Da 5 Bloods, director Spike Lee’s new movie about a group of black Vietnam veterans returning to the jungle to recover the body of a fallen comrade, has one of the most eye-catching visual strategies used on film since Wes Anderson attempted something similar with 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. The war epic switches color schemes, filming techniques, and aspect ratios to distinguish between time periods and locations as the film’s characters confront (and struggle to escape from) their pasts.
We called the movie’s director of photography, veteran cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, to ask why he and Lee decided to shoot the movie in these four different formats and what effects they hoped to achieve. Below, with Sigel’s help, we break down the movie’s four different looks.
Scenes: Present-day cities
Format: Digital cinematography, framed in an ultrawide 2.39:1 aspect ratio
After Da 5 Bloods’ opening montage of archival imagery—presented in a variety of formats and aspect ratios, none of which fill an entire HDTV screen—Lee dissolves from a shot of the Hotel Majestic during the fall of Saigon to the hotel as it appears today, expanding the image out to the left and right edges of the television screen and moving in black bars at the top and bottom until the aspect ratio reaches an ultrawide 2.39:1.
This 2.39:1 aspect ratio is the film’s default, and it suits the movie’s subject matter for two reasons. First, Lee saw Da 5 Bloods as an epic—Sigel cited David Lean’s work on films like Lawrence of Arabia as one of the film’s biggest influences—and that sort of ultra-widescreen framing immediately signals the kind of story Lee is telling.
The second reason was more practical: Da 5 Bloods is an ensemble film, and contra Fritz Lang’s comment that widescreen formats were suitable only for snakes and funerals, it’s pretty good for group shots. Sigel told me that Lee “always saw it as a movie about this group, these brothers, and it’s one of the reasons that you don’t have a lot of close-ups. It’s a lot of group shots.” He even said, “I think if Spike had his way, every single shot would have had all of them at the same time.” That may have been impractical, but again and again, Lee and Sigel arrange the four surviving veterans in a horizontal row to fill the screen. The ultrawide aspect ratio is the perfect match for these compositions.
Scenes: The Vietnam flashbacks
Format: 16 mm reversal film stock, in a more boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio
About 10 minutes into Da 5 Bloods, Lee and Sigel introduce the first flashback sequence with another transition: A widescreen image of the sun with a helicopter flying in front of it (a shot that is itself modeled after one of Apocalypse Now’s most famous images) slowly pushes in to a 1.33:1 ratio.
When Wes Anderson switches to 1.33 in the middle of The Grand Budapest Hotel, the idea is to evoke films made during Hollywood’s golden age, but in this case, the model was television. Specifically, Sigel told me that the flashbacks were made to look like news footage of the Vietnam War. News crews of that era used photographic processes designed for speed and convenience: 16 mm film, which used smaller and more portable cameras, and reversal film stocks, which don’t require that a positive print be made from the negative and could thus be developed and prepped for TV use quickly and cheaply.
The distinctive look of Vietnam War–era news footage—grainy, hand-held, high-contrast—was originally a result of the exigencies of shooting TV news footage in remote locations, but duplicating that aesthetic in 2020 introduced a whole new list of exigencies. As Sigel explained, the cast only had Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman, the movie’s biggest star, for two weeks, and the fact that they were “shooting in Thailand, where there is no film lab” meant that they wouldn’t be able to watch the footage of any of these scenes until their time with him was over. Still, Sigel says, “I loved that idea that we were taking that leap of faith going back to where we all began, where you didn’t know what you had right away, and you had to trust your crew and your experience.”
Scenes: Present-day jungle
Format: Digital cinematography, opening up to a 16:9 aspect ratio
For the soldiers’ return, Lee and Sigel wanted to use all of the television screen’s real estate to surround the characters with the jungle. The new format is introduced with another shot of the sun, opening from a narrow, horizontal slit until the entire screen is full. As Sigel explained:
I had the idea that because it’s a Netflix show, what we call the envelope of the show, or the packaging of the show, is basically the 16:9 format. By treating the jungle that way, actually we were opening up the frame. So the frame is letterboxed 2.39:1 when you’re in Ho Chi Minh City, and then it literally opens up to the jungle. The jungle becomes this huge canopy surrounding these guys, enveloping this group.
The compositions in this sequence echo that choice. During the Ho Chi Minh City sequences, the actors are often pressed right up to the left or right edges of the frame, but here Sigel often shoots them from a distance so they appear completely surrounded by green.
Scenes: Shooting home movies on the riverboat
Format: Super 8, letterboxed to 2.39:1
Finally, although it’s more of a footnote than a broad visual strategy, there is a brief sequence in which the Bloods are messing around with a Super 8 camera while touring a floating market by boat. That footage is included in the film as seen above: While black bars have been inserted to matte the usually boxy Super 8 footage down to a wider 2.39:1 (which makes the transition less jarring than it would have been had there been an abrupt aspect ratio change in the middle of the modern-day sequences), it has been digitized complete with film damage and visible perforations, an aesthetic that was seen during a brief trend in music videos a few years ago but is rarely used in feature films. Here, it matters that one of the characters keeps filming as a lighthearted tourist outing turns sour: The grain and perforation marks distinguish between the film and the film-within-the-film, while raising questions about tourist excursions to former war zones.
For more on Da 5 Bloods listen to Dana Stevens’ and Aisha Harris’ spoiler-filled discussion of the movie.