follow. A few large format lenses were out there – the Vintage 765s and Prime 65s that Arri came out with, but if you want other lenses we have to start from scratch. We had to do that on Godzilla as well. That was Larry and I shooting Alexa 65 in 2017.”

Go Ahead and Use Them

Cinema camera sensors bigger than the super-35mm frame are still rare enough to grab attention, but Irwin feels “it's about the lenses. The camera's the camera, the large sensor's going to take beautiful images but it's all about the lenses.” The modern fascination for lenses with character, which almost means imperfections, is one that Irwin approaches with a cautious understanding. “The Master Primes and the Master Anamorphics… they’re the most optically pure lenses I've ever seen, to the point where they're too perfect, people don't want to use them. My attitude is go ahead and use them, we can always muck it up. We can't always make it look better.”

Still, the lenses, as with many other things, would need to support the early-80s aesthetic targeted by Sher and Phillips. Anamorphics are a perennial response to that sort of desire, and it is now possible to use classic anamorphics – invariably designed to cover 35mm film – on full-frame sensors, as Irwin explains. “Dan Sasaki of Panavision put an expander T series for the Disney Plus streaming show I’m on now, and it covers the full sensor, but you're seeing the full field of view of the anamorphic lens. You're seeing that elliptical softness round the edges. With the Alexa 65, when we did Godzilla, we did a twelve per cent frame extraction. We zoomed in a little bit to eliminate the amount of vignetting that we couldn't do anything about.”

But Irwin is careful about anamorphic, and not just because it has become such a popular choice. “There's so much anamorphic going on, worldwide, that trying to get the good Panavision anamorphic lenses is hard. Some of them are sixty-five years old and are just not functioning anymore. They're trying to take that glass and rebuild them as much as they can but the demand is more than the service can keep up with.” Another quality consideration, Irwin feels, is changing approaches to exposure; modern technique often involves shooting wide open, which vintage lenses weren’t necessarily designed to do. “The rule of thumb was once that two stops closed down from wide open is your effective wide open stop. On a T2 lens you're shooting four, four and a half. But that's before people's tastes have changed. Now it's fashionable to have the soft edges and the curvature.”

Hand Picked Lenses

With all this in mind, Irwin assembled hand-picked sets of spherical lenses for Joker, selecting individual lenses from disparate sources and even modifying them to suit. “Our top three qualifications for a lens were high speed, close minimum focus, and they had to be lightweight enough that we could place the camera at will. I'll get as many lenses as I can get my hands on and we start putting them on the camera - the Alexa 65 in this case – and if it's vignetting terribly it's out. We're using 35mm lenses on a 65mm sensor and that is the main challenge. Larry wasn't a big fan of the DNAs or the Vintage 765s, though we carried them on Joker.” The film would eventually be shot on a combination of Arri’s DNA, Vintage 765 and Prime 65 lenses along with options from CanonLeicaNikon and Zeiss.

It is, to put it mildly, unusual approach, and Irwin approached suppliers carefully. “Going to Arri Rental in New York, I met Radames Gonzalez, a great man, and I got him excited. I said, ‘here's what I think we could do’, and he said, ‘we've never done that before.’ I said, ‘that's OK, because the last two movies I did hadn't either!’. You get them all excited and you see what we can do… which ones can we manipulate, maybe open up the iris and change the rear element so we don't vignette as much. We tried to detune them and match the coatings, the contrast, color, as best we can, to get them within range of the DI.”

Irwin’s process created a set of eighteen lenses, though Joker was mainly shot on a subset of six. “All that prep work I did over the summer really allowed Larry to dial in that eighties grittiness, to match all those lenses and make it seamless. The raw dailies aren't going to be quite as matched as you see in the final project, but it's a long ways different than if I'd just taken those lenses off the shelf and shot the movie. Color and sharpness and resolution would have been all over the place… we just have to get the optics within the range of adjustment that the DI and the color timing gives us.”

Focus Pulling for Large Sensors

On set, Irwin confronted the infamous task of pulling focus for big chips at wide apertures, but he describes the experience as “magical. Geoff Haley, the A-camera and Steadicam operator, he's like my little brother. We've worked together for about fifteen years now, and we've done all the Larry Sher movies. Since Joker was all ad-lib, nothing was rehearsed, Joaquin had an open palette to do whatever he wanted. Larry could have accommodated that with overall blanket lighting, or he could be very risky and stay with the single source lighting, letting Joaquin walk into the light. We didn't know what he was going to do. Geoff didn't know what he was going to do. And everything was handheld with the Alexa 65.”

It’s enough to make a focus puller’s blood run cold, but “you don't panic,” Irwin says. “You keep a clear head. I've become, in the digital age, a monitor focus puller. I usually sit next to the DP in the DIT tent with my monitor and the Preston handset, which is mounted to the monitor. What I love about it is that I can see everything I'm doing, I can see the story, I can see the framing differently than if I was standing next to the camera. I can see opportunities.”

Near the top of Irwin’s memories of Joker is a scene which became a memorable example of those opportunities; it shows an interpretive dance following violence on a subway train. “Joaquin knew he was going to do a dance – we had the musical score and Todd had our sound guys put in a speaker to play the very creepy music. Joaquin was going to react to that in real time. I'm sitting next to Larry in the DIT tent watching the monitor. We were shooting at a 1.2, a 1.0. I could see it on the monitor, it's cranked up, so it's not crushed like the movie looks, as we're going through this strange dance sequence and Geoff is counter-moving with Joaquin in real time.”

Working as One

The practically symbiotic relationship between operator and focus puller had never been more evident. “There was a moment where I saw his hand extending,” Irwin recalls. “I started racking focus very calmly - I'm not looking at the numbers, I don't know, I don't care... it's just eye focus. I remember going for his hand going out, and when Geoff saw the focus going to the hand, we spent a beat on the hand and started going back to his face, and it was very poetic. That's how we shot the whole movie. If I had to do that standing next to the camera it would have been a nightmare. We were able to create on the fly.”

Irwin spoke to Broadcast Bridge from his home in Atlanta while on quarantine hiatus from a television production – his first non-feature work in decades, and a concomitant of the growing scale of television in the age of video on demand. He finishes with a few words of advice for anyone who might break out in a cold sweat at the thought of focus pulling for Alexa 65 at f/1.0. “Stay calm, keep a clear mind, keep a light touch on the knob. Watch the story, and enjoy.”

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