London based cinematographer on anamorphic lenses

[SIZE=”5″>“As you know, it is only now because the digital format is sterile that you need the life put back in”[/SIZE]

The video above is from ‘Mirror’, a film by Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky shot with USSR Lomo anamorphic glass which is now winding up on eBay. Director Tarkovsky shot the original Solaris with anamorphic lenses and is up there as one of my favourite filmmakers of all time. He was an artist in the true uncompromising sense of the word – also probably the best cinematographer the world has ever seen. With the barest of sound track or dialogue you can feel so much purely through his imagery and his camera work.

The USSR were big on anamorphic widescreen cinema, squeezing more vertical resolution into 35mm film. Tarkovsky’s Lomo lenses can now be adapted from their original Konvas OCT18 mount to Micro 4/3rds or PL (for Canon and Red, provided you remove the pesky mirror box from your 5D Mark II) and used on DSLRs to ‘put the life back in’.

One caveat of anamorphic shooting however is that the minimum focus distance of the lenses is poor. Diopters are not a very common item in the DSLR filmmaker’s toolkit but I’ve recently invested in a good quality, +0.4 diopter from the London based cinematographer (view on eBay) who is the subject of this article. They reduce the minimum focus distance of a lens, and are especially useful with anamorphic adapters because anamorphics in particular tend not to focus very closely. They also have the potential to sharpen up anamorphic adapters at fast apertures, something I am extremely interested in but yet to experience for myself. I’ll do an update on this soon after I receive the diopter.

I spoke further this week with the cinematographer based in London who has all kinds of other rare treasure up for grabs on eBay – a super fast F0.95 industrial lens from the Dryden flight research lab after President Clinton killed off the Blackbird project the lenses were keeping watch over, and not one but two Iscorama anamorphic lenses.

He turns out to be a thoroughly nice chap and a very experienced cinematographer who has done work for the BBC and has a great insight into the industry.

EOSHD: How do diopters help anamorphic lenses and what’s your opinion on the Optex (mine is up for grabs on eBay here) anamorphic adapter?

TW: The Optex and Century will sharpen it up a little and diopters help with min focus issue. I even use mine with Hasselblad great for close portraits. I used my Optex on Super8 and 16mm and various jobs for the BBC. Optex and Century anamorphic adapters were both made in Hong Kong by a small optics house with glass coming from mainland China. They were finished off in London [Optex] and LA. The glass was pretty good, the problem was the finishing sometimes was not that great…the way the optics were set was sometimes poor…I had mine reset and they improved a little…just rubber O ring to slightly change position of the optic group…they could get away with murder as you know because of the microscopic size of the Sony and Panasonic sensors at the time. The massive depth of field helped and made them popular on stuff like the History of Britain for the BBC…in fact the BBC were the biggest buyers of Optex and Century…cheaper than buying a new camera but also because staff would nick or loose them! My Isco CentaVision went down to just under 2ft with the diopter – as you know the big boy’s in the rental houses struggle to get that with 50k anamorphic optics.

EOSHD: The Iscorama in particular is a hot topic for us DSLR shooters. It is an incredible lens – I wish my CentaVision flared like it, and was as sharp as the 36. My CentaVision particularly flareless. I didn’t know that was possible with anamorphic, and it was one of the big things that attracted me to anamorphic shooting in the first place.

TW: Your CentaVision is a real rare bird…in fact it has Kowa optics but Isco body work…I think it was made because when the companies stopped making them another order came in – so stuff was made up with various spare materials. I have a stupid rare Iscorama that a DP friend had built out of remaining Isco spare parts… by the factory. They asked him what optic he wanted: Nikon E… Pentax or Praktica. He nearly had an heart attack – silly expensive lens with a cheap optic… So he gave them a Leica Canada Summicron 50mm… It is a fixed lens system but in pieces at the moment. That lens has NO FLARE…those bloody Germans… at the end of the 80s everything got sorted… coatings were standardised all over. As you know it is only now because the digital format is sterile that you need the life put back. Classic case of men in white coats thinking that computer design and MTF bench knows best. Dallmeyer, Kern, Taylor Hobson, Hugo Meyer: none of those guy’s ever saw a computer and yet you put one of those old old lovely optics on and you suddenly seem like you could be better shooter than you really are… I was using the Switar 26mm F1.1 today it is quite simply the work of a space man not quite as good as a Kinoptik but a stunner… Leica purchased the assets of Kern, dumped, crushed, got rid, closed them down…maybe had something to do with decades of those Kinoptiks and damn Switars being put on the Alpa [a Swiss reflex camera]…and suddenly Leica is not the only god like optics house.

The winner of the Isco CentaVision [our subject’s own]was a mega rich Apple executive… He told me he would of paid another 800 dollars for it… Your lens is better, mine just very small and handy… Isco 36 would destroy it.

EOSHD: Prices have rocketed due to the rarity of such lenses and the fact that there is nothing currently on the market by any of the big lens manufacturers that satisfies our desire for consumer-level anamorphics. The Hawk stuff from Germany costs a bomb (apparently Hawk had the man behind Lomo’s anamorphic lenses designing the optics). Compared to these, the Iscos are bargain basement lenses – but look fantastic. Since my Isco has approx 77mm thread, I can probably get away with using the 72mm diopter on it and achieve closer focus on a 105mm Nikon… I have to be a football pitch length away to focus with that lens. Looking to get hold of a USSR Lomo anamorphic now.

TW: The Hawk in a sense has been bad because it is the main reason why Arri / Zeiss have kept out of anamorphics… because Hawk will always be able to undercut Arri / Zeiss on price. They got humiliated big time with Arriscope… Arri/Zeiss/Isco project and they were shit…terrible breathing issues even had anamorphic mumps. They made them as a reaction to Joe Dunton and Henryk Chroscicki – European men who did mega budget hollywood films with fantastic quality optics… All made by technicians without the Panavision / Zeiss bullshit… that the greatness of the design was a 1950s Cooke optic (an anamorphic head made by an amazing Japanese optics grinder called Mr Shiga), he had a couple of people working polishing bending and grinding and Joe’s English boys would assemble and make the most lovely housings and complex dual focus systems all kept to a reasonable size… Mr Shiga died… Joe sold out to Panavision and Henryk died and his daughter sold to Panavision… Panavision are now sitting on a massive collection of scope lens they will not sell because they have lots of sterile new shit to rent out to the dwindling users of Panavision gear. The optics men in white coats how they laughed at the piss poor Russian glass [Lomo] you cannot possibly use this on a motion picture it won’t work.

EOSHD: Thanks to our source for his insights. Many modern ‘Hollywood’ cinematographers talk about trying to do a Tony Scott, but had they any taste they’d really do a Tarkovsky. Tony Scott remember was the mainstream hack compared to his brother, the great Ridley Scott.

I get a sense that good taste is so rare. Just as the men in white coats seek to produce ‘perfect’ optics but forget to put any character into the lens, many shooters are trying to produce hip, cool and perfect footage – but without any feeling.

Something I’ve noticed of the DSLR movement of late is that things haven’t really changed very much. It is still tiring to see the ‘me-too’ prevalent attitude of the social climbers still working against great art being produced in modern cinema. There are far too many at the top of their career ladders who know the right people and talk the right jib, but are utterly devoid of artistic depth. Technology changes but human nature does not move on.

The true geniuses amongst us are much rarer than I ever imagined.