When I had the chance to sit down with Vanja Cernjul, the director of photography on Crazy Rich Asians, I had to ask him about certain choices he made. The movie’s success is groundbreaking because the all-Asian cast proved that a romantic comedy is still a romantic comedy even if everyone on screen looks different than what we’re used to seeing in a movie distributed by a Hollywood studio. To anyone who can spot a 25mm from an 85mm lens, the movie looked different for another reason. The first thing I noticed was that the movie was shot anamorphic and there was a strong emphasis on wide lenses.
A quick explanation of aspect ratio just to make sure everyone’s on the same page with what’s being discussed. The aspect ratio of a movie is simply the dimensions of the frame, the shape of the image that you’re watching. An HDTV’s aspect ratio is 16x9, and when you see the black bars at the top or bottom, that’s because the movie was filmed in a different aspect ratio. There’s many ways a movie can be filmed that will influence the final aspect ratio.
Sometimes explanations require more explanations. When you see black bars at the top and bottom of the screen there’s generally two ways that the filmmakers could accomplish that aspect ratio. They either filmed to a narrower portion of the filmstrip (a great way to save money on filmstock), filmed the movie on a larger frame and then cropped the image (common for digital cameras), or they filmed it using anamorphic lenses.
An anamorphic lens captures more of the x-axis than that of a regular lens, while still capturing the same amount of y-axis. The lens then squeezes the image onto the frame. Look at the example below.
The image is then stretched either by another lens, or by digital editing software, and the final result is a beautiful widescreen frame. While the frame size is the same, the amount of image captured is larger by an anamorphic lens creating a more desirable, superior image. Honestly, there’s pluses and minuses to every format, but traditional epics were filmed using anamorphic lenses and that brings me back to Crazy, Rich, Asians.
I noticed that the movie was filmed using anamorphic lenses, then looked up what equipment was used during production to get the exact details. I found it surprising that a romantic comedy would use this process and had to find out why.
Vanja was not surprised by the question and had a full explanation ready, as it was something he and Jon M. Chu, the movie’s director, had already thought about and discussed. He explained that growing up in Croatia, all of the great epics that he’d see on television were anamorphic productions. He knew as much because portions of the movies would be shown still squeezed, because of titles, subtitles, etc. This left a great impression on him and he knew when he came across this project, a movie that aimed to show a larger than life, or epic lifestyle, he had to shoot it anamorphic. The country, the parties, the homes, the clothes, everything in Crazy Rich Asians is grand and the decision was made to show the movie in an epic format. This was the same reasoning behind a lot of the wide lensing.
I told Vanja that, at times, certain shots made me think I was watching a Wes Anderson movie. A wide lens, very controlled set design, and symmetric framing that draws the eye in. He smiled because again this was the goal. He didn’t just want this movie to play in medium shots and let the camera wait for jokes. The setting was just as important as the humor, and instrumental in setting up the humor, and that’s why the cinematography had to play a larger role.
It was only after the conversation that I found myself laughing because a lot of what Vanja told me mirrored an interview Francis Ford Coppola once gave explaining his choices on Apocalypse Now. You’d never think that the same reasoning could be used for two such different movies, but ultimately the technology exists as a tool. How filmmakers use these tools influences us as the audience. Crazy Rich Asians and Apocalypse Now are two very different movies, but they’re both trying to show something epic. Visually, it’s easy to admit that they both succeeded.