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Panavision Drives Innovation in Large Format Cinematography

From its founding in 1954 as a maker of widescreen CinemaScope lenses, through today’s stunning large-format imagery, Panavision has been designing and building lenses that deliver breathtaking moving pictures. 

Digital filmmaking has made the choice of lenses perhaps the most important decision a cinematographer can make in terms of visual design. Given the recent trend toward large format production and professional cinema-grade cameras, the choice of glass is even more crucial. Filmmakers say that today’s larger camera sensors produce a more immersive experience, in part because changes in optics and lens geometry required to cover the larger area result in depth and angle-of-view cues that are close to human vision. And Panavision is driving innovation by creating lenses tailor-made for the larger digital sensors, from the new line of Primo 70 glass to legacy Sphero 65, System 65, Super 70 and Ultra Panavision 70 lenses.

Current and upcoming feature films shot in digital large format include Doctor Strange (shot by Ben Davis, BSC), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Greig Fraser, ACS, ASC), Passengers (Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC), Live By Night (Robert Richardson, ASC), Ghost in the Shell (Jess Hall, BSC), Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (Henry Braham, BSC), and Okja (Darius Khondji, AFC, ASC), among others. 

Prieto, known for his mixed-format work on Argo, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Homesman, and others, combined large-format sensors and Panavision lenses on director Morten Tyldum’s Passengers, a tale set in space, 600 years in the future. Prieto shot extensive tests looking for the right combination of aspect ratio and look. He used the Primo 70 lenses in focal lengths from 14 to 200mm, and three different Primo 70 zooms.

“When I saw the Panavision Primo 70s, I could see a difference, because they maintained the resolution of the big formats,” says Prieto. “I was able to open up the lens to T2 or T2.8, and the fall-off and shallow depth of field was really beautiful. It made a very pristine image with high resolution, and yet it had a softness – a more romantic image, in a way. The lenses didn’t feel harsh at all – they were very pleasing on faces, even with the resolution. I could isolate the characters from their environment, and in the wide shots I got the resolution to see the incredible spaceship interiors from (production designer) Guy Dyas. It was a perfect combination.”

Richardson shot his most recent assignment, director-actor-writer Ben Affleck’s Live By Night, using large-format sensors and Super Panavision 70 and Sphero 65 lenses. 

“The Panavision vintage lenses had a soft and creamy patina that mixed beautifully with the attributes of the camera,” says Richardson. “I was continually surprised by the quality of what we captured, and much was due to the lenses and body.”

For Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell, Hall made a careful study of the anime with the goal of translating nuanced color to the screen, painterly contrast, highlights with slight halation, and flat perspective of the source material.

“I needed very high-speed lenses because I was going to be shooting in Hong Kong at night,” says Hall. “(Panavision’s) Dan Sasaki was able to create three high-speed lenses in specific focal lengths – a 40, 50 and 75mm, which were perfect for the Hong Kong work. In experimenting with the 65mm camera, I realized that the inherent compression of the large format effectively flattens the perspective of a wide-angle lens, which was perfect for the anime aesthetic and suited my own sensibilities. The Sphero’s were the perfect complement providing what I was looking for in terms of texture. Dan also built a 29mm version, which became the key lens for me on the project – it really created the signature shots.”

Davis combined large-sensor cameras and vintage Panavision glass on Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange. “My fear was that it would be too clean, too sharp,” he says. “Cinematographers are always trying to break down digital media. We’re putting older lenses on. We’re putting anamorphics on. We’re trying to get flaring. We’re putting atmosphere in. We’re just trying to break down that image a little bit. But the additional information in the highlights and shadows in combination with those lenses created a lovely, very natural feel, which is something I’ve been looking for in digital cinematography. There’s a creaminess and the way the focus falls off across the image is better.”

With the launch of the Panavision DXL large-format digital camera, Panavision’s pre-eminence in the field of professional cinematography tools is poised to open a new chapter in which 8K sensor camera and large format lenses are designed to work in perfect harmony. The DXL will be available for rental in early 2017.