July 15, 2012

Why movies shot in anamorphic look more striking

The two most salient changes that the visual culture undergoes during a rising-crime period are a greater use of light-dark contrast in lighting and a more restricted depth perspective. When the violence rate begins steadily falling, the look shifts back to less stark lighting and a deeper, more immersive depth perspective. I've roughly outlined why here and here, and periodically I'll go into more detail. In short, the rising-crime features serve to strike an emotional chord in the viewer, while the falling-crime features allow him to be more emotionally detached.

With these two patterns now in mind, I pick up on details that just got filtered out before, lacking a larger framework to be plugged into. The other night, something caught my ear in Ridley Scott's commentary for Blade Runner. He explains why he loves shooting movies in anamorphic, using this scene as an example:

He says that the chess pieces are in sharp focus, Tyrell is just sharp enough, but then there's a quick fall-off in sharpness once you get past his body. It's not only very far-away objects that appear out-of-focus, like the two chairs in the middle of the right side of the frame. Even fairly close things are blurry, like the tables and chairs that are just behind him and to our left, not even as far back as the bed.

So, this scene shows the shallow focus, or the more restricted depth of field, that results from using anamorphic rather than spherical lenses in the camera. [1] The range of distance within which the image appears clear is a lot narrower. If it had been shot with a spherical lens, the greater depth of field would have allowed us to see fairly clear images farther back into the environment.

Hence, all other things being equal, shooting with an anamorphic lens produces an effect more like low-relief sculpture than like high-relief sculpture. (Relief means how far out does the sculpture project from its backing surface.)

The figure we're meant to focus on appears to be lifted out from an almost formless blur of a background -- and not a background that has its own depth, but like the flat surface of a building's exterior. And because things that lie much closer to us than the plane of the figure also show the same quick fall-off in focus, the plane of action does not appear to be high-relief. The depth of field is narrow enough that it looks like a thin slice of clear forms resting on top of a slab of blurriness, just like low-relief sculpture.

It also resembles paintings where the depth is restricted, although in painting it's usually due to placement of the figures within a narrow plane of action and hindering other depth cues. Compare Raphael's The School of Athens with David's The Death of Socrates. David's painting packs more of a punch because all of the action is concentrated within a narrow fixed distance from the viewer, like the action performed on a stage. When we look at Raphael's painting, our attention is diffused over a much greater range of depth, so that no single plane of action dominates our attention. Raphael wants us to calmly explore, while David wants to theatrically slam us in the face.

Obviously all sorts of other factors influence whether a movie scene looks more like a frieze or a diorama, such as the placement of figures within the environment. Still, the very choice of which type of lens to shoot with -- anamorphic or spherical -- affects this part of the movie's look as well. Anamorphic movies will tend to have a theatricality in their visual presentation, stemming from their shallower focus.

Finally, this allows us to rule out one explanation for why some directors and viewers like anamorphic -- i.e., that it provides a very widescreen aspect ratio. There have long been film formats that yield similar aspect ratios but that are shot with spherical lenses, from VistaVision in 1954 through the Super 35 of today. The reason that a good deal of those movies don't actually deliver on the promise of spectacular visuals is that they mistakenly thought the appeal of anamorphic was its wider aspect ratio, rather than its effect on depth of field.

Tomorrow or the next day, I'll put up a post with quantitative data on how prevalent anamorphically filmed movies have been since the lens type was introduced in 1953, looking at the top ten movies at the box office for each year. Then we can check if its popularity tracks the violence rate, to see how well it fits the broader pattern of rising-crime visuals having more limited depth perspective. I'll do some qualitative comparisons over time too. Finally, I'll try to include more pictures, to provide something more lively after this mostly analytical post.

[1] This result is indirect, but it still obtains. Here's the clearest explanation I found (from a comment left here).

