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Many Iconic Directors Have Shot Their Feature Films With Just A Single Prime Lens – Here’s Why.

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!

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About Author

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!

38 Comments

  • Josh
    May 29, 2021 at 6:27 pm

    It’s worth noting that many of the films you list were shot anamporphic, so have a field of view twice as wide as a spherical lens (e.g. a 40mm 2x squeeze lens has the fov of 20mm. I once read a major DP whose name eludes me (sorry) felt a ‘Normal” focal length anamorphic lens was the closest you can come to emulating how the human eye sees. A normal lens is defined as a focal length = to the diagonal of the frame size. A 35mm anamorphic gate is 18.6mm x 21.95mm, so the diagonal is 28.8mm. Therefore a 28mm-ish lens plus or minus is normal for the 35mm motion picture format and reproduces spatial perspective in a natural neutral way (whereas wide angles exaggerate perspective and telephotos compress perspective). When you use a 28mm anamorphic with a 2x squeeze you get the wide field of view of 14mm lens, but with the natural (e.g. similar to human) spatial perspective of 28mm lens. Since us humans have a very wide horizontal field of view, anamorphics are closer to our natural wide angle vision. TLDR: 28mm anamorphic on a 35mm film camera is the closest to human vision.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normal_lens
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anamorphic_format

    Reply
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    Reply
  • Ria Hickey
    April 6, 2021 at 1:49 pm

    Oy! Wonderful article…Gratitude!

    Reply
  • Raymond
    September 3, 2020 at 5:17 am

    I love the concept, enough that I had already registered http://www.OneLensFilm.com and plan to launch a website and film festivals for films shot with one lens. I disagree that 50mm is close to the human eye, especially on a 35mm movie camera. That is then a 75mm focal length equivalent lens with the 1.5 crop factor to the 35mm gate for most cameras (Super 35 for sure, which is the same as most DX digital camera sensor size).

    Look through a 50mm lens, mark widest points left and right, then top and bottom, then step away from the viewfinder and notice how much WIDER the human eye is. I believe the human eye sees closer to 17mm to 20mm on a 35mm full frame camera or 28-32mm on a 35mm movie camera (which is about the same as a 17-20mm lens on a full frame camera. Whoever came up with the idea that 50mm equals the normal human eye is nuts in my opinion. Look through any full-frame camera with a 50mm lens on it and see for yourself.

    Reply
  • David
    June 21, 2020 at 4:14 am

    Consider to make a feature film by Zeiss Contax 28mm f2 & 50mm f1.4 on BMPCC4K (with x0.64 SB)

    Reply
  • Kent Smith
    May 13, 2020 at 1:27 am

    I mentioned to a friend that Chinatown was shot with only a 40mm lens. He corrected me, with a quote from its cinematographer, John A. Alonzo, while talking about working with Polanski, “I have an idea that if we shoot the remainder of the picture with a 40mm, 45mm, or 50mm lens, whenever possible, this will give the picture a very subtle look — not a distorted look. It won’t be A Clockwork Orange. We’ll shoot the closeups with a 75mm lens, maximum. We’ll use the zoom lens only to trim 4 to 6 millimeters with a dolly — never strictly as a move. If you’ll let me stick to that approach. I think it will influence the atmosphere of the picture in a subtle way.”

    full article: https://ascmag.com/articles/flashback-chinatown

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      August 5, 2020 at 3:46 pm

      Appreciate this – I will take a look!

      Reply
    • Stephano Schlanger
      October 5, 2020 at 8:40 pm

      Something to consider is that some of those movies were shot anamorphic full frame if the lens was 40mm 2x anamorphic that equals a 20mm aspherical in a full frame sensor. just a side note to add to your blog post.

      Reply
  • Oleg
    February 4, 2020 at 11:36 pm

    the focal length of the lens is understandable. What camera were used with? Crop Factor what?

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      March 3, 2020 at 2:05 am

      Mostly 35mm film, which in digital terms is similar to APS-C.

      Reply
  • elliot
    January 11, 2020 at 6:51 pm

    Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums were shot primarily on 21mm definitely NOT 40mm. Where are u getting this info. I’m fascinated by the single lens thing, but want to make sure these facts are bona fide. Thank you.

