Image courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.
Anamorphic isn’t new, but it wasn’t always an accessible format to shoot in. Until recently, low-budget projects would either have to fake the look or use cumbersome adapters. With the new sub-$20,000 lenses, we’re about to see true anamorphic shooting become more accessible than ever before. Why? Because it no longer takes a master to make anamorphic work on your project.
What is Anamorphic?
Images courtesy of Petapixel.
The history of anamorphic shooting is a long, rich, one. I won’t be able to do it justice here, but the squeezed-down version is that these lenses are the stranger, yet more conventionally cinematic, alternative to the more widespread spherical lenses. Spherical lenses utilize a two-axis curve to bend light in a way that’s similar to how our eyes see. Anamorphic lenses, on the other hand, include a cylindrical lens element that is only curved on its vertical axis. This creates a stretched and distorted image that needs to be de-squeezed either using a special projector (celluloid) or in post (digital).
The two main types of anamorphic lenses are 2x and 1.33x, which correspond to the size of the film or sensor you’re using (allowing you to use the whole sensor without cropping). 2x squeezes the image more, meaning that you’ll need a larger sensor or film size to de-squeeze it to standard widescreen format. De-squeezing a 2x lens on a 16:9 sensor will give you a super wide aspect ratio that is unsuitable for most projects, that’s why 1.33 anamorphic lenses exist. You can find out what your aspect ratio will be by reducing your film/sensor size down to a decimal (4:3 = 4/3 = 1.33 and 16:9 = 16/9 = 1.77). Then you multiply it by the type of lens you’re using. If you’re aiming for the standard 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio, this is the formula you would use to get it.
1.33 x 2 = 2.66
1.77 x 1.33 = 2.3541
While these aren’t dead-on hits, they’re close and that’s what matters. Just because the aspect ratio is the same, though, doesn’t make the image the same. 2x squeezes the image more, making the characteristics we associate with anamorphic even more pronounced. Light flares in a wider horizontal direction, the bokeh is more ovular, and the image appears more dimensional (which creates a particularly lovely effect on faces). It’s very different from the way our eyes see, which is why anamorphic is considered more “cinematic.”
Anamorphic lenses typically distance the audience from the film’s subject and heighten reality in a very subtle way. When used well, they pull us deeper into the worlds of Wes Anderson, add scope and light-flaring tension to Star Trek movies, create a painterly claustrophobia in Blade Runner, and much more. Due to financial restrictions and technical difficulties, anamorphics used to be exclusive to high profile projects.
Anamorphic in the Past
As you might have noticed above, anamorphic lenses can be a little tricky to get a grasp on. Add the fact that to shoot the horizontal equivalent of a spherical 35mm full frame field of view anamorphically, you would need a 70mm 2x or approximately a 50mm 1.33x lens. Also, keep in mind that these lenses are typically slow and can have unpredictable flair and distortion effects. When shooting on celluloid, where getting a dim, questionable, representation of your image through the viewfinder was most you were going to see on set, anamorphics were particularly daunting. John Mathieson discusses this conundrum for Cooke Optics TV.
In other words, to make the most out of these lenses on film you had to be incredibly skilled and have Hollywood resources at your fingertips. Today, however, you can bring the anamorphic look to your microbudget project.
Pairing that Beautiful Image with Sound
There’s a reason the anamorphic look is revered by some of the industry’s greatest cinematographers. The strange, beautiful, cinematic look is fairly unique, if not impossible, to replicate in any other way. It would be sinful not to pair such perfectly-crafted images with the right music. At Amazing Music Tracks, you can easily find the right music for your perfect images in no time at all with our enormous library and simple search tools. Like anamorphic shooting, finding the right music for your project is becoming easier and cheaper than ever before.
Anamorphic in the Present
Thanks to improvements in digital sensor technology, shooting anamorphic has never been easier.
There are already a number of ways of taking spherical lenses and adding anamorphic attachments or even faking anamorphic altogether. Some of these configurations work pretty well, but attachments like the one from SLR magic can be cumbersome and require specific lenses to work properly. Not great if you’re on a demanding shoot. Luckily, companies like Atlas, and SLR Magic themselves, are bringing anamorphic cinema lenses into sub-$10,000 territory, making them more affordable than ever. You also don’t need to be a master DP to make them work.
Shooting digitally allows filmmakers to see their work immediately. Lens flares and distortions will be seen live and can be tinkered with endlessly. Moreover, post-production workflows in platforms like Resolve and Premiere make de-squeezing as easy as changing export settings. This will bring the anamorphic look to a plethora of new projects, changing the face of indie cinema in the process. You can even make anamorphic shooting work on your DSLR!
Anamorphic still requires expertise and presents a risk to shooters who haven’t thoughtfully considered its proper use. However, it’s availability to filmmakers of almost all budget sizes will change the way filmmakers approach their next projects, and will likely usher a sea change in the indie film.
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