Choosing a cine-camera and lenses for a cinema DCP film

Choosing an aspect ratio

Cinemas have two standard settings for aspect ratio: Flat 1.85 and Scope 2.39

There are 4 DCI DCP resolutions used on films in cinemas:

4K Scope 2.39:1 4096 1716
4K Flat 1.85:1 3996 2160
2K Scope 2.39:1 2048 858
2K Flat 1.85:1 1998 1080

Example: Choosing 4096×1716 DCI Scope 2.39 in Davinci Resolve when making a 4K DCP

Read more about making a DCP in Resolve here.

Side and top/bottom masking improves the perceived contrast in cinemas, but are only required for 2.39 and 1.85. Some cinemas may have side and top masking for 2.2 and other aspect ratios used in recent films.

More info on DCPs

  • A DCP is a digital cinema print that is used instead of a 35 mm print. When a 35 mm film was shown in a movie theatre the D60 Xenon bulb white point of the projector was the white point of all films. DCPs can have D65 white point and other white poinst, but many films are made with the warmer D60 white point.
  • DCPs are shown on big screens where compression artifacts are more visible than on a smaller screen. DCPs use high bit depth (12 bit, 2.6 gamma) and high bitrate JPEG2000 compression (250 mbit). Film grain and noise can be left as it is or added without low-bit rate artifacts like blocking, banding, and patterns in the noise in the shadows.
  • Bit-rate intensive footage like a plane flying over a forest looks good on high bit-rate DCPs where each frame is compressed individually. (Intra frame compression).
  • DCPs are shown in dark rooms on cinema screens with less light intensity (14 fL) and lower contrast ratio than on a normal OLED TV. If the light intensity is set too high in the cinema, colors can be too colorful and what is intended to look black can look grey.
  • DCPs can use Rec.709 or the P3 color space at 14 fL. P3 has more saturated dark red/orange/violet color than REC709/SRGB).

Recommended cine-camera settings and practices

The Netflix list of approved 4K cameras for original content is a good list of 4K cine-cameras. It also has recommended practices like using a framing chart. The list shows which settings are to be used on each camera for Netflix’s original 4K productions.

When making a film for the cinema, you can choose to use other settings than the ones approved for Netflix for original content. But the Netflix settings like:

  • at least Prores,
  • 10-bit depth
  • and C-LOG or similar

    are also recommended for digital cinema.

High bit rate and bit depth cameras

A digital cine camera usually:

  • Records in a high bitrate raw format like ArriRaw. or semi-raw format like BRAW, or Prores
  • Records in a LOG format like C-LOG or Blackmagic film
  • Records in 10-bit or 12-bit. or more
  • Records in DCI 2K and/or DCI 4K resolutions
  • Has framing lines for 1.85 Flat and 2.39 Scope

Cine-cameras recording in high-bit rate and high bit depth rate preserve:

  • Dynamic Range.
  • Shadow detail.
  • High-detail scenery like forests and water.

Choosing sensor size and resolution (2K/4K)

Example: ARRI Alexa 35 with 2X anamorphic recording in 4K DCI SCOPE

The new ARRI Alexa 35 has a Super 35 4/3 sensor with 4.6K resolution.

It has selectable “digital film stocks” called Arri Textures like G733 nostalgic that can burn in an organic grainy 35 mm look or the normal ARRI look that was used in the discontinued ARRI Alexa Mini.

You can record directly in 4K DCI resolution like c-log4 ProRes 4K 2.39:1 Anamorphic 2x 3328×2790 (20.21 x 16.95 mm) desqueezed to Scope 4K DCI 2.39 (4096×1716).

Because the sensor area is 20.21 x 16.95 mm/26.3 mm image circle, you can use traditional anamorphic lenses like the Atlas Orion anamorphic lenses which cover a 24.89 mm x 18.66 mm sensor area.

