The cinematic look

For many people the term "anamorphic" refers to the classic widescreen 2.35:1 or 2.40:1 ratio, often achieved now days by overlaying black bars over a traditionally shot 4:3 or 16:9 image. The wider composition has traditionally been seen as "epic" and as such an easy way to give footage a more "cinematic" look.

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MODERN SPHERICAL LENS - 16:9 Ratio MODERN SPHERICAL LENS - Cropped to a 2.40:1 ratio
 

The origin of the "cinematic look" lies with the many classic films we grew up with being shot in that ratio. Notably though true anamorphic lenses offer a lot more than just "in-camera letter-boxing" and it is these qualities that really define a truly cinematic look.

 

Qualities of anamorphic lenses

Anamorphic lenses date back to the 1920s and World War Two; however, it was the 1950s that saw the first emergence of the era of "epic" anamorphic films—films that would in turn inspire generation after generation of amazing filmmakers, who have in turn passed on the anamorphic legacy to audiences, and to ourselves. The panoramic view, and its all-encompassing composition, the use of negative space, and of relative size and scale are all key components, but beyond that there is a combination of other effects created by the complex interactions of the uniquely created glass within an anamorphic lens.

A lot of these qualities are seen as flaws and much like the way digital video was and often still is overly "crisp" and "sharp" compared to the softer but ultimately more forgiving and natural look of film, in my opinion it is the "flaws" in anamorphic lenses that are responsible for what most of us recognise as the "cinematic look".

LOMO ANAMORPHIC LENS

Features in the above image:

  • Distinctive Oval Bokeh to the lights in the background
  • Blue horizontal lens flare in the top right
  • Differences in light intensity are reproduced with more subtlety
  • Half the depth of field of comparable spherical lens (softer background)
CROPPED MODERN SPHERICAL LENS

Features in the above image:

  • Greater depth of field than an anamorphic lens (overall sharper image)
  • Minimal flaring (non-horizontal flares only)
  • Higher contrast within the lens
  • Cropped image ensures reduced resolution

 

One of the most notable of these anamorphic qualities is the shallow depth of field compared to a spherical lens needed to achieve the same shot.

Anamorphic lenses are vertically squeezed in a 2:1 ratio; the effect of that means a 25mm anamorphic lens would show approximately the same width as a 12mm spherical lens; however, the focal length of the lens (25mm) is twice as long and hence the lens will have the depth of field of a much longer lens. This means that even wide shots, like the image below from Thin Red Line, can have increased depth and perspective, with the background soldiers being ever so slightly soft.

Even more noticeable on a long lens, the charging soldiers from Braveheart are literally moving in and out of the precise focal plane, so much so that if they fall even slightly in front of behind the thin plane of focus, their feet and shoulders become soft. This effect, coupled with an experienced focus pull, can create an extremely dramatic shot, while still maintaining the visual effect of seeing a group of charging soldiers instead of focusing just on Mel Gibson and seeing a couple of soldiers charging beside him.

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THIN RED LINE - Wide Anamorphic Lens BRAVEHEART - Long Anamorphic Lens

 

Ridley Scott is commonly noted as a modern-day master: Throughout his career he has employed both anamorphic and spherical lenses, always favouring the 2.35 ratio for his composition. He specifically used anamorphic lenses in Bladerunner to create the dark detailed stylings of the world. In the example below he uses their unique depth of field to highlight exactly the elements within the frame he wanted to draw your attention to (the chess board and the concentration on his face) while allowing the rest of the world to exist with an air of mystery, This style was perfect for the films highly practical Special FX, which were highly detailed but not designed to call attention to themselves as effects. He additionally relied on the anamorphic glass to highlight the noir lighting, using contrast and shadow up against practical lights like the candles. The candle light also notably exaggerate the oval nature of softness, which gives the image a more natural look than you would get from the circular blur created by a spherical lens.

Meanwhile, in Gladiator, Ridley Scott opted to shoot on super 35mm using spherical lenses and cropping the image. There were several reasons for this, a primary one being that digital visual effects rely on having an initially sharp high-resolution image to deal with. The increased resolution of a super 35mm film frame coupled with spherical lenses is the ideal way to achieve this when shooting film as the increased depth of field compared to anamorphic gives a far sharper image, as can be seen below. The spherical lenses also serve to give the film a more contemporary look, both with their circular focus, more distinct highlights, which is the result of having less elements within the lens. All of this serves alongside several other tools Ridley employs, such as frame rate, to offset the "ancient" setting of the story and to remind the audience that the film is a modern action epic, not a slow period piece.

