The Rise of Anamorphic Lenses in TV

Each month I get a digital copy of American Cinematographer to my inbox, filled with illuminating (pun intended) articles about the lighting and lensing of the latest theatrical releases. As a rule of thumb, I only read the articles if I’ve seen the films. Trouble is, I don’t go to the cinema much any more… even before Coronavirus put a stop to all that anyway.

Why? TV is better, simple as that. Better writing, better cinematography, better value for money. (Note: I include streaming services like Netflix and Amazon under the umbrella of “TV” here.) But whereas I can turn to AC to discover the why and how of the cinematography of a movie, there is no equivalent for long-form content. I would love to see a magazine dedicated to the beautiful cinematography of streaming shows, but until then I’ll try to plug the gap myself.

I’d like to start with a look at the increasing use of anamorphic lenses for the small screen. Let’s look at a few examples and try to discover what anamorphic imaging adds to a project.

Lenses with an anamorphic element squeeze the image horizontally, allowing a wider field of view to be captured. The images are restored to their correct proportions in postproduction, but depth of field, bokeh (out of focus areas), barrel distortion and lens flare all retain different characteristics to those obtained with traditional spherical lenses.

 

The Cinematic look

“Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth”, DP: Denis Crossan

The venerable Doctor Who, which started off shooting on 405-line black-and-white videotape more than half a century ago, has employed Arri Alexas and Cooke Anamorphic/i glass since the introduction of Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor. “[Director Jamie Childs] suggested we shoot on anamorphic lenses to give it a more filmic look,” says DP Denis Crossan. “You get really nice background falloff and out of focus ellipses on light sources.”

While most viewers will not be able to identify these visual characteristics specifically, they will certainly be aware of a more cinematic feel to the show overall. This is because we associate anamorphic images – even if we do not consciously know them as such – with the biggest of Hollywood blockbusters, everything from Die Hard to Star Trek Beyond.

It’s not just the BBC who are embracing anamorphic. DP Ollie Downey contrasted spherical glass with vintage anamorphics to deliberate effect in “The Commuter”, an episode of the Channel 4/Amazon sci-fi anthology series Electric Dreams.

The story revolves around Ed (Timothy Spall) whose mundane but difficult life turns upside down when he discovers Macon Heights, a town that seems to exist in an alternate reality. “Tim Spall’s character is torn between his real life and the fantastical world of Macon Heights,” Downey explains on his Instagram feed. “We shot Crystal Express Anamorphics for his regular life, and Zeiss Super Speed Mk IIs for Macon Heights.”

The anamorphic process was invented as a way to get a bigger image from the same area of 35mm negative, but in today’s world of ultra-high-resolution digital sensors there is no technical need for anamorphics, only an aesthetic one. In fact, they can actually complicate the process, as Downey notes: “We had to shoot 8K on the Red to be able to punch in to our Crystal Express to extract 16:9 and still deliver 4K to Amazon.”

“Electric Dreams: The Commuter”, DP: Ollie Downey

 

Evoking a period

Back at the BBC, last year’s John le Carré adaptation The Little Drummer Girl uses anamorphic imaging to cement its late 1970s setting. The mini-series revolves around Charmian, an actress who is recruited by Israeli intelligence via the mysterious agent Becker. The truth is distorted throughout, just as the wide anamorphic lenses distort every straight line into a curve.

Reviewing the show for The Independent, Ed Cumming notes that director Park Chan-wook “does not aim to be invisible but to remind you constantly that what you are seeing is a creation. Take the scene at a beachside taverna in Greece, where Charmian and Becker start talking properly to each other. The camera stays still, the focus snaps between him and her.” Such focus pulls are more noticeable in anamorphic because the subject stretches vertically as it defocuses.


The Little Drummer Girl is slavish in its recreation of the period, in camera style as well as production design. Zooms are used frequently, their two-dimensional motion intricately choreographed with the actors who step in and out of multiple planes in the image. Such shots were common in the 70s, but have since fallen very much out of fashion. When once they would have passed unnoticed, a standard part of film grammar, they now draw attention.

