Updating an Icon: The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven is a classic of American cinema. John Sturges’ 1960 Western, itself a reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai, was photographed by Charles B. Lang, Jr., ASC in the 35mm anamorphic format using Panavision lenses. Along with Sergio Leoni’s spaghetti Westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Magnificent Seven is part of the canon of iconic widescreen cinematography of the era – the kind of sweeping Western that cinematographers dream of shooting.    

Now that film has been updated by director Antoine Fuqua, who has been quoted as saying it was important to him that the remake “respect the original’s DNA.”

Cinematographer Mauro Fiore, ASC says that this sentiment informed the format decisions. Fiore and Fuqua immediately thought in terms of a widescreen image. Fiore tracked down camera crew in Italy who had worked with Leone, and they filled him in on the 2-perf Techniscope format used on many of the spaghetti Westerns to economically achieve the wide frame. But the director-DP duo had shot their three previous collaborations – Training Day, Tears of the Sun and The Equalizer – in the full anamorphic format, and that was the gauge they chose.

"Panavision provides unbelievable service" -Maurio Fiore

“We’re very familiar with the format and the lenses,” says Fiore. “Panavision is really the best choice for anamorphic lenses. We shot side-by-side tests using film negative and the ALEXA 65 with medium format lenses. The results were interesting, but Antoine was adamant that we shoot film. We loved the grain and how it moves around, and the organic process. With film, you’re connected automatically to that heritage and history – all of those Westerns that had been done in CinemaScope on film.”

The cast of The Magnificent Seven features Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio. The 64-day shoot was mounted mostly in and around Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with some scenes done in New Mexico. In the story, which is set in 1879, a small, vulnerable frontier town hires seven outlaws to protect them from a greedy industrialist. Eventually the noble-at-heart mercenaries find they are fighting for more than money.

Fiore’s package on the project included G, C and E series prime lenses, as well as 40-80mm and 75-200mm zooms. The look he designed also depended on fine adjustments to the lenses custom-made to Fiore’s specifications by Panavision’s Dan Sasaki.

“Panavision provides unbelievable service,” says Fiore. “Dan asks me exactly what I’m looking for in the lenses, and he goes through each lens with my camera assistant, Larry Nielsen. Panavision’s anamorphics are super flat. The barrel distortion you get in other glass – you just don’t have that in the Panavision G Series. They’re super sensitive – T2 – where most anamorphics perform well at 2.8/4. And these lenses create the same sharpness and contrast as a Primo. Also, there are certain flare characteristics that I’m really fond of. The C Series always renders the best anamorphic flare – that elongated, blue flare. That’s why we used them. And we used the E Series in situations where we needed longer focal length. The 180 is just a beautiful lens, specifically because of the bokeh and the fall-off. The short zooms are pretty unbelievable. I’m impressed by their flatness and lack of breathing.”

The anamorphic format optically squeezes the wide image onto a standard-width film frame. The effect on portraiture can be subtly powerful.

“When you’re talking about that typical Sergio Leoni close-up, where we’re filling the frame with the actor’s face, there’s something about it that brings the actor off the screen,” says Fiore. “You’re almost into the middle of the theater. There’s a slight distortion that seems to enhance the three-dimensional plane of the face, as opposed to flattening it out. It’s all two-dimensional, of course, but the illusion can feel almost 3D. That’s the effect of anamorphic lenses that close.”

In September, The Magnificent Seven opened the Toronto Film Festival and closed the Venice Film Festival. The film is now in theaters.