The VLFV Facebook Page has been lit up with a discussion of Zack Snyder’s new action film Army of the Dead. Whilst response from critics and viewers of the new Netflix release has been mostly positive (a 69% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes with 76% from viewers), the film has been positively incendiary within the filmmaking community – driven largely by Snyder’s creative choices in terms of lens selection and shooting style.
So let’s get the gear questions out of the way before we begin! Army of the Dead was directed and DoP’ed by Snyder, who also served as a camera operator on-set in a similar fashion to his work on Zack Snyder’s Justice League – the epilogue of the film perhaps being the first hint of what was to come for Snyder’s zombie shooter.
For Army of the Dead, Snyder chose to go with a set of customised RED Monstro cameras, but paired them up with some very interesting vintage glass – the Canon 50mm f/0.95 “Dream Lens” and its sister, the Canon 35mm f/1.5.
This famous vintage rangefinder glass – originally built for the Canon 7 – dates back to the 1960s, and has seen a rise in popularity of recent as sellers from Japan have drip-fed the lenses onto eBay. Prices of these lenses have skyrocketed over the course of the last couple of years and the Dream Lens – once available for around $1000 – now sells for nearly triple the price.
The lenses – hand-picked and bought personally by Snyder – were originally going to be used in a modified form similar to the cinema modifications we are used to commonly seeing from Duclos Lenses or Simmod Lens. However, it was eventually Zero Optik who stepped up to the plate, giving the lenses a stunning housing fit for use on-set.
Now, everything thus far seems pretty standard, right? Vintage lenses are nothing new – the eclectic selection of lenses used for shooting Joker are a prime example of how vintage lenses are being embraced by modern filmmakers – a trend running hand-in-hand with the rise in VistaVision and 65 format sensor sizes. So what is it, then, that has everyone so riled up? What could possibly be drawing so much ire from filmmakers?
Zack Snyder is about as divisive as filmmakers come these days, but through no fault of his own. After years of torment working at Warner Bros. on their DC franchise, he resigned from Justice League after the tragic loss of his daughter. He was replaced by Joss Whedon, only for him to be begged to return by repentant fans and cast alike years later – Snyder had been through the wringer. Army of the Dead was a fresh start, one he embraced eagerly.
“It was cool to do the Snyder Cut of Justice League and that was fun and everything. But Warner Bros. still tortured me the whole time for whatever reason, they can’t help it,” said Snyder in a recent interview with Uproxx. “I don’t know why I’m such a f***ing pain in their ass because I’m not trying to be, honestly.”
Snyder might not have been, but the movie certainly ran into its own amount of technical trouble. When Chris D’Elia was removed from the film after a series of sexual misconduct allegations, Snyder took the decision to replace him with comedian Tig Notaro, green screening her almost seamlessly into the movie at the cost of several million dollars. A number of scenes suffered dead pixels in-camera, an issue not corrected in the final cut on Netflix, much to the chagrin of Netflix viewers worldwide.
But it is the creative decision to use the Canon lenses, in particular, that has drawn criticism from shooters around the globe. Snyder chose fast glass, and he used it with wanton abandon, no doubt giving his focus pullers fits as they had to pull focus through razor-thin depth of field and blazing flares.
Where we indies might reserve wide open shooting for night shots or dark interiors, Snyder went all-out, stacking NDs to shoot wide open at f/0.95 in broad daylight. Such shots are common throughout the first and second acts of the film as Bautista and his band of thieves assault the Vegas strip – and our eyeballs in the process.
Snyder is known for the dramatic visuals of his films, that much is a given. On Army of the Dead, his creative choices resulted in a stylised look far beyond the norm of Hollywood fare, with a dreamy, ethereal feel that puts any given indie film’s Helios or Petzval shots to shame.
It is demanding to watch, in its own way – the bokeh and flaring sometimes putting a strain on the eyes and the mind as you try to focus from scene to scene. Focus, after all, is a tool in the filmmaker’s arsenal, a vital one for all us storytellers.
So when a vaunted filmmaker eschews the traditional rules of focus and depth of field and goes for a look that is so extreme by modern filmmaking standards, I suppose it is only natural that some viewers – especially filmmakers themselves – would feel some sense of betrayal.
But maybe that is where we are forgetting ourselves a bit. Those kinds of feelings betray our own biases, as we indies chase the “Hollywood look” and try to get closer and closer to something which is, in truth, intangible. Snyder is as Hollywood as they come, and look what just dropped on Netflix! A film that is as Hollywood as you can possibly be – a Vegas-set zombie shooter-come-heist flick, complete with CGI zombie tiger – shot in the least Hollywood way possible.
Could it be that the “Hollywood look” we have always aspired to is whatever we want it to be? “This weird combination of super high-tech and super low-tech,” is the way Snyder put it in this interview with CinemaBlend, barely containing a grin. “That feels like my wheelhouse. Taking the most high-tech thing and getting it dirty.”
Isn’t that what we have been wanting? What we have been advocating for since the halcyon days of the 5D Mk.II? To play with all these old optics, to breathe new life into the stale, sterile sensors of modern cameras with old – and in this case, very fast – glass?
In many ways, Army of the Dead is the pinnacle of everything this site – and the vintage lens community at large – has been promoting. A film that created a unique look using forgotten optics, enthralling millions worldwide, and which has made us all genuinely think about our work and approach as filmmakers. How many of us will ever make a movie as impactful as that?
For years, we have been lovingly sorting through lenses otherwise deemed archaic, obsolete, and even “ugly”. We as a community embraced these old dinosaurs, gave them a new lease on life, and went out of our way to find new and interesting ways to use it in the name of creativity.
It turns out, Zack Snyder was listening, and he joined our growing tribe, managing to do what many of us could only dream of achieving in our lifetimes – shooting a $100M, balls-out action flick starring Dave Bautista using some knackered old Canon rangefinder glass. Like the look or not, Army of the Dead is, in many ways, our dream come true.
Deep down, perhaps we should all be a little more like Zack Snyder – Peter Cooper
Want to learn more about these lenses? Zack Snyder talks more about them in the Snyder School episode below, but if that’s not enough, check out this Q&A between Alex Nelson of Zero Optik and Mark LaFleur of Old Fast Glass (where you can actually rent these lenses):
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