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

Camerimage 2017: Monday

This week I attended Camerimage for the first time. Centred around the Opera Nova theatre beside the river Brda in Bydgoszcz, Poland, Camerimage is an international film festival celebrating the art of cinematography. It’s a bit like Cannes for DPs, but colder. This is the first part of my account of my three days at the annual hub of motion picture imaging.

The Ryanair flight was dirt cheap but trouble free, and at 9:50am I found myself on the tarmac of Bydgoszcz airport. There I met David Shapton and Matt Gregory, founders of Red Shark News, for the first time. I’ve been contributing articles to Red Shark for a few months so it was nice to finally meet these gentlemen in person.

A taxi (also dirt cheap) dropped me at the Opera Nova – only about three miles from the airport – where I picked up my pass and goodie bag. Bizarrely, said goodies included an Ikea catalogue. How did they know that us DPs love flat-pack furniture so much?

 

Canon Workshop: Stephen Goldblatt

From the Opera Nova I hurried to a college across the river, where the sports hall formed the venue for a Canon workshop run by Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC, the man behind the lens for the likes of Lethal Weapon 2 and Batman Forever. The blurb for this workshop described Goldblatt as “a master of low light shooting”, and it was certainly pitch black when I walked in a few minutes late, and gingerly picked my way around to the far side of the hall to find a seat.

Lighting through lace

On a purpose-built bedroom set, Goldblatt was recreating lighting from the Robert Redford / Jane Fonda romantic drama Our Souls at Night, shot on the Sony F55 and Canon C300 Mark II. To practical lamps on either side of the bed he added egg-crated tungsten soft-boxes to beef up each one. He simulated moonlight through an imagined off-camera window by placing a lace curtain in front of a blue-gelled lamp and blowing it gently with a fan. An additional egg-crated soft-box provided a low level of blue toplight.

As he worked, Goldblatt revealed how he doesn’t miss ceulloid, loving how relatively easy it is now to light night exteriors or moving car scenes. “But just because you don’t need much light,” he cautioned, “it doesn’t mean you don’t want to control it.” Other developments coming down the pipe do not inspire him so much; he feels that high resolutions and HDR are unnecessary, pushed by marketing people rather than creatives.

He placed great emphasis on the importance of the eyes. “A common failing of newer DPs is that they worry more about the set than the eyes,” he said, before explaining how he will often walk beside the handheld camera with a torch, providing eye-light. He also stressed the importance of eye-lines. Although in any one shot it’s not that important how wide or tight the eye-line is, or how high or low, across the two hours of a feature film the decisions have a cumulative effect.

Trying out a Xeen lens in the exhibition hall

Goldblatt no longer uses a light meter. “Trust your eye, develop your eye,” he advised, adding that you must have a strong voice to remain in control of the images through postproduction.

After grabbing lunch, I returned to the Opera Nova to browse the exhibition hall. This closely resembled a mini BSC Expo or Media Production Show, with all the major camera and lens manufacturers displaying their wares, along with several lighting companies. I had a play with some of the cameras, including the actual Alexa 65 used on Rogue One.

Then I met up with Chris Bouchard, one of The Little Mermaid‘s two directors, who had arrived in Poland the previous day. We sauntered over to another venue, the MCK Orzeł, an independent cinema with a nice, chilled, film-buff-friendly atmosphere. The auditorium itself was packed though as we settled in for a seminar on “The Future of Digital Formats”.

 

Red Seminar: The Future of Digital Formats

Promoting Red’s Monstro sensor, the session was mostly about the benefits of shooting in high resolutions, and giving yourself the maximum flexibility in post. You can read my thoughts on both of those topics in upcoming Red Shark articles.

One of the speakers, Christopher Probst, ASC (DP of Mindhunter and technical editor of American Cinematographer magazine) made some interesting points about ISO. “Traditionally, low ISOs were used for bright scenes like day exteriors, and high ISOs were used for darker scenes like night exteriors,” he explained. “That was based on reducing the grain, getting the cleanest possible image on film.” He advised the opposite for digital capture. “Use a low ISO for nights to get more shadow detail, and a high ISO for days to get more highlight detail [in the sky, for example].”