“The Little Drummer Girl”, DP: Woo-Hyung Kim

 

Separating worlds

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a Netflix Original, also draws attention with its optics. Charting the trials and tribulations of a teenaged witch, the show uses different makes of lenses to differentiate two worlds, just like “The Commuter”.

According to DP David Lazenberg’s website, he mixed modern Panavision G series anamorphics with “Ultragolds”. Information on the latter is hard to find, but they may be related to the Isco Ultra Star adapters which some micro-budget filmmakers have adopted as a cheap way of shooting anamorphic.

The clean, sharp G series glass is used to portray Sabrina’s ordinary life as a small-town teenager, while the Ultragolds appear to be used for any scenes involving witchcraft and magic. Such scenes display extreme blur and distortion at the edges of the frame, making characters squeeze and stretch as the camera pans over them.

“Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Chapter Ten: The Witching Hour”, DP: Stephen Maier

Unlike the anamorphic characteristics of Doctor Who or “The Commuter”, which are subtle, adding to the stories on a subconscious level, the distortion in Sabrina is extreme enough to be widely noticed by its audience. “Numerous posts on Reddit speak highly of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s content and cinematography,” reports Andy Walker, editor of memeburn.com, “but a majority have a collective disdain for the unfocused effect.”

“I hate that blurry s*** on the side of the screen in Sabrina,” is the more blunt appraisal of Twitter user @titanstowerr. Personally I find the effect daring and beautiful, but it certainly distracted me just as it has distracted others, which forces me to wonder if it takes away more from the story than it adds.

And that’s what it all comes down to in the end: are the technical characteristics of the lens facilitating or enhancing the storytelling? DPs today, in both cinema and long-form series, have tremendous freedom to use glass to enhance the viewers’ experience. Yes, that freedom will sometimes result in experiments that alienate some viewers, but overall it can only be a good thing for the expressiveness of the art form.

For more on this topic, see my video test and analysis of some anamorphic lenses.

The Rise of Anamorphic Lenses in TV

5 Steps to Lighting a Forest at Night

EXT. FOREST - NIGHT

A simple enough slug line, and fairly common, but amongst the most challenging for a cinematographer. In this article I’ll break down into five manageable steps my process of lighting woodlands at night.

 

1. Set up the moon.

Forests typically have no artificial illumination, except perhaps practical torches carried by the cast. This means that the DP will primarily be simulating moonlight.

Your “moon” should usually be the largest HMI that your production can afford, as high up and far away as you can get it. (If your production can’t afford an HMI, I would advise against attempting night exteriors in a forest.) Ideally this would be a 12K or 18K on a cherry-picker, but in low-budget land you’re more likely to be dealing with a 2.5K on a triple wind-up stand.

Why is height important? Firstly, it’s more realistic. Real moonlight rarely comes from 15ft off the ground! Secondly, it’s hard to keep the lamp out of shot when you’re shooting towards it. A stand might seem quite tall when you’re right next to it, but as soon as you put it far away, it comes into shot quite easily. If you can use the terrain to give your HMI extra height, or acquire scaffolding or some other means of safely raising your light up, you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches.

In this shot from “The Little Mermaid” (dir. Blake Harris), a 12K HMI on a cherry-picker creates the shafts of moonlight, while another HMI through diffusion provides the frontlight. (This frontlight was orange to represent sunrise, but the scene was altered in the grade to be pure night.)

The size of the HMI is of course going to determine how large an area you can light to a sufficient exposure to record a noise-free image. Using a good low-light camera is going to help you out here. I shot a couple of recent forest night scenes on a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, which has dual native ISOs, the higher being 3200. Combined with a Speedbooster, this camera required only 1 or 2 foot-candles of illuminance, meaning that our 2.5K HMI could be a good 150 feet away from the action. (See also: “How Big a Light do I Need?”)

