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Polanskis Lenses
Roman Polanski is one of the directors I always go to whenever Im looking for
inspiration, cinematography wise. His Knife in the Water is also my all time
favourite film which makes studying his visual language an even more enjoyable
experience.
Polanski came from a background in painting which probably had an impact on
his meticulous attention for composition. One of his trademarks is the use of wide
angle lenses. In Masters of Light, John Alonzo A.S.C, who worked with the
French director in Chinatown, said the only lens used in the entire film was a
40mm anamorphic which produces an angle of vision similar to that of a 20mm
spherical lens.
These are the lenses used in some of his films:
Rosemarys Baby: 18mm and 25mm
Chinatown: 40mm (anamorphic)

The Ghost Writer: 27mm, and 35mm


The Pianist: 27mm, and 32mm
Oliver Twist: 21mm, and 27mm
Carnage: 21mm and 27mm
The Ninth Gate: 25mm and 32mm (he used a 75mm for just a few close-ups)
The reason behind the use of these lenses is to make the audience feel like
being part of the movie since they mimic the field of view of the human eye and
also reproduce the relation of sizes between objects in the frame as they are
seen by us (according to Alonzo, the image focal length of the human eye is
approximately 22 mm).

Polanski in Rosemarys Baby


Ewan McGregor has recently commented on working with Polanski in The
Ghost Writer and his preference for wide angle lenses:

He doesnt use long lenses. He only uses really wide lenses. It has a strange
effect on us because its quite similar to the human eye. Usually on a movie set,
for a close-up, the camera would be very far away on a long lens and it would
make the background be out of focus with your face in focus. Its very beautiful.
But he doesnt do that.
He has a 35mm or 27mm lens on thats quite wide, and he has the camera right
up in your face. It means that the world isnt all beautiful and fuzzy and out of
focus behind us. It makes you feel more reflective of our human vision. So, it
makes us feel more tense because we feel like were in it and not watching a
film. And the details.

DP Jerzy Lipman with Polanski in Knife in the Water


These wide angle lenses have become more popular in the 40s. Until then, the
most common lens was a 50mm (Astro-Berlin Pan Tachar). But during the
Second World War, the studios went through a difficult period, financially
speaking, which forced them to reduce expenses and use smaller sets, which in
turn, forced them into using wider lenses.
Heres some of the films of the 40s and the focal length.

Criss Cross (1949) Robert Siodmak: 30mm.

Criss Cross (1949)


Act of Violence (1948) Fred Zinnemann (one of my favourite film noir movies):
only one lens in the entire film: 28mm.

Act of Violence (1948)

Little Foxes (1941) William Wyler: shot with a 28mm.

Little Foxes (1941)


The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)- Orson Welles (photographed by Stanley
Cortez, a DP who worked with Orson Welles in several movies and photographed one
of the most beautifully looking films Ive ever seen,The Night of the Hunter,
unfortunately, the only movie directed by Charles Laughton). In The Magnificent
Ambersons, he only used the 30mm, Baltar (which is still used nowadays when people
go for a more retro look).

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Arch of Triumph (1948)- Lewis Milestone The DP Russell Metty only used a 30mm
at F2.3 the entire film.

Arch of Triumph (1948)

Johnny Belinda (1948) Jean Negulesco Only lens: 28mm.

Johnny Belinda (1948)

Until the 50s, I think the only 28mm lens available was a Cooke Speed Panchros. This
lens is still around and as the Baltars, is commonly used when you want a vintage look.
Golden Door from 2007, for example, was shot with a set of Panchros. Noah
Baumbachs Margot at the Wedding (2007) was also shot with the Baltars.