“Independence Day: Resurgence” – DP: Markus Forderer, BVK

Another interesting nugget came from Markus Förderer, BVK. On Independence Day: Resurgence he switched between spherical, 1.3x anamorphic and 2x anamorphic lenses depending on the situation. For example, flatter lenses were better for wide shots – where anamorphics would distort straight lines – and for VFX work.

 

Hawk Vantage Seminar: Top cinematographers tell their Hawk stories

I ducked out of the Red session early so that I could pop back to the Opera Nova for the Hawk Vantage seminar, bumping into my Perplexed Music gaffer Sam Meyer on the way. Hawk were launching three new sets of lenses: MiniHawk (T1.7 hybrid anamorphics), Hawk Class-X (T2.2 2x anamorphics) and Hawk65 (T2.2).

A Hawk T1 in the exhibition hall

The MiniHawks in particular seem very exciting. Daniel Pearl, ASC showed us some stunning frame grabs from the upcoming Dennis Quaid vehicle Motivated Seller, shot using these lenses on Alexa Mini. Whilst having key advantages of spherical lenses (speed, small size, low weight, extremely close focus) the MiniHawks have a unique and beautiful cigar-shaped bokeh.

While Pearl had used the latest Hawks, Magdalena Górka, PSC had shot with some old ones, the C series, for Brad Silberling’s drama An Ordinary Man. “I had to frame everything centrally because that’s the only place that was sharp!” she laughed. Also addressing focus fall-off, Andrzej Bartkowiak, ASC (Speed, The Devil’s Advocate) stated, “I like anamorphic because the shallow depth of field allows you to direct the viewer’s eye more.”

Stuart Dryburgh, ASC (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Bridget Jones’s Diary) talked about shooting 1.3x anamorphic. He has done this on three-perf 35mm (to achieve a Scope aspect ratio), on an Alexa in 16:9 mode (again for 2.39:1) and on an Alexa in 4:3 mode (to get 1.85:1). He also recommended shooting on Super-16 with 1.3x glass, citing the example of Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” video, which Pearl shot.

Peter Flinckenberg, FCK (Upswing, Concrete Night) noted that, with the shift to digital acquisition, the DP is no longer a magician, “but you can bring back that magic with lighting and glass that has character.”

 

CW Sonderoptic: Exploring Large format cinematography & Leica lenses

I took my leave, dashing back to the MCK Orzeł for another lens-themed seminar, this time by CWSonderoptic, the makers of Leica. The first half of this panel revolved around a short film shot by Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC (Seven, Delicatessen) on an Alexa 65 with the new Leica Thalias.

The second half was all about Tod Campbell, DP of Stranger Things and Mr. Robot, focusing on the latter show. The second season of Mr. Robot was shot on Leica Summicrons after Campbell found that the Cookes used on season one distorted the many straight lines which became such a key part of the show’s unique look. “I look at season two as kind of the birth of the photography for the show,” he said. With a laugh he added: “Sorry that the lighting looks like shit in season one. I was learning!” (See my spherical lens tests for my own thoughts on Cookes and Leicas.)

One of my favourite shots from “Mr. Robot”

Campbell revealed that season three of Mr. Robot has a different look again, using much more camera movement and “twice as much atmos”. For this season he paired Canon K35 glass with an 8K camera, but due to the Canons’ low resolution he employed Leica Summiluxes for the wide shots.

He also shared some interesting information about his testing process, admitting that he doesn’t really know how other DPs test. He doesn’t use charts, he just makes it up. He always includes a candle, a practical lamp, some kind of highlight in the background, and random foreground objects (as background bokeh can differ from foreground bokeh).

 

Christopher Doyle Seminar

When the Leica seminar ended I went back to the Opera Nova, where Chris and I had dinner at the nice (and once again cheap – are you detecting a theme?) restaurant. Despite having got up at 4am (3am local time) I wasn’t feeling too tired, so we headed upstairs to the 10pm seminar by Christopher Doyle, HKSC (Hero, Lady in the Water). Many people were nursing beers, including Doyle himself, and the lecture theatre was dimly illuminated by mood lighting. Clearly this session was not going to be like the daytime ones.