The other thing is that anamorphic lenses don't have less depth of field per se, but because they have twice the horizontal view and therefore act somewhat like wider-angle lenses, usually one compensates by using a longer focal length -- for example, the equivalent to a 20mm spherical lens in Super-35 cropped vertically to 2.40 would be a 40mm anamorphic (more or less, ignoring the fact that Super-35 has a 24mm wide gate and anamorphic uses a 22mm wide gate). And a 40mm lens has less depth of field than a 20mm lens, the depth of field loss isn't due to the anamorphic elements, it's just due to the fact that you are choosing longer focal lengths to achieve the same view.


  1. Agnostic, have you watched the Plinkett reviews of the Star Wars prequel films?

    If not, you might find them interesting (and highly entertaining) viewing in light of your theories about crime rates and the level of excitement or extraversion in a culture.

  2. Those look pretty long, but if they're really funny I might give them a try sometime.

    We all know how bad they are, but it's worth bringing them up in this context since only Phantom Menace was shot in anamorphic, while the second two were not, part of the decline of that lens choice.

    All three of the original trilogy were shot in anamorphic, and that's one part of why they're so striking to look at.

    Lucas was in the right place at the right time, and benefited from the zeitgeist of the '70s and '80s. Once that external set of influences evaporated and he was left on his own -- well, judge for yourself.

  3. Just to use the prequels as an example, here's a good case of how flaccid a shot can look if the depth of field spans too much distance:

    Battle from Attack of the Clones

    What in the hell are we looking at? Clarity of focus goes so far toward the back that our eye doesn't immediately fix on anything.

    It's desperately searching all of the clearly formed figures to see which is supposed to be most important -- given that the director hasn't done that job for us by blurring out the less important ones.

    Spreading the figures out like that was a dumb choice to begin with, because that too diffuses our attention too much instead of smacking us right in the face, as an intense battle scene should.

    But even ignoring this error in placement, they could've fixed it somewhat by using an anamorphic lens and focusing on Samuel L. Jackson and what's-his-name in the middle, with everyone and everything behind them being more blurred out.

    That would give some "pop" to at least a few of the figures, as well as convey the unsettling mob atmosphere around them by showing it all as a swirl of blurriness, where it would be tough to even distinguish the other Jedis from the clones.

    All those in-focus clones added in digitally don't help either. It's like he thinks it's a video game, and wants to give the viewer a clear view of all of the numerous targets he has to hit. But when you're in a panicked state, surrounded by hordes closing in, you don't see them that clearly distinguished.

    I don't mean to make too much of this one scene, but it's typical of the look of the prequel trilogy. It's so frustrating to watch because the creators haven't narrowed the range of focus down to what they think is important, and load that job onto you the viewer.

  4. Here's a different shot from that movie that's also supposed to be intense but is ruined by too deep of a focus:

    Attack of the Clones again

    Such a lame-ass movie

  5. >All three of the original trilogy were shot in anamorphic, and that's one part of why they're so striking to look at.

    It's true! Many shots in the cantina scene from the first film would have been far less effective if the menacing figures in the background had all been sharply distinguishable.

    >It's so frustrating to watch because the creators haven't narrowed the range of focus down to what they think is important, and load that job onto you the viewer.

    One of the things Plinkett points out in the video I linked is that The Phantom Menace doesn't actually have a protagonist.

    There's also a repeating clip where the producer Rick McCallum says, "It's so dense, every single image has SO many things going on" - as though that's a good thing.

    So the lack of anything important to focus on is a pervasive problem in the films.

    >Such a lame-ass movie

    Natalie Portman's midriff is Attack of the Clones's only redeeming feature.

  6. "Lucas was in the right place at the right time, and benefited from the zeitgeist of the '70s and '80s. Once that external set of influences evaporated and he was left on his own -- well, judge for yourself."

    I also think that the producers can make huge impact on a movie.

    In the original trilogy, Lucas was surrounded by normal people who reined in his nerd instincts, while recognizing his good ideas. This doesn't seem be the case with the new trilogy...