Read more about Choosing sensor size, resolution, and lenses on cine cameras

Choosing a look

What lenses and cine-cameras are used on other films

American Cinematographer is a good source on on what lenses and cameras are used on films. The interviews will also have information about lighting, choosing aspect ratio, choosing a look, film stock choice

Indiewire used to make Oscars cinematography surveys where they asked cinematographers which cine cameras and lenses they used. There are more factors than lens and camera when finding a look for a film, and some of the DOPs tell how they use different techniques like shooting handheld and using detuned lenses to get the look they are looking for.

The Oscar cinematography survey for films released in 2019

The Oscar cinematography survey for films released in 2020

The Oscar cinematography survey for films released in 2021

Large format, Full format, 65 mm

The ARRI ALEXA LF mini cine camera and other large format cameras like the Sony Venice have been popular in recent years. The lens choices are widening for full frame cinematography, and lenses with vintage donor glass like ARRI DNA are used on many films like The Green Knight, which was shot with Alexa 65 (dir. David Lowery, DOP Andrew Droz Palermo). The ARRI DNA lenses uses donor vintage lenses which have an organic look.

Large format lenses with a cleaner modern look like the Zeiss Supreme are used on some recent films like Titane (dir. Julia Ducournau, DOP Ruben Impens). Modern lenses like the Zeiss Supreme can give more saturated colors and higher contrast compared to some vintage lenses.

On Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (dir. Rian Johnson) DOP Steve Yedlin uses the Alexa LF and Zeiss Supreme lenses. He also uses post-production tools that he has created to give the film a non-clinical look. On both Knives Out and Glass Onion he used tools like: a simulation of 35 mm film stock colors, a simulation of 35 mm halation, simulation of grain, and a simulation of film gate weave. Yedlin shows in his display prep videos that you can mix film and digital cine cameras and they can look similar.

The winner of Best Cinematography at the 2020 Oscars was 1917 (dir. Sam Mendes). DOP Roger Deakins used the Arri Alexa LF and the ARRI Signature Prime 40 mm lens.

Deakins likes a clean look without lens breathing and vignetting and says in an interview that the Alexa LF and signature prime lenses are the sharpest and cleanest he has seen.

The winner of Best Cinematography at the 2022 Oscars was Dune (dir. Denis Villeneuve). DOP Greig Fraser used ARRI Alexa LF combined with tuned Panavision Ultra Vista Anamorphics, and Panavision H series spherical lenses. And scanned film-out by Foto-kem.


Many films have been made with Super-35 cine-cameras like the Arri Alexa Mini and RED cameras. Organic super-35 lenses like Cooke S4, Leica Summilux, Zeiss Super Speeds. Rehoused Super Baltars and Canon K35 are popular.

The new 2022 ARRI ALEXA 35 can record in 4K with super-35 lenses like the Leica Summilux. And is an alternative to RED cameras for 4K capture with super-35 lenses on Netflix films and shows.
Read more about 4K sensor sizes and lens coverage in this post:
Choosing sensor size, resolution, and lenses on cine cameras

On Another Round (dir. Thomas Vinterberg) DoP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen used the Arri Alexa Mini and Canon K35 lenses. For some scenes, he used close-focus diopters to get a very low depth of field. Diopters are also often used with anamorphic lenses for close-ups.

The winner of Best Cinematography at the 2021 Oscars was Mank which uses deep focus similar to the look of Citizen Kane. Director David Fincher and DOP Erik Messerschmidt used RED’s HELIUM 8K S35 Monochrome and added film gate weave in post. The lenses used was Leica Summilux at high T stops.

Some of the Cinematography Oscars contenders in the last years have been shot on film.

35 mm film

On Licorice Pizza (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson), DoP Paul Thomas Anderson and DP Michael Bauman were inspired by 70s movies like American Graffiti. They shot on 35mm film with Panavision C-series anamorphic lenses, custom-made lenses from Panavision, and some lenses from Paul Thomas Anderson’s personal collection.