“We’re going to fuck things up,” Doyle began, dispelling all doubts. He proceeded to talk disjointedly but entertainingly about his work on The White Girl and what I think was a separate film about a camera obscura. His oratory was liberally sprinkled with great one-liners, a few of which I reproduce here for your edification:

  • There are only three people in filmmaking: the actor, the audience and the cinematographer in between them.
  • If actors don’t feel loved, the performance will not come across on camera.
  • Give the idea the image it deserves.
  • [Vittorio] Storaro [legendary DP of Apocalypse Now amongst others] can’t tell you how to do it. You have to find it for yourself.
  • People in space – that’s what cinematography’s about.
  • The location is very important. It gives the energy, it imposes the style.
  • The lens doesn’t matter; it’s what it shows that’s important.
  • You never sleep because you care too much – that’s what filmmaking is.
With Chris Bouchard in front of the Opera Nova

Doyle also picked up on a piece of dialogue from a clip he screened: “What is it?” / “I don’t know yet.” It was a great summation of finding the essence of a shot, he said.

Having had our fill of aphorisms, Chris Bouchard and I slipped out to get a drink. The Cheat, the pop-up bar across the road, was absolutely packed, and my early morning was finally catching up with me, so I called it a night. The highstreet of Bydgoszcz was quiet and chilly as I walked briskly to my hotel, curiously located down a service road behind the city’s football stadium, reflecting on all that I had learnt that day.

Tune in next week for tales from my second day at Camerimage.

Camerimage 2017: Monday

Anamorphic Lens Tests

Anamorphic cinematography, first dabbled with in the 1920s, was popularised by Twentieth Century Fox in the fifties as CinemaScope. Television was growing in popularity and the studios were inventing gimmicks left, right and centre to encourage audiences back into cinemas. Fox’s idea was to immerse viewers in an image far wider than they were used to, but with minimal modifications to existing 4-perf 35mm projectors. They developed a system of anamorphic lenses containing elements which compressed the image horizontally by a factor of two. By placing a corresponding anamorphosing lens onto existing projectors, the image was unsqueezed into an aspect ratio of 2.55:1, or later 2.39:1.

Since those early days of CinemaScope, anamorphic cinematography has become associated with the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. Its optical features – streak flares, oval bokeh and curved horizontal lines – have been seared into our collective consciousness, indelibly associated with high production values.

I’ve not yet been fortunate enough to shoot anamorphic, but I was able to test a few lenses at Arri Rental recently, with the help of Rupert Peddle and Bex Clives. Last week I wrote about the spherical lenses which we tested; our anamorphic tests followed the same methodology.

Again we were shooting on an Alexa XT Plus in log C ProRes 4444 XQ, this time in 4:3 mode, a resolution of 2048×1536. Since all of the lenses had a standard 2:1 anamorphosing ratio, the images unsqueezed to a super-wide 2.66:1 ratio. (This is because the lenses were designed to be used on 35mm film with space left to one side for the optical soundtrack.) You can see the full width of this ratio in the first split-screen image in the video, at 2:08, and in the second image below, but otherwise I have horizontally cropped the footage to the standard 2.39:1 ratio.

We tested the following glass:

Series Length Speed CF* Weight
Hawk V 35mm T2.2 30″ 5.6kg
Cooke Xtal 30mm T2.8 ? 3kg
Kowa Mirrorscope 40mm T2.2 36″ 1.15kg
Kowa Mirrorscope 30mm T2.3 ? ?

* CF = close focus

For consistency with the spherical lenses, we used lengths around 32mm, but in the anamorphic format this is a pretty wide lens, not a mid-range lens. We shot at T2.8, again for consistency, but I hear that many anamorphics don’t perform well wider than T4.

We were only able to test what Arri Rental happened to have on the shelves that day. The biggest and presumably most expensive was the Hawk V-series. Next  in size and weight was the Cooke Xtal – pronounced “crystal” – a 1970s lens based on the much-loved Speed Panchros. The smallest and lightest, was the Kowa Mirrorscope, with a list price of £1,200 per week for a set of four. (Sorry, I couldn’t find any pricing info for the others online.) Note that there isn’t really a 30mm Mirrorscope; to get this length you put a wide angle adapter on the 40mm. As this extra element decreases the optical performance, we tested it with and without, hence the two lengths.

