In a time when many filmmakers are obsessed with amassing gear and stocking up on the latest toys, it’s important to remember how much can be done with so little.
Some of the greatest filmmakers of all time have made their masterpieces by harnessing the power of minimalism. In many cases, this has translated to shooting an entire feature film on a single prime lens.
While I’ve never done it myself, the idea of shooting an entire movie using just one lens has always intrigued me. I’m a huge fan of imposing creative limitations on myself, and what better way to do that than by restricting lens choice and field of view.
Hitchcock did it with Psycho – shot entirely on a 50mm lens, but he was far from the first or the last. Notable classic examples include iconic films like Chinatown or Tokyo Story, and modern day examples would include The Royal Tennenbaums or Birdman.
The brilliant Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu is known for shooting his entire filmography on a single 50mm lens. Pretty incredible to conceive of, considering the massive effect he had on cinema.
Below are just a handful of the countless films shot entirely (or some cases almost entirely) on a single lens –
- The Wrestler (12mm/Super16)
- Valhalla Rising (16mm)
- Birdman (18mm)
- Touch of Evil (18mm)
- Cosmopolis (21mm)
- Bottle Rocket (27mm)
- The Last Picture Show (28mm)
- The Witch (32mm)
- Toni Erdmann (32mm)
- Call me by your name (35mm)
- Chinatown (40mm)
- Royal Tennenbaums (40mm)
- Rushmore (40mm)
- Son of Saul (40mm)
- The Godfather (40mm)
- Monsters (50mm)
- Psycho (50mm)
- The Robe (50mm)
- Tokyo Story (50mm)
It’s interesting to note how often the 40mm focal length comes into play. It’s a far less common lens in the real world – 35mm and 50mm are more standard – yet it appears in more films on this list than any other focal length.
This is likely because it offers such a natural field of view when paired with a Super35mm frame. It’s about as close to human vision as you can get, which gives it a beautiful objectivity.
The 50mm is similar in that regard, but can look just a little bit dreamier and more surreal thanks to the slightly longer focal length. Still, they produce such an organic look, which is undoubtably why the 50mm was a favorite of many directors.
There are many wide angle lenses on the list too, which undoubtably served both creative and practical needs. In the case of a movie like Birdman, the concept surely dictated the use of a wide lens, as the entire film is shot in one take on a steadicam.
Wide lenses (in particular 28mm lenses) offer a gorgeous look while affording the filmmaker maximum versatility. They can truly create a best of both worlds scenario – delivering a beautiful aesthetic but also allowing for a fast pace on set.
In most cases though, the choice to shoot on a single lens – whether wide or normal – is more about the creative output than the practical considerations.
If a director has one job, it’s to ensure their movie feels cohesive. To get all the parts work in harmony so that there is a consistent tone and point of view driving the finished piece.
Shooting on a single lens provides this connective tissue, no matter how dynamic the film may be. A movie may be shot across many locations, at different times of day or with different tones throughout each sequence…
There can be variance on so many levels, but capturing everything through the restricted view of a single lens keeps it all grounded. It glues all the pieces together, and that translates to a better audience experience.
Most viewers could never guess a given movie was shot on a single lens, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel the affect of it.
If the same scene were shot on just one lens, and then a second time with a slew of different lenses, the end result would look and feel entirely different. One version may cut from an extreme wide 18mm shot to a very long lensed 135mm closeup. The other, shot entirely on a 40mm lens, may have more subtle cuts and offer more fluidity.
No version is right or wrong, but both will be entirely unique and different from each other. They will result in a different final product.
While doing some research for this post, it occurred to me that virtually every single-lens movie I came across was also a truly great film. I’ve yet to come across a single example of a movie shot on one lens that didn’t succeed creatively and critically.
Of course it wasn’t the choice in lens alone that made any these films great. But I do think it shows the incredible vision of the directors behind these films. Each were crafted by an auteur that truly knew what they wanted, and just as importantly – what they didn’t.
They worked with less gear and more constraints to create something remarkable.
Clearly not every film can or should be shot this way. And making the choice to shoot on a single lens will in and of itself not make your film any better.
But these types of bold choices, whether relating to lens choice, color palette, music selection, or anything else for that matter – are what make good films great. They play their part in delivering a finished product that feels assured and entirely original.
So in the midst of the sea of gear and new technology being released every day, let’s take time when we can to step back and simplify. Sometimes less truly is more.
If you had to shoot everything on a single lens, what would it be? Leave a comment below!