Shooting on Film Made ‘First Man,’ ‘The Favourite,’ and ‘Widows’ More Visceral

It’s unimaginable to think of “First Man,” “The Favourite,” and “Widows” as digitally shot. Film is part of their DNA and the impact of viewing them is more visceral because of it.

Which is why Damien Chazelle, Yorgos Lanthimos, and Steve McQueen prefer working in the analog world, where grain structure affects color, light, and shadow with greater richness and depth. And cinematographers Linus Sandgren, Robbie Ryan, and Sean Bobbitt have certainly delivered the emotional and aesthetic goods.

“You can be so much more expressive with film,” said Oscar-winner Sandgren (“La La Land”), who re-teamed with Chazelle on “First Man” and is linked to “Bond 25” with director Cary Fukunaga, which might also be shot on film. “I think it’s really important to educate film students in shooting on film just so they know and can see the difference,” added Sandgren.

He shot “First Man” in multiple formats (Kodak 16mm and 35mm and IMAX 65mm) to contrast NASA’s mission to the moon with the kitchen sink drama at home with Neil and Janet Armstrong (Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy).

“First Man”

Universal Pictures

Read More:‘First Man’: Shooting the Moon in IMAX to Heighten Neil Armstrong’s Death-Defying Journey

Viewed through the perspective of the grief-stricken Armstrong, it’s like watching a Kodachrome home movie or a documentary, utilizing super 16 for intimate family moments or inside spacecraft, 35mm for domestic scenes in Houston and Mission Control, and IMAX for the climactic moon walk (the “Wizard of Oz” moment). To convey Armstrong’s troubled state of mind, the dizzying hand-held camera reveals the instability of NASA’s dreaded spinning machine. Then it stabilizes for the serene moment where he says goodbye to his departed, toddler daughter.

“It’s a beautiful format,” Sandgren said of his first IMAX experience. “The moon surface is monochromatic yet you view it on the crispest format. You see colors in the sand, reflections of the crystals. What’s fun for us is that it’s totally surreal. You’re out of this world and the image is much [bigger]. You’re on a crane now and you’re floating. And it’s not Neil, it’s more like you.”

“The Favourite”

Fox Searchlight

Leave it to Lanthimos to turn the period drama on its head with a wicked comedy set in the royal palace of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) at the dawn of the 18th century. The frail and often confused queen struggles to maintain her power, while rival cousins Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) attempt to wield it by currying favor.

Ryan shot on Kodak 35mm film for a rich warmth, but darted around the palace at odd angles and with fish-eye lens distortions. “‘The Favourite’ benefits from film,” he said. “Film is very true to what your eye sees and you don’t have to do too much to it.”

The director came up with the idea of black-and-white as the predominant look of the costumes with designer Sandy Powell, and the palace (shot at Hatfield House) was transformed into a playground and battlefield with a lot of open spaces by production designer Fiona Crombie. “It was just filming what was there,” added Ryan. “There was lots of wood paneling and tapestries and a nice color palette to work from. And within that you had these pale-skinned actresses. They all stood out a bit more with that.

“We had candlelight at night, which was warmer, and more stark, colder daylight. The windows were a godsend. It was like a photographer’s studio with a natural source and a lovely range every day. Yorgos pushed the film stock if it got too dark. I haven’t done that so I learned a lot.”

Viola Davis in "Widows"

Viola Davis in “Widows”

Merrick Morton

With “Widows,” McQueen deftly combined the heist film with social commentary in unraveling the clash of affluence and poverty in Chicago. His focus was the grieving trio of widows (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debecki), who plan a heist to both survive and thrive.

Read More: See How ‘Widows’ Captured Chicago Through Its Use of Color

“To my mind, film is simply a better acquisition format,” said Bobbitt, who shot on three different film stocks for a naturalistic look that was colorful but not overly saturated. “When you marry it with post-production, then you get the best of both worlds. But within the film itself, there’s simply more picture information.”

The director and cinematographer referenced “Chinatown” for its storytelling simplicity and use of L.A. as a mythic urban landscape, according to Bobbitt. For “Widows,” they created strong interior compositions in the opulent penthouse apartment where Davis lives, emphasizing the emotional power of her face, and outside, where the action bumps up against the Gothic or modern-looking architecture of the Windy city.

“The idea was to create the contrast of the widows lives before [the death of their husbands] and to show the starkness of their lives after,” Bobbitt said. “But also to set the audience up and get them on the edge of their seats from the beginning, and get as much information across as excitingly, succinctly, and efficiently as possible.”

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