The Harder They Fall is not a traditional Western. Tricia Tuttle, the director of the BFI London Film Festival, describes it as “brutal and funny genre filmmaking, sometimes making you chuckle and gasp in the same breath, while each of its mega-stars burns up the screen.”
Jeymes Samuel made his directorial debut on the project. After an interruption due to the pandemic, director of photography Mihai Malaimare, Jr. joined the production. Malaimare, a graduate of the National Film School in Romania, is known for bold format choices, having photographed The Master on 65mm and 35mm film emulsion, the dark satire Jojo Rabbit with a combination of anamorphic and spherical primes, and The Hate U Give with 1.3x anamorphics.
“I like to push things as much as possible,” says Malaimare. “I like to try new things that haven’t been done before.”
For The Harder They Fall, he went with Panavision DXL2 cameras equipped with RED MONSTRO 8K VV sensors. They were combined with a wide array of lenses from Panavision, resulting in images that have a majesty and grandeur reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Ride the High Country).
“I enjoyed the large format-sized sensor, because we could go fairly wide without distorting,” says Malaimare. “It’s a different shot when you’re capturing 14mm on Super 35. Shooting with a 24mm, you have less distortion and it’s a much more pleasant image. It’s closer to what our eyes are used to. And in fact, we did actually use a 12mm on the sensor at one point. I think our widest lens was a 30mm anamorphic, so we went quite wide in our approach, which worked with the Western settings.”
Among the lenses were Panavision T-Series with an unusual 1.85x squeeze factor, fine-tuned at Panavision to add subtle imperfections, as well as four 1950s-era 1.3x Panavision anamorphics. In certain situations, Malaimare used the Ben-Hur 1.3x prism anamorphics that Robert Richardson, ASC, BSC resurrected for The Hateful Eight, as well as some specialty 1.25x anamorphics. The resulting aspect ratio was approximately 2.7:1.
“I thought the T-Series would be too pristine and perfect for this film, but the 1.85x desqueeze makes these particular lenses lose a bit of their sharpness,” he explains. “They get more interesting in my perspective, and they became our workhorses. They flare nicely and using them meant we could gain 600 pixels of resolution in the horizontal dimension.
“What interested me most was the opportunity to take advantage of the whole sensor,” he says. “These lenses are made for a much bigger surface, but I still felt like there’s something interesting about how the sensor works with old glass – something very hard to reproduce. Some of the lenses have minimal coating. The look is gorgeous. The 1.85 squeeze mitigated the sharpness and modern characteristics of the regular T-Series. And after shooting anamorphic and cropping, you still end up with 5600 pixels.”
His choice of camera was also influenced by the inherent film look. “I love the DXL2, LightIron color and the MONSTRO sensor because the color science pretty much emulates film stock,” he adds. “It’s very similar in terms of recoverable image, over- and underexposure. With the 1600 ISO base exposure, you have more room in the highlights and leeway to dig into the shadows, which is an approach I enjoy. At the beginning of the digital age, we got so used to using available light, even on night exteriors. Because I started on film, I prefer to control the shadows more carefully with lighting.”
The enhanced resolution of the 8K MONSTRO sensor, the wide aspect ratio and the distinctive anamorphic glass all came together for several stylized split-screen shots. “If we wanted to fit six faces into the same shot, it was difficult,” says Malaimare. “The idea was to play with the squeeze factor by using a one-of-a-kind 135mm variable anamorphoser to make people slimmer, so they fit within a better cropping within our split screen. It worked really well. We also ended up using it for some other portraits as well, without necessarily making everyone skinny. Even at the nominal squeeze factor, that lens is unbelievable.”
Another aspect of the visual mix shows the audience surprising angles and points of view - down the barrel of gun as it sweeps the landscape in search of a target, as an example. For these, Malaimare and his camera crew relied on RED’s DSMC2 small form factor camera with the same MONSTRO sensor for seamless matching of footage to the main camera.
Dailies and post were handled at Company 3, where colorist Tim Stipan, who also worked with Malaimare on Jojo Rabbit, oversaw the DI.
The Harder They Fall hits select theaters and streams on Netflix beginning November 3.