August 17, 2010

Getting Cinemate: #12 The Lens of the Camera

There are mainly four types of Lenses, based on their focal length (distance from the plane of the film to the surface of the lens):

1. For cameras that use 35mm film, the “normal” lens has a focal length of roughly 35-50mm. It distorts the least and most closely mimics the way the human eye perceives reality.

2. For 35mm film, any lens shorter than 35mm focal length is considered WIDE-ANGLE lens. In a cramped location, these types of lens are used to photograph as much of the subject as possible. Since they enhance the ‘angle of view’, they are called Wide-Angle lenses. (Eg. The fish-eye lens, an extremely wide-angle lens, with angle of view approaching 180 degrees). But it greatly emphasizes our sense of depth perception and often, distorts linear perception as well. Remember those visuals where the person close to the camera appears too large compared to those away; or a fist or a gun approaching the camera loom large!

3. Similarly, focal lengths more than 60mm (up to 1200mm) make TELEPHOTO or LONG lens. They, like telescope, magnify distant objects. They do not distort linear perception but do, and it is useful at times, suppress depth perception. Akira Kurosawa was fond of using this type of lenses. These lenses provide a flattened, staged appearance.

4. The ZOOM lens (focal length between 10 to 100 mm) has a variable focal length, ranging from wide-angle to telephoto, which allows quick changes in focal lengths between and also, during a shot. This effect permits the zoom shot to compete with the tracking shot.

‘Once Upon a Time in Mumbai’ is, as we know, set in the 70s. In spite of a lot of work on the costumes, the make-up, and the sets, and giving them the feel of that era, the film does not remind us of the 70s. It looks very much like a picture of modern times if we can see beyond the production design tools I just mentioned. And the reason for that is the use of Wide-Angle lenses. You will not find a movie from that era that has been shot with this type of lenses. We ‘know’ inside our heads that the distorted, exaggerated feel of a Wide-Angle lens is a modern cinematographic development. Our sub-conscious that relates an era or a place to the pictorial descriptions fed into our brains by images, and more effectively by ‘moving images’, ‘refuses’ to ‘feel’ that these visuals depict the same. Hence they look phony, despite all hard work put in by the production designer, art director, costumes and make-up departments.

That is the power and the limitation of film craft, essentially a collaborative art-form. Each and everything should fall into place in order to create great cinema.

(The technical details provided in this post are a part of my notes from this brilliant book by James Monaco – ‘How to Read a Film’.)


  1. you had given this feature a miss for so long that i had forgotten that 'Getting Cinemate' used to be my most avidly awaited post! ah, feels at home now (am more inclined to the technical aspects of film making, as covered in this section, hence the eagerness).

  2. Hi Satyanshu, I am so happy to see you doing what you wanted to.... Wonderful work. Keep it up. Udaan is a succes and so are you....!!! Unbelievable..!!

  3. Even though I found the movie a big bore because of dialogues, I quite liked the idea of shooting the 70s with the latest cameras. When we think of our Grandfather's time we imagine B&W and our father's time with technicolour. But, in reality the world now and the world then looked very similar to the human eye.