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BLADERUNNER - Anamorphic Lens GLADIATOR - Cropped Spherical Lens

 

I would also suggest that it is some of the inherent challenges of shooting with anamorphic lenses that has fostered some of cinema's best cinematographers and directors. To me, any challenge presented to talented people will drive them and demand the best from them. Whether it's their typically slow speed, forcing cinematographers to genuinely light a scene rather than rely on practical lighting, or the additional challenge for the focus puller of hitting and riding a much tighter focal plane, through to the director needing to know intimately what they want every frame to contain, both in terms of composition, focus and lighting, anamorphic lenses force the filmmakers to really use the lens as a cinematic device to create mood and tell the story.

 

Reasons to shoot anamorphic

  • The beautiful horizontal and internal lens Flares, which have become a “trademark” of the classic anamorphic look: Due to 2:1 stretching of the anamorphic glass.
  • The oval shaped bokeh that you only get with anamorphic lenses: Due to the oval shape of the 2:1 anamorphic glass.
  • The extremely narrow and organic looking depth of field: Due to the 2:1 stretching the depth of field is half what you would expect from a spherical lens with the equivalent width.
  • The increased dynamic range of the lenses when dealing with high contrast light: Due to the additional glass elements within anamorphic lenses, and the natural diffusion and interference that results when light travel through those additional elements.

 

The Lomo personality

The main reason, though, that I am such a fan of Anamorphic lenses is from my experience with the Lomos. Not only are they more affordable than their newer counterparts, such as the hawks, to me they are a highlight among the anamorphic range of lenses, precisely because of their age and idiosyncratic qualities, which serve to create a far more “natural look”.

For example the below image from To Our Bright White Hearts was shot in studio in a stationary car using rear projection for the BG and a lighting rig to simulate overhead lights. The Lomo anamorphic's natural softness and subtle reproduction of the projected light work beautifully to tie together the practical effects and create a believable scene, while the purple tinge to this particular lens was used to complement the melancholy nighttime color palette.

BWH-driving500

With anamorphic Lomo lenses, you will find every set, if not every lens, has its own unique “look”, from the color and intensity of the flaring, to its natural contrast, and the shift of its bokeh, to its particular distortion and chromatic differences. Every anamorphic Lomo lens feels like it has a "personality” that, once tested and familiar, can become part of your storytelling voice as a filmmaker.

As a comparison the image below from Frame 137 was shot using a different set of Lomo anamophic lenses in Australia, again in a studio, mixing practical and studio lighting. These lenses again tended to soften highlights, but also notably had a much higher internal contrast. They also had less flaring and a more neutral color tone, suggesting they were likely reconditioned more recently.

Frame137_02

I should also note that even among anamorphic Lomo lenses, there are several types, the main one being the square and round front lenses. I’ve done some testing with square fronts. As the name suggests, their front housing is square, and aside from the clumsiness of that, they just didn't respond the same way, and certainly my preference was for the round fronts. However, if you can find a set of squarefronts to try I’d certainly recommend experimenting for yourself.

The other primary difference is the rear element anamorphics. To me these aren't even in the same playing field as front element anamorphics. Essentially the squeeze is being done at the rear of the lens; it's standard on the Lomo Zoom Anamorphics as they simply couldn't construct a front element capable of servicing the multiple elements already in the zoom lens. The primary difference to having a rear conversion is that they don't produce the horizontal flares in the same way, and generally to me the lens I used looked more like a standard spherical lens that was being manipulated in post, rather than a true anamorphic lens.

 

Reasons to shoot Lomo anamorphic

  • The unique and organic artifacts and distortions found in anamorphic lenses: Due to the additional anamorphic glass, the glass being hand polished and shaped and the complexity of their movement and construction.
  • The unique color and tone of individual anamorphic lenses: Due again to the hand polished glass and the older coatings used to minimize.
  • The vignetting of light intensity in a lot of older anamorphic lenses: Due to the age and size of most anamorphic lenses and the natural curving of the image, there can be a fall off of light intensity around the edge of frame.
  • The vignetting of focus when shooting at lower T-Stops: Due to the curved field of focus inherent in their construction when shot wide open particularly the limited focal plane can leave the edge of frame softer than the center.

 

Telling your story your way

I would urge any filmmaker who is passionate about widescreen filmmaking and is interested to explore true anamorphic filmmaking to shoot something with a set of Lomos, and for anyone around Toronto please feel free to contact me. If you have a personal low budget production in mind where you want to try them or for your first feature where you want to try and elevate the production and get the most screen value you can, I am happy to discuss ways and rates to try and make that happen.

Ultimately I am a filmmaker, and I am as passionate about the process of making films as I am about the end result. I would love for more directors, cinematographers, producers and even writers to see firsthand what it's like to have the “Lomo anamorphic look” up your sleeve when you are creating the world for your next film.