    Reply
  • M Recht
    August 19, 2019 at 4:25 pm

    I shot my first film entirely on 50 mm which translated to 75 mm FOV on my APS-C sensor 1080p camera. Shot in the desert with 16 ND filter. I thought I would use the 35 mm more but when I got there I always ended up grabbing the 50 mm. It came out looking beautiful and dreamy. Obviously, I had a lot of space to work with.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      August 22, 2019 at 4:29 pm

      Sounds beautiful – would love to see it sometime!

      Reply
    • T PETMEZAS
      March 11, 2021 at 12:43 am

      Veeery interesting, my friend! Is there a link or another way to watch this film or parts of it?

      Reply
  • Sean
    August 15, 2019 at 4:37 am

    Interesting how in the old days the 50mm was apparently the lens of choice for all the big directors, because in a studio you can get back enough with lens for a wide shot without running out of space, but with the rise of location shooting you see more and more 18-40mm lenses being used instead. I’ve tried shooting short films entirely on a 50 and in a tight space like a bedroom you find yourself backed against the wall before you know it trying to get the shot.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      August 22, 2019 at 4:28 pm

      Great point – your environment plays such a huge factor. Studios definitely make your shoot days a lot simpler.

      Reply
  • Na;im
    August 7, 2019 at 10:49 pm

    I’d shot on 50mm

    Reply
  • Stéphane TRANQUILLIN
    August 3, 2019 at 6:06 pm

    Good article Noam!
    The movie “canine” (dogtooth in the US) directed by Yorgos Lanthimos is entirely shot on a single 50mm anamorphic lens if I remember correctly :
    https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1379182/

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      August 22, 2019 at 4:26 pm

      Great one! I didn’t know that, but am a huge fan of Yorgos. Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
  • Justin Woo
    July 30, 2019 at 3:56 am

    Hmm. This makes me want to shoot an entire short on my 50mm Rokinon Cine DS. It’s not an amazing lens, but it’s very nice, and on my GH5 with a 0.64 speedbooster, it comes out to 64mm FOV, which is similar to the 40mm FOV on an S35 frame.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      August 22, 2019 at 2:05 am

      That’d be a lot of fun. I love that lens – was one of my favorites when I owned the full Rokinon set.

      Reply
  • Pablò
    July 29, 2019 at 3:17 pm

    Voigtlander 42.5, f/0.95.

    Reply
  • Jack Rodriguez
    July 29, 2019 at 3:54 am

    Wow! Never notice the godfather was shot with one lens. I’m inspired to create one with just a 16mm lens. Awesome! Thanks!

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      August 22, 2019 at 2:04 am

      That’d be cool! Be sure to share it with me when you do.

      Reply
  • Sandeep Chahal
    July 29, 2019 at 3:05 am

    What an amazing article!

    Noam, could you also make an article on how an independent Film maker cac complete QC – quality control on his / her own. Or Is escaping from a QC is completely unavoidable and we have to do it if we want good distributers to take our film.

    Reply
    • Raul
      July 29, 2019 at 10:47 am

      Chinatown and all the Wes Anderson movies in the 40mm section were shot on anamorphic, so same fov as 20mm and still pretty wide…

      Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      August 22, 2019 at 2:03 am

      Yes! That’s a great idea for a post in the future. Will add it to my list.

      Reply
  • Axel Bouffier
    July 28, 2019 at 7:41 am

    Thank you, that is a very good approach. I like minimalism when working. Great effort means great stress and more stress.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      August 22, 2019 at 2:03 am

      Thanks, Axel! Glad you enjoyed the post.

      Reply
  • Raul
    July 27, 2019 at 9:41 pm

    At least Chinatown and the Wes Anderson Movies listed were shot on anamorphic, making 40mm with 2x stretch effectively the same field of view as 20mmm, so still pretty wide…

    Reply
  • John Scotland
    July 27, 2019 at 9:13 pm

    Maybe I would try 2 lens first as an audition and then pick… would start with 18mm and 40mm.

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      August 22, 2019 at 2:02 am

      Good call! Even 2 would create a great limitation to work with.

      Reply
  • Morgon Dickerson
    July 25, 2019 at 5:07 pm

    Does this mean your next feature is gonna be shot entirely on one lens? 🙂

    Reply
    • Noam Kroll
      August 22, 2019 at 1:54 am

      Haha! You never know… I definitely wouldn’t rule it out just yet.

      Reply

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