  7. "There's also a repeating clip where the producer Rick McCallum says, "It's so dense, every single image has SO many things going on" - as though that's a good thing."

    The worst thing is that, unlike the original movies that still exist in not-so-cluttered-up versions, the new ones were made that way from the beginning.

    Although perhaps they have a way to digitally remove all of that junk and re-release it in a Limited Non-Information Overload Edition, to milk some more money out of the fanbase.

    Instead they're doing the exact opposite by re-releasing them IN THREEEEE DEEEEEEE... I've got a separate post coming on 3D movies, but you can see how they're the mirror image of shooting in anamorphic. They increase the depth of field so that it begins right in front of your face and extends 1000 feet into the screen.

    Ironically it makes it even more difficult for the images to stand out. Too much exploration of deep space, and no handful of key objects to latch onto.

  8. How do you think this fits into the larger zeitgeist?

    I recall that, in one of your earlier posts, you argued that rising-crime movies(and media in general) convey moral absolutism - good guys are good(though possibly flawed), and bad guys are bad. Good guys are beautiful and fit, while bad guys are usually ugly, or even if handsome, have obviously monstrous personalities(think Hannibal Lecter).

    Falling-crime, on the other hand, are often morally confused. "Good guys" engage in behavior that would be considered traditionally immoral(such as Jack Bauer torturing people in 24; ). Bad guys are portrayed sympathetically, and are often as goodlooking as the good guys.

    Do you think that the lack of visual focus in falling-crime movies, shows this same obssession with relativism? "Nothing is as good as anything else".

    Also, it could fall in line with the egotism of those raised in falling-crime times. If there's no obvious point to a scene or movie, than the viewer is free to interpret the movie however he or she wishes. Furthermore, cocooners don't have to face the moral viewpoint of another person, and are free to stay in their own little world.

  9. I'm less sure how all this aesthetic stuff fits into the social picture, not least because every other one of those theories is fucking stupid.

    Still, I see it having to do more with people's attachment styles (Wikipedia: Attachment in adults, or something). Basically, do you want to create social and emotional bonds with others, or does that interdependence make you feel uneasy?

    Rising-crime makes people want to make more bonds, and stronger bonds, to be able to cope with an increasingly dangerous world. Falling-crime unwinds that and makes them more "avoidant".

    I think that's a kind of domain-general thing, not restricted only to personal relationships. Anything you could feel attached to, including cultural works, are fair game.

    If you feel uneasy becoming emotionally affected by other people, and attached to them over time, then you also get uneasy when art strikes an emotional chord, showing that you have less self-control than you thought. And you feel uneasy with parts of a work that make them stick in your mind, like an infectious guitar riff, or dramatic lighting in a painting, or what-have-you.

    Rising-crime environments do just the opposite, making you want to be more emotionally connected to and hit hard by art, and to find motifs, etc., in it that will help you hold on to it in your mind. You're more anxious about the connection weakening and the work slipping away from you.

  10. By the way, those Plinkett reviews are the funniest things I've seen all year. Hell, the last several years. Funniest series since Stuff White People Like.

  11. "not least because every other one of those theories is fucking stupid."

    Jesus, it was just some ideas :/

  12. so you're saying falling-crime movies are just less potent in general? well, that's what I was sort of getting at. the message of such movies is muddied and unclear.

  13. No I didn't mean your ideas, I meant the other Big Theories about why the visual culture changes over time -- that it has to do with economics, sex, race, technology, ideology, politics, etc.

    Yeah, less potent in general. Even the exceptional movies like film noir from the mid-century, or the noir movies from the past 20 years (Lost Highway, Memento, etc.), their characters tend to have minimal inflection in their voice and generally keep their emotional expression in check.

    It works in the context of the movies, but it also tends to put the viewer in a more detached relationship with the work. The noir movies of the rising-crime period grip you more emotionally -- Chinatown, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, etc.


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