What’s the story behind Schneider Kreuznach’s return of the Iscorama?

The famous Iscorama 54 is making a comeback. A small number of lenses are being made available for rental only. The Iscorama 54 anamorphic adapter appears to be identical in design to the original, other than the cosmetic appearances of the lens housing. In the rental kit, it’s being paired with spherical taking lenses by a Hong Kong company, which is interesting as Schneider Kreuznach could have paired it with their own cine lenses but chose not to.

So here’s the big question – is the “new” Iscorama 54 a freshly manufactured piece, or did Schneider Kreuznach find some new-old stock and give them a fresh lick of paint?

EOSHD investigates.

ISCO Optics of Göttingen go all the way back to 1936. The link to Schneider goes back as far. ISCO manufactured Schneider’s Xenon lenses.

These lenses were used on high precision aerial cameras during World War 2.

The factory produced 45,000 lenses and was the main supplier of the Luftwaffe.

After the war, and a comprehensive dismantling of the factory, ISCO turned to making cinema projection lenses from 1946. Their first anamorphic adapters for projection were made in 1953. With just 50 employees in 1946, ISCO had bounced back to 600 employees by that point.

The Iscorama came along in the late 1960s. The first lenses, the most sought after are not multicoated, evidenced by the golden tint when you look at the front glass. Later the multi-coated lenses (blue tint and usually designated “MC”) increased sharpness at the expense of reducing the famous horizontal anamorphic flares. The Iscorama was designed to be used both as a taking lens and for projection, with a patented single focus mechanism designed around a variable diopter.

Blackmagic Cinema Camera - anamorphic rig

The Iscorama pre-dated the DSLR revolution and renewed demand by 40 years!

Parent company Schneider AG went bankrupt in the early 1980s and ISCO was restructured under new owner Kurt Lindstedt.

Rumour has it that ISCO’s second bankruptcy was forced by Kurt Lindstedt’s wife, who wanted a divorce and her share of the ISCO business.

It’s also worth noting the Iscorama had the nicest packaging in camera lens history:

This was the end of the Iscorama era and to my knowledge no more lenses were manufactured in Göttingen after 2003.

During the 1990s ISCO had continued to make a wide range of anamorphic adapters, some for the Widescreen Centre in the UK which is where my one-of-a-kind 2x stretch Iscorama comes from.

Helios 44 Isco Centavision 2x anamorphic

Nearly all normal Iscoramas had a 1.5x stretch factor, which is exactly what the rebooted Iscorama 54 is too.

Isco Optics of Göttingen was sold to an investment company after the second bankruptcy before being sold back to the original parent company Schneider, thus becoming a division of Schneider Kreuznach in 2009. During the resurgence of anamorphic shooting which started with DSLRs, Schneider Kreuznach hasn’t brought out any new Iscorama lenses.

This has been a bit of a missed opportunity in my opinion, but it perhaps points to the complete inability to manufacture the original glass. After all, nearly all the original factory employees, anamorphic glass grinding by hand, were presumably no more – and to my knowledge almost all the original equipment was liquidised in the 2003 bankruptcy. It is even rumoured the US military dumped and crushed thousands of Iscoramas, although a lot of the folklore you do have to take with a pinch of salt!

It is interesting that Schneider chose the Iscorama 54.

The 54 was the big fat one with the largest rear element and best coverage. You can use it with larger sensors with less vignetting at 50mm on full frame than the smaller Iscorama 36. Here’s my original flaring up on the Blackmagic cinema camera:

And on the RED Epic in the earlier days of EOSHD in Berlin:

Epic - Iscorama

Later I had my original Iscorama pre-36 single coated lens rehoused by Van Diemen in the UK.

It would be great if Schneider could bring this lens back in the original specification as well as the pre-36 single coated is for some the ultimate Iscorama and much smaller than the 54.

On one of the Anamorphic groups at Facebook there’s a lot of rumours and speculation about what Schneider have planned with the comeback.

Initially Schneider used a hashtag #Isco4all which is odd as they said it would just be an exclusive rental kit.

However it now appears Schneider are going to actually sell the Iscorama 54!

Now this is interesting and it would surely mean Schneider would have to remanufacture the optics to meet demand and cannot just rely on rehousing old-new stock from some warehouse in Germany. Could it be they are partnering with a manufacturer in China to do this according to the original ISCO specification and design?

The company they are partnering with for the spherical backing lenses gives some hint this may be the case. DuLens are based in Hong Kong and apparently have their own anamorphic in the development stages.

It is incredibly difficult for modern anamorphic lenses (that don’t cost $25,000) to come anywhere close to the look of an Iscorama 36, 54 or Russian LOMO square-front lens.  Even if Schneider lend this company the patented formula for the Iscorama, there’s no guarantee it will look as good. The expertise for these hand-built lenses just doesn’t really exist any more, as it did in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It is a bit like Sony trying to come up with a new high-end cassette deck and tube amp. These things take specialist manufacturing, parts, knowledge and it’s all almost gone!

Nevertheless I say good luck to Schneider and DuLens for their Iscorama reboot.

The last Iscorama 54 I found was in mint condition and cost £1500. Pretty impossible to compete with that. These days they regularly fetch £2500 on eBay which is a good price for an anamorphic of that quality and rarity.

Most of mine have been the result of a LONG search and were very lucky to find, it takes years to build a collection without paying extortionate money on eBay.

The Iscoramas are a classic and for me still the best anamorphic adapters you can get for the money.

To go better with the vintage lenses you have to get a LOMO square front and even rarer round-fronts now fetch upwards of $10,000. I have two of these square fronts from the very earliest days where they were offered in Moscow for under $1000 or from retired filmmakers in Europe selling their kits.

LOMO OCT-19 Anamorphic on the GH2

Since those early supplies were snapped up they have become more and more difficult to find! For me the vintage LOMO lenses are still the ultimate expression of what anamorphic cinema should look like. But the beauty of an adapter like the Iscorama is you can experiment, change the look, FOV and even the flares based off using it with a huge variety of spherical taking lenses.

It’s fantastic that with the legendary Iscorama, Schneider has turned over an interesting new page to the book.