The Founder Chronicles the Birth of an American Institution

The Founder is John Schwartzman’s third feature film with director John Lee Hancock, and like their 2013 collaboration Saving Mr. Banks, the new film is a period look at an American icon. The film looks at the life of Ray Kroc, the shake-machine salesman who made McDonald’s an institution, essentially inventing the fast-food franchise industry. Michael Keaton, fresh from his Oscar®-nominated performance in Birdman, stars as Kroc.

Schwartzman was tasked with creating a period look and feel on a relatively modest budget – reportedly under $20 million. He chose Panavision G Series anamorphic lenses combined with ARRI Alexa XT cameras. 

Schwartzman says that Hancock was onboard for the “squeeze format” from the get-go. “There was no hesitation or question – John’s an anamorphic film guy, and he understands the magnification of an anamorphic lens,” notes Schwartzman. “It’s much closer to the human visual experience. I like the way things feel. Your wide shots are wide, but they’re not on wide lenses. Unfortunately, given the budget, John and I lost the battle to shoot film on this one.”

Schwartzman wanted to maintain a film feel, however, and he went to Panavision’s lens guru, Dan Sasaki, for help. “Anamorphic is so popular right now,” says Schwartzman. “Back when we did Armageddon or Pearl Harbor, I think we had 14 sets of lenses. Now that would be almost impossible. With the digital revolution, everyone’s looking for lenses with character because the digital sensor is always the same – the pixels don’t move.”

"Now, with digital cameras, because of the nature of the sensor, we’re looking for ways to put some warmth, some flawed characteristics in front of them. Panavision is re-barreling lenses that haven’t come off the shelf in 30 years, and they’re beautiful.”

Sasaki had detuned Panavision Primo lenses for Schwartzman on his previous assignment (Jurassic World). “For The Founder, I knew we were going to be in Georgia with bright skies and I wanted the lenses to rip a little bit, and the sky to veil,” explains Schwartzman. “I asked Dan if he could do something similar with a set of G Series lenses. I’m not sure what his process was, but they have this great quality, similar to a C Series lens, the kind we used filming in Oahu on Pearl Harbor.”
Schwartzman describes the look as slightly less contrasty with subtly decreased apparent sharpness. “I was trying to get a certain character out of a digital image that I never had to think about getting with a film camera,” he says. “I thought they added a great texture.”

Aside from the lenses, the visual style took a naturalistic approach with careful attention to the red and gold branding colors of McDonald’s. In creating the look, Schwartzman had strong allies in production designer Michael Corenblith and costume designer Daniel Orlandi. 

“Anytime we were around McDonald’s we embraced the McDonald’s colors, but other than that we just used the colors of the period,” says the cinematographer. “I tend to read the scene and go with whatever feels right. I don’t go in with a heavy hand, especially on a movie that is about real people in the 1950s.”

In addition to Keaton, the cast includes John Carroll Lynch, Nick Offerman, Linda Cardellini and Laura Dern. “They are all great actors and all I wanted to do was get out of their way,” describes Schwartzman. “I generally do mostly source lighting. If it’s daytime, I’m lighting through the windows. I’m usually pretty good at convincing the actors to block so that the natural light works, and they illuminate themselves. I rarely have very many lighting instruments on a set.”
Schwartzman says that his relationship with Panavision goes back to the dawn of his career. He recalls working closely with Sasaki on Pearl Harbor, which earned the cinematographer his first ASC Award nomination.

“On Pearl Harbor, we were doing a sequence in a hospital where [director] Michael Bay wanted to show actual amputees, but covered in fake blood,” Schwartzman recalls. “There was a concern that it might be too gory, so I asked Dan to build me an anamorphic swing-and-tilt lens where the front anamorphic element could move to throw half the frame out of focus. So, I’ve always been able to tell Panavision what I see in my head, and they help me realize it.

“I came up learning how to get the best out of every lens,” he says. “We were shooting anamorphic film using the full Academy aperture, knowing that when we projected it, it would be gorgeous. Now, with digital cameras, because of the nature of the sensor, we’re looking for ways to put some warmth, some flawed characteristics in front of them. Panavision is re-barreling lenses that haven’t come off the shelf in 30 years, and they’re beautiful.”

The Founder is in theaters now.