I only ask as a client recently asked me to shoot a short narrative film for Vision Express. Great, I thought, it’s always nice to shoot drama. They said, ‘it’s for projection, and it’s going to be projected big, oh and we need to shoot in a 7:1 aspect ratio’. These are easy words to say but when you actually start the prep it soon dawns that the practicalities of this combination are a challenge! So what are the main considerations? Firstly, as far as I’m aware, there is no film or sensor that comes in a 7:1 aspect ratio and therefore we are into a world of extraction – i.e. extracting a 7:1 ratio out of the centre of a taller frame. This automatically reduces the available resolution of any existing format as you are only using a proportion of the total number of pixels and to compound this was the statement that it was to be projected big. Back to that big word again, the natural question being how big is big? The answer was that the screen was to have a left – right stretch of 34 meters and a slight curve. It’s only when you see it that you realise how big 34 meters is and I’ve put a shot below to give you an idea. If you look closely you will see someone standing in front of the screen to give you scale.
I can tell you that this meets my definition of big! It used 5 projectors overlapping to keep the quality as high as possible. As for origination quality we eventually decided to shoot in spherical on my RED Dragon in 6K and the results were spectacular.
The aspect ratio also creates challenges as you lose many of the frame sizes that you normally associate with drama. For instance to see a figure from head to toe requires the camera to be about 20 meters away from the action unless you use super wide lenses. I was very much against going on the super wides as the narrative of the film required an emotional connection with the lead character and I felt the inherent distortion associated with these wide lenses would hinder that connection. We ended up using predominantly the range of 16-35mm focal lengths with the occasional straying onto 50mm or 10.5mm. Even with these lenses the bulk of our film features a greatly reduced variety of frame sizes to ‘normal’. If you think about it you probably don’t want to feature anybody closer than medium c/u where to chop the top of the head as when projected on this scale they will look monstrously big! But as we were shooting entirely on real locations we often couldn’t get wider than a wide m/s as we just couldn’t physically get far enough back. I was genuinely very concerned about how the film would cut with this reduced selection of frame sizes and the director, Spencer Carpenter (https://uk.linkedin.com/in/spencer-carpenter-13a75615), and myself carefully planned out the shot sizes of each transition between scenes to make sure they wouldn’t jar. We took frames of every single shot during the recce to try to mitigate against repetition of shot size and I think all this planning really came into its own on the very tightly packed 3 shoot day schedule.
The final steep learning curve was how to use the extraordinarily wide scope of the format, there is just so much space either side of the action and you don’t just want to use the centre of the frame as this feels like a real lost opportunity – a lost opportunity in the sense that we would be failing to use the available storytelling frame to give the audience information but also a lost opportunity by not asking the audience to engage with the far left and right sides of the frame. Both myself and Spencer wanted the audience to be forced to look left and right and we felt that this physical response of the audience would further enhance their emotional engagement. This meant less camera movement and more blocking from the actors so the camera became more a static point of view. There were 2 tracking shots at particular points of emotional energy but far less tilting and panning than I would normally have done. We also tried to use reflections in frame when characters were at introspective points of their arc. This worked visually very well and helped make full use of the breadth of the frame.
This was a truly collaborative affair. The client Gary Blair From Vision Express, the agency creative Paul Basson from The Events Company and of course the producer/director Spencer Carpenter from Shapshifter all worked as one creative mass to solve all the unusual predicaments that were thrown at us to make this the fantastic success that the film ended up being. I am very grateful for being invited into this team and sharing both the stresses and jubilations that came with making the film.