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If you have spent any length of time educating yourself on cinematography or filmmaking concepts it’s likely you may have heard the phrase ‘anamorphic’ before. Most people who watch movies are even aware of it on a subconscious level. As a filmmaker it’s your job to take practical concepts and understand the subconscious effect that these concepts have on the audience.
Today, I will explain and share information on one of these concepts- “the difference between anamorphic lenses and spherical lenses” to help you understand it better which will also help you in knowing when to use which lens, to achieve your desired output.
I will breakdown the basics, look at the differences between them and use creative examples from films to show how choosing between these two lens type can affect how the audience interprets a story. So, let’s get started!
When it comes to choosing lenses for a film the first decision to be made is between anamorphic and spherical lenses. Both types of lenses produce different image characteristics and have different practical constraints which must be considered. Here, they are as follows:
What Are Anamorphic Lenses?
To understand the anamorphic format we first need to understand the spherical or Super 35 format.
What Are Spherical Lenses?
The inside of every lens is made up of different pieces of curved glass, which we call elements. Spherical lenses are so called because their lens elements are circular. When light passes through spherical lenses and hits the digital sensor or film stock it produces a ‘regular’, uncompressed image. Now let’s get back to anamorphic lenses.
Anamorphic lenses are different. The elements at the back of an anamorphic lens are regular spherical elements. However, there are added cylindrical lens elements at the front of anamorphic lenses which appear oval, rather than circular, when looked through. When light passes through anamorphic lenses and hits the sensor it produces an image which appears ‘squeezed’. This image is then de-squeezed in post-production before it is presented to an audience.
Anamorphic Lenses VS Spherical Lenses
Let’s go over some of the variations in image characteristics between these two formats. The most prominent difference which is achieved by shooting with anamorphic lenses is that they provide a widescreen aspect ratio. Traditional spherical aspect ratios are more square. Common Super 35 format aspect ratios are 1.33:1 and 1.85:1. Anamorphic lenses produce an aspect ratio which is wider, such as 2.35:1 or 2.39:1.
Although some DOP’s, such as Roger Deakins for example, prefer to shoot with spherical lenses than crop the top and bottom off the image in post-production to get a widescreen aspect ratio.
Another prominent characteristic of anamorphic lenses, which is easiest to identify, is the bokeh that they produce. Bokeh is the soft, out of focus area of an image because of their circular glass elements, spherical lenses produce bokeh which is circular. Anamorphic lenses, with their curved, cylindrical elements, have oval shaped bokeh.
Moving onto the more subtle, yet important difference in an image, are the distortion, flares and the sharpness of the lens. As spherical lenses have less glass for the light to pass through and have simple mechanics, they tend to produce sharper images with minimal distortion across the entire image.
Anamorphic lenses can usually be identified by their reduced sharpness, increased distortion and what we call falloff, which is where the closer we get to the edges of the image, the more distortion and softness we get. This results in what some describe as ‘painterly’ image characteristics. They also produce more dramatic lens flare because they have more glass inside them, when light hits an anamorphic lens, it bounces around in interesting ways, creating beautiful, lateral flares. Some people like them, some don’t.
So, those are the differences in the way the image looks but it’s also important to consider the practical differences. Anamorphic lenses are expensive. Not only due to their rental price but also because of the other cost implications for the set because anamorphic lenses are far more complex and difficult to construct they cost far more to purchase and to rent out.
Spherical lenses are usually faster, meaning that they have a lower T-Stop, such as T1.3 to T2 and therefore let in more light. Anamorphic lenses usually have a stop of between T2.8 an T4, meaning that they let in less light. This means that to light sets when using slower, anamorphic lenses, more powerful light sources are required. This means spending more on lighting.
Also because anamorphic lenses are widescreen it means that they reveal a lot of the set. This means that more has to be spent on production design. The narrower the shot is, the less there is in frame that needs to be dressed.
Finally, anamorphic lenses provide less options. Spherical lens sets usually have more focal length to choose from than anamorphic lens sets, which are traditionally built around 40, 50, 75 and 100mm focal lengths. A popular spherical lens set, like the Cooke S4 primes, has 18 different focal lengths to choose from, ranging from a 12mm up to a 300mm lens.
To illustrate some of these differences let’s take a look at some practical examples of films and the lenses they were shot on to see what effect it provides.
Two films that were shot with different aspect ratios, lenses and approaches to framing are “There Will Be Blood”- Shot on C-series and E-series Panavision anamorphic lenses and “The Lighthouse”- Shot with spherical Bausch and Lomb Baltar Lenses. Both films are thematically linked to the idea of obsession but their visual approaches, informed by their lens choices, are opposing.
Robert Elswit opted for a widescreen, 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The width of the image gives a sense of scale to the vastness of the landscape in the film. He frames characters alone in a frame with emptiness on each sides, which builds a sense of loneliness into the frames. His approach used anamorphic glass to expand the frame.
Jarin Blaschke went a different route. He chose an almost square 1.19:1 aspect ratio. He describes his approach to framing in the “Lighthouse”. “I found the square [format] and a moderately wide lens to be very effective portrait format. It was the perfect balance between person and environment, it frames the vertical lighthouse even better isolates our two characters even more and truly traps them together when they do share a frame”. His approach used spherical lenses to compress the frame.
The image characteristics of lens also have psychological affect. This can be seen in “The Tree Of Life”, shot on spherical Arri/Zeiss Master Primes and “Moonlight”, shot largely on Hawk V-Lite anamorphics.
In “The Tree Of Life”, Chivo wanted to create a fully immersive image that used wide angle lenses, yet which maintained maximum sharpness and clarity. Master Prime Lenses are very sharp, precise spherical lenses with minimal distortion. This gives the images in the film a vivid, naturalistic, immersive and lifelike clarity.
James Laxton shot “Moonlight” with a different intention. He usually shot wide open on anamorphic lenses which increases bokeh and falloff. This gives the images in the film a dreamlike and nostalgic quality which supports the telling of this personal and at times experimental, coming of age film.
Finally, let’s have a look at what practical differences the two types of lenses can have by looking at “Barry Lyndon”, shot on different spherical lenses, notably a Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7. “Barry Lyndon” was shot at a time when film stock speeds were still very slow which made filming in low light situations impossible. To fulfill Kubrick’s desire to shoot night scenes lit only with naturalistic candle light, John Alcott employed a lens developed by Zeiss for NASA’s moon landings with the lowest aperture in the film history. This spherical lenses allowed more light onto the negative, which allowed Alcott to shoot night scenes with only natural light.
These are just few of the ways in which a cinematographer’s choice of lenses is able to affect the way a story is interpreted. To increase our understanding it’s important to educate ourselves on the gear used in films and to be conscious of the effect it has on your viewing experience. Although the point of filmmaking is to be sucked into a story to the point that we forget it’s a film, it takes a thorough understanding of technical knowledge combined with artistic application to be able to best suspend the disbelief of the audience.
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