 

2. Plan for the reverse.

A fake moon looks great as a backlight, but what happens when it comes time to shoot the reverse? Often the schedule is too tight to move the HMI all the way around to the other side, particularly if it’s rigged up high, so you may need to embrace it as frontlight.

Frontlight is generally flat and undesirable, but it can be interesting when it’s broken up with shadows, and that’s exactly what the trees of a forest will do. Sometimes the pattern of light and dark is so strong and camouflaging that it can be hard to pick out your subject until they move. One day I intend to try this effect in a horror film as a way of concealing a monster.

 

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One thing to look out for with frontlight is unwanted shadows, i.e. those of the camera and boom. Again, the higher up your HMI is, the less of an issue this will be.

If you can afford it, a second HMI set up in the opposite direction is an ideal way to maintain backlight; just pan one off and strike up the other. I’ve known directors to complain that this breaks continuity, but arguably it does the opposite. Frontlight and backlight look very different, especially when smoke is involved (and I’ll come to that in a minute). Isn’t it smoother to intercut two backlit shots than a backlit one and frontlit one? Ultimately it’s a matter of opinion.

An example of cheated moonlight directions in “His Dark Materials” – DP: David Luther

 

3. Consider Ground lights.

One thing I’ve been experimenting with lately is ground lights. For this you need a forest that has at least a little undulation in its terrain. You set up lights directly on the ground, pointed towards camera but hidden from it behind mounds or ridges in the deep background.

Detail from one of my 35mm stills: pedestrians backlit by car headlights in mist. Shot on Ilford Delta 3200

I once tried this with an HMI and it just looked weird, like there was a rave going on in the next field, but with soft lights it is much more effective. Try fluorescent tubes, long LED panels or even rows of festoon lights. When smoke catches them they create a beautiful glow in the background. Use a warm colour to suggest urban lighting in the distance, or leave it cold and it will pass unquestioned as ambience.

Put your cast in front of this ground glow and you will get some lovely silhouettes. Very effective silhouettes can also be captured in front of smoky shafts of hard light from your “moon”.

 

4. Fill in the faces.

All of the above looks great, but sooner or later the director is going to want to see the actors’ faces. Such is the cross a DP must bear.

On one recent project I relied on practical torches – sometimes bounced back to the cast with silver reflectors – or a soft LED ball on a boom pole, following the cast around.

Big-budget movies often rig some kind of soft toplight over the entire area they’re shooting in, but this requires a lot of prep time and money, and I expect it’s quite vulnerable to wind.

A recipe that I use a lot for all kinds of night exteriors is a hard backlight and a soft sidelight, both from the same side of camera. You don’t question where the sidelight is coming from when it’s from the same general direction as the “moon” backlight. In a forest you just have to be careful not to end up with very hot, bright trees near the sidelight, so have flags and nets at the ready.

This shot (from a film not yet released, hence the blurring) is backlit by a 2.5K HMI and side-lit by a 1×1 Aladdin LED with a softbox, both from camera right.

 

5. Don’t forget the Smoke.

Finally, as I’ve already hinted, smoke is very important for a cinematic forest scene. The best options are a gas-powered smoke gun called an Artem or a “Tube of Death”. This latter is a plastic tube connected to a fan and an electric smoke machine. The fan forces smoke into the tube and out of little holes along its length, creating an even spread of smoke.

A Tube of Death in action on the set of “The Little Mermaid”

All smoke is highly suspectible to changes in the wind. An Artem is easier to pick up and move around when the wind changes, and it doesn’t require a power supply, but you will lose time waiting for it to heat up and for the smoke and gas canisters to be changed. Whichever one you pick though, the smoke will add a tremendous amount of depth and texture to the image.

Overall, nighttime forest work scenes may be challenging, but they offer some of the greatest opportunities for moody and creative lighting. Just don’t forget your thermals and your waterproofs!

5 Steps to Lighting a Forest at Night