Mihai Malaimare Jr. on making The Harder They Fall

Dec 2, 2021

The Harder They Fall, a new Western from director-writer-producer Jeymes Samuel, puts cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. behind the camera. Samuel’s feature directorial debut seems almost tongue-in-cheek at times, combining stylised violence and a dusty elegance to pull audiences into the story.  

Shooting in mostly exterior situations in New Mexico, Malaimare combined Panavision Millennium DXL2 cameras with RED MONSTRO 8K VV sensors and a range of idiosyncratic Panavision glass, including T-Series anamorphics with an unusual 1.85 squeeze. In specific situations, he also used the 1.3x “Ben-Hur” lenses, which were pulled out of the mothballs and refurbished for The Hateful Eight in 2015. A one-of-a-kind 135mm variable anamorphoser was also used in several split-screen scenes.  

Credit: David Lee/Netflix

The 1.85x T-Series lenses appealed to Malaimare for this project because they used an additional 1,000 pixels on the RED sensor compared to 2x anamorphics and added anamorphic flavour without much distortion. Flaring was somewhat reduced, but still there – a good thing, in Malaimare’s estimation.  

“Jeymes and I actually had a joke,” says the cinematographer. “For this project, there’s never too many flares, and never too many push-ins. We kind of lived by those rules. Every time the sun was low enough, we’d go for the flare. And because the main lenses had minimal coating, we’d get all the interesting artifacts.” 

Samuel asked for deeply saturated colours. During prep, he showed Malaimare images by the painter Kadir Nelson, whose work has been described in the New York Times as “Sumptuous, deeply affecting. . . drenched in ambience.” 

Credit: David Lee/Netflix

“I was looking for a still photo or a frame with the same saturation qualities, and eventually I found a book of photographs in a bookstore in Santa Fe called Congo Tales, with photographs by Pieter Henket,” says Malaimare. “The lighting and colours he used became our main reference, along with the Kadir Nelson paintings.”  

Malaimare says that the older glass helped him control the harsh natural light, to an extent. “You can get away with a lot of front light, and it can be interesting, if you let the lens handle it,” he says. “I watched many Westerns, but once we started shooting tests with costumes, I realised that the cowboy hats would be a blessing. In New Mexico, the dust on the ground is so reflective that you almost don’t need any light control. You get a lot of warm, brownish bounce from the ground into the faces, and the cameras can pick it up!” 

Credit: David Lee/Netflix

Malaimare notes that the combination of the latest sensors and older glass is interesting in another way. “The same thing happened in stills in the 1990s,” he explains. “Everyone was shooting with the same camera and lenses. Then a few photographers wondered how to set their images apart. Suddenly, they realised what great tools these older lenses can be. I’m not thoroughly against new glass. It’s important to match the storytelling with the tools. What works for one movie might not work for the next. But for now, given the latest sensors, like the MONSTRO 8K, I do feel attracted to older lensing and the way they work together.” 

The Harder They Fall can be streamed on Netflix.  

Article by Adrian Pennington

Credit: David Lee/Netflix

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