As it becomes ever easier and more affordable to get involved in anamorphic filmmaking, we’re looking at what’s involved and what great value lenses such as the Atlas Mercury line-up have to offer.
Up until recently the thought of shooting anamorphic footage has been something of a pipe dream for most non-dedicated filmmakers, since it involved working with lenses that were prohibitively expensive, plus there was a huge amount of technical know-how involved in mastering the squeezing and de-squeezing process.
However, as with so many things that were once the sole province of high-level cinematographers, the whole process has now become way more affordable and easier to achieve, with the result that an anamorphic approach is now well within the scope of many of those who are offering motion as part of their professional mix.
First things first, and what exactly is anamorphic filmmaking, how is it achieved and why is it considered by some to be so highly desirable? Well, the fact is that even if you might be unaware of what the anamorphic effect is, the chances are that you will know it instantly if you see it. The origins of this particular ‘look’ date right back to 1952, when the movie ‘This is Cinerama’ effectively announced the arrival of what quickly became known as Cinemascope. This is a stretched-out widescreen field of view that has come to epitomise the cinematic approach, and it’s something that those producing feature films have come to cherish over the years, but has latterly also been adopted by those working on more commercially-minded projects.
The process depends on the use of a specialist anamorphic lens, which squeezes the image into a set ratio, typically 1.5x or 2x. The image then needs to be ‘de-squeezed’ at the editing stage before it assumes a more normal look, and it comes with much-loved and iconic artefacts such as oval-shaped bokeh, barrel distortion and distinctive flare. These might sound like drawbacks, but those who love a cinematic feel love the effect and it can be seen in all its glory in big-screen epics such as the early Stars Wars movies and classics such as Apocalypse Now.
For hybrid filmmakers shooting with mirrorless cameras the situation up until recently was that this kind of approach was effectively out of bounds, not just because of the technical demands but because anamorphic lenses were hugely expensive pieces of glass, often costing tens of thousands of pounds. However, as pretty much all aspects of filmmaking have become way more democratised over the past few years, so the price of anamorphic lenses has been coming down, with specialist retailers such as CVP offering optics from the likes of Sirui that can now start from less than £500.
It’s a scenario that has delighted many, including CVP’s Technical Marketing Manager Jake Ratcliffe, who has welcomed the fact that anamorphic filmmaking is now firmly on the agenda for a far wider audience than was previously the case.
“The look they can produce because of their unique optical design is highly desirable,” he observes. “I think the fact that people are nostalgic towards films from the past that were shot using anamorphic lenses is a massive part of it, but they also just have such nice image quality characteristics to them. The boom of more affordable anamorphic options is what has sparked so much discussion online about this whole area, but I would say they have been popular, at least from an aspirational point of view, with filmmakers for years.”
While CVP stocks a full complement of anamorphic lenses, from the real entry-level products through to the higher-end cinematic models from the likes of Arri that still command spectacularly high prices for those working on high-end cinematic projects, there has been a rise in the number of products that fall into the in-between category, being neither bargain basement but not unaffordable either for those that are making a substantial part of their income from shooting motion.
Falling squarely into this category is the latest set of full frame anamorphic lenses from Atlas, the Mercury range, which is capable of producing a very high-quality results while still not costing upwards of five figures. For those used to investing in lenses for still cameras the price is still likely to produce a sharp intake of breath – the three-lens set of primes from CVP will set you back a cool £16, 661, while individually the 36mm, 42mm and 72mm will each cost you £5474. But then again, this is a fraction of what it might once have cost to venture in a serious way into this field, to the point where Jake has titled his video review of the new arrivals ‘The Best Affordable Anamorphic Cinema Lenses?’
There’s a link to the film, below right, and for those with an interest in an anamorphic approach it’s a must-watch. The new lenses offer excellent image quality for their price point, deliver 1.5x squeeze factor full frame coverage and are incredibly light and compact. In CVP’s film Jake takes the trio out on a selection of shoots to show what they can do across a range of situations, and it’s also an opportunity to view footage that’s been shot using them, giving the newcomer to this area a good introduction regarding how easy they are to work with, and what the footage they are capable of producing actually looks like.
Being on top of filmmaking trends is something all good professionals should constantly be striving to do, since it’s important to be introducing clients to the latest looks and encompassing approaches that might set you apart from the crowd. Working with anamorphic lenses certainly falls into this category, and having a showreel that demonstrates what it has to offer through striking footage will help to put you well ahead of the game.
