Lately, having run out of interesting series, I’ve found myself watching a lot of nineties blockbusters: Outbreak, Twister, Dante’s Peak, Backdraft, Daylight. Whilst eighties movies were the background to my childhood, and will always have a place in my heart, it was the cinema of the nineties that I was immersed in as I began my own amateur filmmaking. So, looking back on those movies now, while certain clichés stand out like sore thumbs, they still feel to me like solid examples of how to make a summer crowd-pleaser.
Let’s get those clichés out of the way first. The lead character always has a failed marriage. There’s usually an opening scene in which they witness the death of a spouse or close relative, before the legend “X years later” fades up. The dog will be saved, but the crotchety elderly character will die nobly. Buildings instantly explode towards camera when touched by lava, hurricanes, floods or fires. A stubborn senior authority figure will refuse to listen to the disgraced lead character who will ultimately be proven correct, to no-one’s surprise.
There’s an intensity to nineties action scenes, born of the largely practical approach to creating them. The decade was punctuated by historic advances in digital effects: the liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator 2 (1991), digital dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993), motion-captured passengers aboard the miniature Titanic (1997), Bullet Time in The Matrix (1999). Yet these techniques remained expensive and time-consuming, and could not match traditional methods of creating explosions, floods, fire or debris. The result was that the characters in jeopardy were generally surrounded by real set-pieces and practical effects, a far more nerve-wracking experience for the viewer than today, when we can tell that our heroes are merely imagining their peril on a green-screen stage.
One thing I was looking out for during these movie meanders down memory lane was lens selection. A few weeks back, a director friend had asked me to suggest examples of films that preferred long lenses. He had mentioned that such lenses were more in vogue in the nineties, which I’d never thought about before.
As soon as I started to consider it, I realised how right my friend was. And how much that long-lens look had influenced me. When I started out making films, I was working with the tiny sensors of Mini-DV cameras. I would often try to make my shots look more cinematic by shooting on the long end of the zoom. This was partly to reduce the depth of field, but also because I instinctively felt that the compressed perspective was more in keeping with what I saw at the cinema.
I remember being surprised by something that James Cameron said in his commentary on the Aliens DVD:
I went to school on Ridley [Scott]’s style of photography, which was actually quite a bit different from mine, because he used a lot of long lenses, much more so than I was used to working with.
I had assumed that Cameron used long lenses too, because I felt his films looked incredibly cinematic, and because I was so sure that cinematic meant telephoto. I’ve discussed in the past what I think people tend to mean by the term “cinematic”, and there’s hardly a definitive answer, but I’m now sure that lens length has little to do with it.
And yet… are those nineties films influencing me still? I have to confess, I struggle with short lenses to this day. I find it hard to make wide-angle shots look as good. On Above the Clouds, to take just one example, I frequently found that I preferred the wide shots on a 32mm than a 24mm. Director Leon Chambers agreed; perhaps those same films influenced him?
A deleted scene from Ren: The Girl with the Mark ends with some great close-ups shot on my old Sigma 105mm still lens, complete with the slight wobble of wind buffeting the camera, which to my mind only adds to the cinematic look! On a more recent project, War of the Worlds: The Attack, I definitely got a kick from scenes where we shot the heroes walking towards us down the middle of the street on a 135mm.
Apart from the nice bokeh, what does a long lens do for an image? I’ve already mentioned that it compresses perspective, and because this is such a different look to human vision, it arguably provides a pleasing unreality. You could describe it as doing for the image spatially what the flicker of 24fps (versus high frame rates) does for it temporally. Perhaps I shy away from short lenses because they look too much like real life, they’re too unforgiving, like many people find 48fps to be.
The compression applies to people’s faces too. Dustin Hoffman is not known for his small nose, yet it appears positively petite in the close-up below from Outbreak. While this look flatters many actors, others benefit from the rounding of their features caused by a shorter lens.
Perhaps the chief reason to be cautious of long lenses is that they necessitate placing the camera further from the action, and the viewer will sense this, if only on a subconscious level. A long lens, if misused, can rob a scene of intimacy, and if overused could even cause the viewer to disengage with the characters and story.
I’ll leave you with some examples of long-lens shots from the nineties classics I mentioned at the start of this post. Make no mistake, these films employed shorter lenses too, but it certainly looks to me like they used longer lenses on average than contemporary movies.
DP: Michael Ballhaus, ASC
DP: Jack N. Green, ASC
DP: David Eggby, ACS
DP: Andrzej Bartkowiak, ASC
DP: Mikael Salomon, ASC
For more on this topic, see my article about “The Normal Lens”.