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Cinematography by Michael Brooke
Introduction Pioneers The Silent Era Formats Aspect Ratios Colour
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Still from Lawrence of Arabia

Befitting its gigantic scale,
'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962) was shot in
Super Panavision 70
using a 65mm negative

One of the most important early decisions that a cinematographer has to make concerns the format that the film will be shot on, as this will have a fundamental impact on both its visual qualities and the uses to which it can be put.

The vast majority of professional films use a 35mm negative, the industry standard since the late 19th century, but film gauges range from 8mm up to IMAX, the latter making use of an unprecedentedly huge negative area to create films of unsurpassed sharpness and definition. IMAX films have to be screened in special cinemas, though the 70mm format can be screened in larger mainstream cinemas.

70mm presentations of films used to be very common from the 1950s to the early 1990s, but the proportion of titles that were actually shot in the format was relatively small - before digital surround sound could be incorporated into 35mm prints, films were blown up to 70mm to take advantage of the format's six soundtracks. However, films that were actually shot in 70mm (or rather 65mm, since a proportion of the width of the print was taken up with the sound elements) offered an extraordinary richness and depth - those who have seen Lawrence of Arabia (1962) as David Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young intended find even the 35mm version to be unacceptably reduced in scale. The last British film to be shot in the format was Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996), though by then it was such a novelty that it formed a key part of the marketing.

On the other end of the scale, 8mm formats offered major advantages to independent and amateur filmmakers in terms of cost, even if the visual price to be paid was an extremely grainy image. Derek Jarman pushed his meagre resources to the limit by shooting and projecting 8mm film at just three frames per second, creating a distinctive personal style in the process while saving considerable amounts of money.

Professional filmmakers rarely used 8mm except when aiming for a specific visual effect, as the definition was too low. However, the 16mm format, originally intended for amateur filmmakers, became increasingly used towards the lower-budget end of the scale, as it offered significant cost savings and increased camera flexibility and mobility. The Super 16 format tried to compensate for the visual drawbacks by only having sprocket holes down one side, allowing a larger negative area and consequently better picture definition - it's used by filmmakers intending to blow their finished work up to 35mm for exhibition in commercial cinemas.

Super 35 offered a similar variant of the 35mm format, though in this case there was no improvement in picture definition. Instead, a widescreen film image takes up just three sprockets in height, as opposed to the conventional four, allowing a 25% cost saving. This format is increasingly being used in feature films, especially since the advent of widescreen television broadcasts means that a fullscreen option is less important.

Before the 1970s and 1980s, video was rarely used by filmmakers intending their work for cinema projection, but technical improvements mean that it has become increasingly viable to shoot films on video for transfer to 35mm (or, these days, digital projection). Video can take many forms, from low-resolution domestic formats up to 1080p high definition. Though even the latter still falls short of full 35mm resolution, it comes much closer than previous video formats, and it is unlikely that most audiences would notice the difference. Video is also increasingly used in post-production, especially the large and growing field of computer-generated special effects, so even if the film originated on 35mm there is a strong probability that the images went through a video stage at some point.

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