Given that he works for a retailer that is very much on the front line in terms of knowing what kit creatives are looking at investing in right now, Jake is not in the least bit surprised at the number of new lenses aimed at this specialist sector of the market that are being developed and brought to market at the moment.
“The affordable anamorphic market has exploded over the past few years,” he observes, “and there is a good range of new anamorphic lens solutions as well as a thriving vintage lens community if you want to go down the DIY route. With image creation being such a fierce and competitive profession, people are always looking for ways to differentiate themselves from the pack and shooting with alternative lenses is an excellent way for you to do this.
“Right now it’s an incredible time to start shooting anamorphic, both at the low and high end of the market. There are more options out there than ever, and camera support has never been better.”
There are increasing numbers of cameras in the lower end of the market, from the likes of Panasonic and Blackmagic, that support a good range of onboard de-squeezes, but if you’re currently working with a camera that doesn’t offer this facility then it’s not a huge problem these days, since there some very affordable external monitors out there from the likes of Atomos that come with the ability to do this for you.
Having shot test footage with them Jake was hugely impressed with what the Atlas Mercury anamorphic lenses had to offer, rating them higher than the company’s 2x squeeze alternatives since he preferred the flare they produced and the shape of the bokeh. But this is the beauty of working with this type of lens, in that every optic you work with is guaranteed to be different, and it’s up the individual to look around at what’s on offer, to visit retailers such as CVP who are big enough to hold the stock that will enable you to compare and contrast alternatives in your price range and to then make a call regarding what to go for based around your personal preference.
Choosing Your Lens
It’s clear that a lens costing a few hundred pounds isn’t going to compare from a quality perspective with one that might have cost many times that amount, but that’s not to say at all that anamorphic lenses at the entry level point have nothing to offer. They might not have every bell and whistle on board and potentially they wouldn’t be your choice if you were going to be making a feature film destined to be premièred on the big screen, but for commercial work for a local client, just being able to tap into the feel of widescreen might be all that could be required.
“Every lens will have compromises to a certain extent,” says Jake, “and the entry-level anamorphics are no different. They all have different pros, cons and overall looks, and it’s hard to recommend which to invest in, as it will most likely come down to personal taste. However, it is incredible what you can get now for the money.
“Depending on your budget, the lens you go for will offer choices in areas such as squeeze factors, housing and the overall look of the lens. And whether you’re shooting anamorphic footage with a crop sensor camera or one that’s full frame will also make a difference. There are different squeeze factor lenses that will work better on different format sensors. For example, 2x will work better with traditional Super 35 size sensors in formats like 4:3, whereas 1.5x is aimed at more modern aspect ratio sensors like 16:9. Normally, the larger the squeeze factor, the stronger the anamorphic look will end up being.”
Press Jake on what he himself would look for in an anamorphic lens, and he opts for one with neutral or warm flare, nicely oval-shaped bokeh and barrel distortion, and with a good bit of focus breathing thrown in. He was genuinely blown away by the performance of the Atlas Mercury line-up, which he feels offers outstanding value.
“If you’re weighing up what to go for you need to be considering the overall look of the lens,” he advises. “Beyond that you would also need to consider the size of your camera’s sensor and what squeeze factor would be best. Also, does that lens cover the size of your sensor and does your camera have any anamorphic modes or monitoring tools? What delivery aspect ratio do you want to achieve? There’s a good bit to think about, but our experienced technical and sales team will be able to guide you through shooting anamorphic if you’re looking for a steer on things, so don’t hesitate to get in touch to book a demo.”
Although priced at a higher level than conventional stills lenses, the Atlas Mercury anamorphic lenses offer great value and performance.
Anamorphic lenses attach to the front of the camera in a conventional way, but serve to squeeze the image on the sensor.
The anamorphic look is something that’s treasured by filmmakers, and it’s now possible to incorporate this into commercial shoots.
Anamorphic footage is squeezed at the shooting stage and then is ‘de-squeezed’ by your editing software in post.
For those focusing on high-end cinema productions, anamorphic lenses from the likes of Cooke, left, and Arri, below, will still require serious outlay.
Anamorphic lenses from the likes of Vazen, left, and Sirui, above, can be purchased from CVP at affordable prices.