How many times has a DP told you that you need to use old lenses because they add personality to sterile modern digital sensors? How many old still lenses have been bought and re-built while we hope that it’s the answer to making our images better?
Zeiss has been at the middle of this battle. Responsible for making many of the old lenses DP’s seek (Contax, Super Speeds and my personal favorites the Standard Speeds among others) now they are faced with the conflict of pushing technology and lens design as far as possible (remember even the Contax were modern and sterile when they came out) in a world where everyone is looking for old lenses on eBay.
When the Master Anamorphic lenses were first announced I was skeptical. Anamorphic lenses are more synonymous with the adjectives “old,” “organic” and “personality” than anything other type of lens. It was hard for me to wrap my head around a situation where I would want an anamorphic image that felt more “modern” or “sterile”
On a recent commercial I decided to give the lenses a try. We were shooting interviews in a studio and in a situation where we could have one to three people talking at once. My logic was that using anamorphic lenses I could keep everyone in frame safely without too much negative space in my wide shots. As opposed to shooting spherical and letterboxing, the anamorphic lenses would allow me to get the camera closer to my subjects and keep the conversations more intimate (which the content called for).
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first put them on the Alexa XT. The look was different than the usual Zeiss lens. Perfection is the only world I could use to describe them. They were so good that without any elements to create oval bokeh’s in frame you could barely tell they were anamorphic.
This was a new level. It was almost as if the lenses were so devoid of personality they had their own look that was unlike anything I had ever seen before. After basking in the look and feel of the Master Anamorphic primes it was hard to even imagine cutting to the older more “organic” feeling anamorphic zoom that was on our B camera.
Dave Ketterer and Soren Nielsen chase me into the street as I try to get a shot
Since it’s a rare opportunity to have a set of these lenses and a Alexa XT over a weekend I decided the take them home and do some further testing. That night I was joined by cinematographer Soren Nielsen as well as David Ketterer, Victoria Rivera and Kat Leuci who was kind enough to star in our test.
Walking around at night the beautiful bokeh that NYC provides really showed the best parts of these lenses. Smooth anamorphic ovals fill the frames and the flares are subtle but pleasant with nice streaks. Combined with my favorite diffusion (a Schneider Hollywood Black Magic 1/2) we were able to capture some beautiful images and skin tones without needing supplemental lighting.
We shot the entire test at 800 ASA wide open with a 180 degree shutter and the lenses at a T1.9. Everything in this test was shot handheld with the 75mm. The camera recorded Arriraw at a frame rate of 48 fps which was processed and colored by DIT Luke Taylor. Dylan Steinberg was kind enough to loan me editor David Russo for the day to put this piece together.
At NAB I had the great honor of speaking with Zeiss designer Aurelian Dodoc whois responsible for the Master Anamorphic lenses. This is paraphrased, but while talking, he said something about Zeiss’ look that really stuck with me:
“Why wouldn’t you want to make something look like real life if you could? Even if you want it to not look that way in the end, isn’t it better to start there?”
This point makes a lot of sense to me and really sums up Zeiss’ design and engineering philosophy. You can always add diffusion and other filters to degrade the look of the lens, but why not start with as close to perfection as you can?
Old lenses are great but they are also risky and sometimes unreliable. I have friends with a lot of weird old glass they have scavenged from all over the internet. Even the swirling bokeh of the old Zeiss Contax can sometimes be a little over the top for me. When buying my set of “older” lenses I went with the Leica R because it had the best combination of older personality and modern sharpness (they seem to be somewhere between old Zeiss Standard Speeds and modern Canon cinema lenses).
The more Aurelian told me about the lenses the more impressed I was. Inside are a series of squeezing and de-squeezing anamorphic elements. Each element plays off the one before it, squeezing and de-squeezing parts of the image to optimize it before it hits the sensor.It was also great to learn how the classic anamorphic oval bokeh is created. To make this possible you need to have anamorphic elements in front of the lens iris as well as behind. Some of the newer anamorphic lenses coming out don’t have those ovals because they only put anamorphic elements behind the iris.
It was a rare treat to be able to play with these special lenses. Thank you very much to Rich Joneleit, a very talented filmmaker and Arri CSC rental agent, who was able to get me the lenses and Alexa XT for the shoot. Also, I want to thank Nicole Balle and Richard Schleuning at Zeiss for giving the the chance to publish my results and all their support the past few years.
Some more images from the shoot. All captured with my new favorite toy: the Fuji XT1 w/18mm f/2.0 Pancake Lens
Kat gets ready for the next shot
Soren Nielsen pulls focus of a 5.6" TV Logic Monitor. Image was being fed to it using a Teradek Bolt
My usual muse James Westpheing operating an Alexa for the first time. He had no problems continuously finding the big red Record button. The Arri Alexa...kid tested...mother approved.