Michael Ballhaus: Making 1.85 Feel Larger in Scope

From American Cinematographer, Sci-Fi Cowboys by David E. Williams (July 1999)

"Barry and I discussed the aspect ratio and film format for quite a while. At first, I wanted to shoot in widescreen super 35. After some tests, though, I felt Barry would be more comfortable working in spherical 1.85:1, for two reasons. First, I believe he feels that comedy works better in 1.85, which I think is right. Second, Barry never shot a film himself in 2.35:1. As a cinematographer, he had a very specific and precise style of shooting, and now, as a director, he also has a particular style. For example, his sense of framing is very different from what I would normally do. He likes to have the action or subject in the center most of the time, which doesn't work well in 2.35. In widescreen, you have to fill the whole frame. It doesn't make sense to have a close-up in the center of the frame and have nothing to the right or left.

Also, Barry loves wide-angle lenses, and I had never before used wide lenses to the extent that I did on this picture. Doing a close-up with an 18mm lens was something new for me, but it worked and was more dynamic. I liked that, but it was an adjustment I had to make. That type of style wouldn't be correct for every movie, but it was in this case because it feels different. In a close-up with an 18mm lens, even if the actor moves just a few inches, the effect is very different than if you're using a 50mm lens. There is a magnification to the change.

It's funny, the film is in 1.85:1, but it feels wider than that because of the use of wide lenses. You can see a lot more, and not only in terms of depth. For instance, if you have a close-up, you see a lot more of the background than you usually would. In this film, there are several scenes set in train cars. If we were on a 50mm doing our close-ups, the audience wouldn't see much of the car. With the 18mm, they can, which adds to the apparent scope of the film."

- Michael Ballhaus, ASC

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