What You Need to Know About Anamorphic Lenses – Part 1 Anamorphic Filmaking 101

In this highly anticipated first episode video in a series, Nikolas Moldenhauer from the fantastic (Hollywood level production) channel Media Division, looks in-depth into the fascinating and complex world of anamorphic lenses.

Background

Anamorphic photography is all about squeezing the image for filming and de-squeezing the image for viewing. The lenses used are known as anamorphic lenses or sometimes scopes. We tend to recognize the look of a film that was shot with these lenses (at least when it is done correctly) and there is a special feel to it.

In this epic video, Moldenhauer talks both about the history of anamorphic filming, why they were created, and for what reason. How they evolved, got their fame, lost it, and got it back (to some degree) in recent years and why some directors of photography love scopes while others tend to avoid them most of the time.

More than anything Moldenhauer tries not to fall into many of the common misconceptions that are so common about this topic and we hope that we can avoid them as well although I would recommend watching the video (possibly even more than once) if you really want to get everything in (there is really a lot of content here) and the way it is presented is just outstanding.

Anamorphic History

If you look at an anamorphic lens you might think it has an oval element inside (from the back it looks as if it is a wide and not tall oval like from the front). In reality, in most cases, the lens structure is actually based on cylindrical elements instead of spherical ones.

Anamorphic lens technology was developed during the first world war, not for filmmaking but to allow the creation of a wider field of view for tanks using a tiny hole that will still protect the crew inside.

The original film ratio was 4:3. Since we have two eyes our field of view is much wider than this aspect ratio so finding a way to shoot wider in a way that was technically simple and cost-effective for the film producers (this is a business after all and film is expensive) was a challenge.

In the late 1920s, 70mm Grandeur became the first wide film format which was developed by William Fox of the Fox Film Studio. Looking at films from that area shot using this technology the results still seem impressive even today. This format was abandoned though as it was not financially viable.

Another way of getting a wide field of view was to use several films shot at the same time in an interloping mode using a technique called Cinerama which was basically 3x35mm films shot side by side. This was shown on a giant curved screen and was an immediate hit although in many respects it feels very similar to the 3D movie hype of the early 2010s.

Cinerama was again too complex and expensive to produce and shoot and had a lot of technical difficulties both at the production and post-production stages and in many respects, it was more of a gimmick.

The first true anamorphic film system was the Cinemascope in 1953 with the film “Robe”. This gave filmmakers the first time widescreen look with the economics of 35mm film.

The industry continued to develop from the 1950s onwards with Panavision being one of the main backers of this technology through different evolving technologies. Moldenhauer explains that over the next decades many of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters were shot using some type of anamorphic technology which might be a big part of the reason why it is so associated in our minds with the “Hollywood look”.

Modern Anamorphic

When CGI and Super 35mm format were introduced to more films in the 1980s (think Terminator and Titanic amongst others), Super 35mm format with “normal” lenses almost eliminated the use of anamorphic techniques, as it was possible to imitate some of the unique properties of anamorphic in post.

Moldenhauer explains that high-quality “normal” Cine glass has relatively few flaws and there is very little to differentiate lenses. Anamorphic lenses, on the other hand, are much more unique with different flaws which some see as a special “character” including specific tint, flare, aberrations, breathing, and more.

Why would you want all of this in your shot? there are many reasons, some filmmakers might want to recreate the same look that other productions have (this is true for the modern productions of Star Wars and Star Trek movies and Tv Series to look more like the original productions, others might use it for a “nostalgic” look).

For some productions, the anamorphic look might be combined with normal shooting to create two different looks (one for normal and one for a dream-like state for example).

There is just so much more in this video including a deep dive into the way the elements in anamorphic lenses are arranged and how the focus is achived (hint – this is not straight forward as you might think), a look at the different Bond movies and which have been shot using anamorphic and which didn’t (and which used both anamorphic and non-anamorphic techniques).

Anamorphic in Bond movies

Anamorphic in Bond movies

In part 2 of this series Moldenhauer will dive deep into different lenses, how they are built and operate and what sets them apart from a technical and visual standpoint.

You can find more photography-related technology videos on our photo-tech section here on LensVid. You can find more of Moldenhauer videos coverage here on LensVid and we will be sure to bring you more in the future.

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