Many consider the anamorphic look with horizontal flares, oval bokeh, and organic focus fall-off as very cinematic. The Panavision C-series has lots of character and flare

Super-16 mm film

On Spencer (dir: Pablo Larraín), DoP Claire Mathon used s16 mm film with Leitz Summilux and Zeiss Ultra 16 lenses. Large film grain and large depth of field are part of the super-16 mm look.

Modern or vintage lenses

The Zeiss Technical papers on field depth and MFT explain some of the science behind lens design:

  • The aberrations in some vintage lenses can make them easier to focus than modern lenses.
  • Vintage lenses have more character wide-open, or near wide-open. When stopped down, chromatic aberration goes away.
  • MFT charts do not predict nice bokeh. A lens can have very good sharpness, but lack nice focus fall off.
  • A lens used on aps-c at F.2 has around the same depth of field as F 2.8 on full frame.
  • Large sensors and high resolution increase the details that are captured. This also helps softer lenses since both sensor size/resolution and lens performance are factors in how much detail is captured.

The ARRI signature primes use the ARRI LPL mount, which has a wider diameter and shorter distance from the lens to the sensor compared to PL mount lenses. Because the lenses are closer to the sensor and the mount is wider, it easier to design lenses to be telecentric. Telecentric lenses have a rear lens element almost as large as the sensor. This avoids light rays hitting the sensor and optical low pass filter at steep angles. If the lens is not telecentric, the sides of the picture can get aberrations like blurring.

Vintage lenses

Vintage photographic lenses from the 60, 70, and 80s are often used as an alternative to modern cine lenses. They can add an organic look when used wide open or near wide open. When they are rehoused, they can handle motorized follow-focus systems better.

Zero optic rehouses Baltars, Canon FD, Canon K35, Canon Rangefinder, Leica, Nikon AI/AI-S, and Olympus OM lenses and has a good description of the different brands.

Old fast glass in LA rents out many sets with rehoused sets from Zero optic and TLS, such as the Kowa Cine Prominar set.

Some modern lenses have a more vintage look. When making Hawk Vintage 1.33x large format lenses, Vantage studied the coatings and elements of ‘70 lenses and designed modern lenses with a 70’ look. Tribe7 makes new lenses based on older designs with different tunings instead of using vintage donor lenses.

ARRI Rental recently rehoused the Moviecam prime lenses. Originally rehoused in the 80s with 70s Olympus and Canon donor lenses, these lenses are ARRI rental’s alternative to ARRI DNA and Canon K35 on full frame. ARRI Rental says the Moviecam lenses have controlled beautiful organic flares and a characterful but consistent look. The lenses are multi-coated, but in the 70s lenses only had a few layers of coating which results in beautiful flares. Modern lenses usually have around 7 layers of coating to suppress flares and increase contrast.

Vintage donor glass from photography lenses are popular because they cover the sensor on full-frame cine-cameras. ARRI Rental decided to bring back the Moviecam lenses because they think they work better on full frame than they do on super-35. Here are some possible reasons:

  • A 40 mm lens on a full frame cine-camera has a wider field of view than on Super-35 cine-camera. The vintage normal and medium telephoto lenses (40, 50, 60, 85) are easier to use on full frame and can have nicer focus fall-off and are more tele-centric than the vintage wide angle lenses. On more modern cine-lens sets the lenses are better matched and there is not as much difference as with vintage lenses between aperture stops and focal lengths.
  • On a large sensor, more of the image circle of the lenses are used, and aberrations like vignetting, field curvature, and barrel distortion are more visible than on smaller super-35 sensors. If you want vintage aberration like vignetting, full frame is a better choice.
  • The shallow depth of field effect of using T 1.5 on the 60 mm is more pronounced on full frame since the depth of field on the super-35 camera at T 1.5 is larger. But on the super-35 cameras pulling focus will be easier at T.1.5.

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