Here’s the video…

 

Skin tones

Click on the image to see it at full quality.

To my eye, the Hawk has a fairly rich, warm skin tone, while the Cooke – as with the spherical S4 tested last week – seems a little grey and flat. The Kowa is inexplicably brighter than the other two lenses, which makes it hard to compare, but perhaps it’s a little cooler in tone?

 

Sharpness

Focus is more critical with anamorphic lenses than spherical ones. From a forum posting by Max Jacoby:

Anamorphic lenses have what is known as a “curved field of focus” that works similarly to the curved movie screens in some large Cinerama theatres. This is one reason that one needs to expose these lenses at a deeper stop. If one doesn’t, the curved field will not be covered by depth of field and either the edges or centre of the frame will be soft.

One day I’d like to re-test these lenses at a lower stop, T4 or T5.6, where they will all undoubtedly perform much better. But in this T2.8 test, on Bex’s face in the centre of frame, the Hawk V and the Kowa Mirrorscope 40mm – both almost a full stop from their maximum apertures – are clearly the sharpest of the bunch. The Cooke Xtal, which is wide open, is unsurprisingly softer. The 30mm adapter on the Mirrorscope completely destroys the image, not only making it very soft but also introducing colour aberration.

Now let’s look at the checkerboard at the side of frame and see if we can spot any differences in sharpness there…

It seems to me that the Kowa, both with and without the adapter, has a greater difference in sharpness between the centre and edges of frame than the the Hawk and Cooke. With the latter two lenses, the checkerboard is reasonably sharp, at least on the lefthand side, with some ghosting/blur visible towards the righthand side. The same thing can be observed on the chart in the flare tests at the end of the video.

 

Breathing & Bokeh

All of these lenses have a noticeable degree of breathe, which I suppose is to be expected from anamorphics. The Hawk V has roughly oval bokeh, the Cooke’s is more circular, while the Mirrorscope has interesting D-shaped bokeh.

 

Flare

The Hawk V doesn’t flare much at all, which is apparently due to the anamorphic element being in the middle of the lens, rather than at the front. The Kowa has a nice streak and glow around the light source, with a funky purple artefact on the opposite side of frame. But it’s the Cooke Xtal which provides the most classic lens flare, with a horizontal line across most of the frame and a partial star pattern around the source, despite the lens being wide open.

At the end of the video you can see how the flares develop on each lens as the light source moves horizontally across frame.

 

Distortion

A bulging effect is very obvious on all of these lenses, due to the focal lengths being quite wide for anamorphic. Notice how at 40mm on the Kowa Mirrorscope this curvature of the image is significantly reduced.

It’s hard to compare the levels of distortion because none of the focal lengths are exactly the same, except for the Cooke Xtal and the Kowa Mirrorscope with the 30mm adapter on. The Cooke’s top right and bottom left corners appear to be stretched away from the centre relative to the other two corners. I suppose that strange and funky stuff like this is exactly why you choose vintage glass.

Interestingly, the Cooke’s image appears a little tighter than the Kowa’s, which combined with my inability to find any evidence online of the existence of a 30mm Xtal, leads me to suspect we may have been given a mislabelled 32mm.

 

Conclusions

When we got to the end of our spherical tests and started putting the anamorphics on, I was shocked by the drop in sharpness. But as noted earlier, this is because anamorphics really need to be used with a smaller aperture than the T2.8 I often shoot at. If I learnt nothing else from this test, I learnt that anamorphic needs more light!

I would love to put the Cooke Xtal’s lovely flares and general vintage look to good use on a period movie one day. The Hawk V would be a good choice if I wanted the anamorphic look with warm, dynamic skin tones. The Kowa system seemed a little cheap and cobbled-together, but could well be a good solution for anamorphic on a budget, as long as I stayed away from the 30mm adapter!

I hope you’ve found these tests useful. Thanks again to 1st AC Rupert Peddle, 2nd AC Bex Clives and Arri Rental UK for making them possible.

Anamorphic Lens Tests