From Tanks to Cameras
A Closer Look at Anamorphic Lenses
April 12th, 2023 | by Randall J. Knox
From Tanks to Cameras - A Closer Look at Anamorphic Lenses
April 12th, 2023 | by Randall J. Knox
And there’s like waves of Prussian troops running toward your line, but you’re thinking,
“Dang, I can really only see a handful of these dudes at a time?” (except in French, because you’re French).
Anyway, it’s a classic problem, we’ve probably all been there. And the good news for us all is that in 1915 our boy Henri Chrétien worked up a little solution to the delight of mechanized cavalry and creative directors in clear frame Warby Parkers everywhere.
The anamorphic lens was thus born.
It’s always a trip being reminded how much of the technology we use day to day in the motion picture industry comes from wartime innovation (a blog post for another day). It never takes camera departments long to see something new and clever from afar and yoink it into their orbit to claim as their own. Now sure, outside of special effects work, it did take another forty years or so for feature film cinematographers to move Chrétien’s invention to A-cam so they could get that little extra horizontal resolution for their westerns and fit an extra plateau or two in frame. But once it was in, it was in.
Well. Minus the dips.
The French giveth and the French taketh away, and the naturalistic camera work of ‘60s New Wave filmmakers seeped westward, killing the sweeping vistas in favor of the newer, smaller cameras that could be, if one can believe it, hand held. It would take roadshow movie nerds like George Lucas and John Carpenter, along with Ridley Scott in all his regal commercialism to drag the anamorphic format back in front of audiences, with only a brief dip in the ‘90s because no one could possibly imagine why edge distortion and weird focusing quirks could be a good thing, and then returning in full force once digital cameras became too same-y and DPs needed a way to wrest control over the image back from post.
What hasn’t changed over the decades though, is the high cost and rarity of traditional cinema anamorphic lenses, which has created something of an underground market of various garage machine shop-level solutions. Most of these backyard contraptions involve an anamorphic projector lens rescued from a defunct drive-in theater when it was flipped into a paintball course, which is then clamped, ziptied, or (crosses self) welded to the front of the “taking lens,” which is just a fancy term for a lens that you like enough to use and hate enough to potentially destroy. Once all that’s done, it’s a simple case of turning two different barrels at different speeds in order to pull focus. For those lucky enough to have not fallen down the rabbit hole of DIY anamorphic solutions, it is basically the sport of golf for camera nerds: an activity designed to frustrate, and in fact, the frustration is the appeal.
But we’re not here for history lessons and intra-departmental politics (well…not just that). We’re here to talk about the coolest new development in anamorphic technology since Atlas debuted the first cinema quality lineup of lenses that cost less than a minority ownership stake in an MLS team.
The Schneider Isco4All prime set.
At a glance, one will notice that, yes, they are quite adorable. Cute, even. But who cares? Isco adapters and PL primes have been around forever, what’s the appeal?
Well, to start, they are an integrated solution. Even the high end single focus solutions of the past are finicky to use, and anyone who has used them knows they are not always just a plug and play solution. The Isco4All set truly feels like the first time a lens and single focus adapter are working together, and not at-odds from the start. Literally just screwing it onto the front filter threads (a thing that straight up doesn’t exist on most PL lenses to start with) is a delight. We appreciate good machining in this household, thank you very much.
Next, image circle. The list of PL mount anamorphic lenses that covers 8K VistaVision is coincidentally about as long as the list of people who can afford them, which is to say, not a lotta. And for those who find the 2x look too extreme and the 1.33x too anemic, 1.5x on full-frame really seems to be a Goldilocks situation. The frame feels expansive, but still renders subjects as the most important part of the image, rather than a tiny part of an over-stretched canvas.
The spherical taking lenses are 43, 58, and 85mm, which is admittedly not quite as wide as we would prefer, but does put the 43 in the right around that Spielbergian 28mm/Super35 field of view when paired with, say, the aforementioned V-Raptor or Sony Venice. They are quite sharp and contrasty, somewhat comparable to our Sigma High-Speeds but with a blue flare tint. Their best quality to us, however, is their size. Dulens (the company responsible for the taking lenses themselves) markets these on their own as a “Mini Cine” line, and it’s not marketing. These things are built like tanks *winks in French* but you could balance one on even a teeny mobile gimbal when paired with your mirrorless camera du jour.
Lens swaps are slower than a single PL lens, but significantly less involved than one would imagine. The focus throw is properly beefy, letting you really dial in for critical focus. Close focus is a very reasonable (for anamorphic) 1.4m, and the 95mm filter thread makes your diopter choices a lot simpler than with a big beef Cooke /i, for example. They might not have all the weird character of a vintage Kowa or Hawk V-lite, but it’s nice to finally have an option that sits in the former no-man’s-land *heh* of mid-budget options somewhere comfortably in between a mint Todd AO and a hazy Minolta Rokkor with a few globs of Bondo balancing a red Ultra Star on the front.
The consumer version of these with the amber flare coating are finally out, but it’s worth mentioning that there is a special rental house-only version of these with a blue/green coating that we, with all the bias in the world, definitely prefer. There are only two sets in the entire United States available to rent, and your good pals at F22 Studios happen to have one of them. So the next time you have a fun music video or weird narrative thing coming up, but your producer won’t spring for Caldwell Chameleons and the Panavision rep giggled when you asked if there were any Primos left on the shelf, give us a call.
And if you’re wondering how they look in action, stay tuned…