During the 1950s, a new kind of media had taken hold. Americans were eager to stay home, captivated by their television sets. Filmmakers now had to find new ways to capture the audience.
And they did just that.
Innovation took us from our living rooms to the immersive experience that is now “going to the movies.” Anamorphic format is synonymous with cinematic footage. But why? What is an anamorphic lens and how did it revolutionize the industry?
What does anamorphic mean?
Anamorphic lenses were created so wider images could fit on standard 35 mm film. But before anamorphic technology took hold in Hollywood, it was a known concept in France during WWI.
In order to increase the soldiers’ field of view in army tanks as they scoured their environment, anamorphic “technology” or anamorphic lens cylinders were used so they didn’t have to rely on the tiny eye holes of the tank. These cylinders created a wider field of view to see their enemies.
But luckily this technology didn’t end with the war. And soon enough, Hollywood took this optical phenomenon and developed more complex technology that created the experience of the movies as we know them today. To get into that technology a bit more, let’s define anamorphic lens.
Anamorphic Lens Definition
What is an Anamorphic Lens?
An anamorphic lens is a type of lens that adjusts how images get projected onto a camera’s sensor by squeezing a wider aspect ratio to fit on standard 35 mm film, without sacrificing resolution. Anamorphic lenses take a wide field of view or wider aspect ratio, and “squeezes” it to fit onto a smaller sensor. These lenses essentially maximize the use of the sensor by fitting more footage onto the sensor.
In production there are typically two classes of lenses - anamorphic vs spherical. Spherical lenses are the most common and they project images onto our camera's sensor without affecting their aspect ratio. Anamorphic lenses project a compressed version of the image so that wider aspect ratios can fit a standard 35mm film.
What does an anamorphic lens do?
- Produces anamorphic bokeh and anamorphic lens flare
- Increases horizontal imagery to create immersive effect
Notice the difference between lenses and the cylindrical shape of the anamorphic lens.
When light travels in and is then projected onto a screen we can see how, by its shape, it would “squeeze” the image.
Anamorphic lenses often use a 2x “squeeze.” All this means is that they capture double the amount of horizontal information than a spherical lens would. This allows the viewer to see more horizontally than vertically and it’s this innovation that creates full audience immersion in the picture. To go a bit deeper into how this works, watch the video below.
You can see the difference between an image shot on anamorphic vs the built in lens of a drone, below.
Depending on the look and feel of your film, and how you wish to convey your story, different lenses will support these choices. Reviewing resources like guides to camera lenses will empower you to make the right choices. But anamorphic, overall, creates much more cinematic and sweeping imagery than standard lenses.
Anamorphic Aspect Ratio
CinemaScope and aspect ratio
Doubling the aspect ratio of an image creates a kind of epicness that was quickly acquired and celebrated by Hollywood. These lenses took off as they created a stark difference between what could be viewed on a television set at home vs a motion picture screen. 2x anamorphic lenses when used with a 35 mm film yields a 2:39:1 aspect ratio. This wider ratio became known as CinemaScope.
In order to capture this kind of picture with a spherical lens, cropping or “masking” the top and bottom of the frames were necessary and this often negatively affected the vertical resolution of the picture.
But the thing is, most sensors today, have wider aspect ratios than 35 mm, so 2x anamorphic lenses often produce a super wide ratio. To produce a standard CinemaScope ratio, a 1.33x anamorphic is likely best. Becoming comfortable and confident with aspect ratios is a sure-fire way to harness the most out of the anamorphic format.
Considering anamorphic lens flare
Aside from the cinematic look of anamorphic lenses, there are other reasons you might want to use one. If you’re into using bokeh, (or keeping your backgrounds artistically out of focus) - anamorphic lens will give you a unique bokeh look. The elongated shape as compared to spherical lens bokeh can be seen below.
Many directors fall in love with the idea of lens flare regardless if their cinematographers are using anamorphic lenses. But these lenses do provide for some really cool looking flares that add a lot to the scene.
Lens flares using anamorphic lenses can appear like stripes of light and are so often used in space or futuristic type films. Star Trek is but one example (that arguably overused it).
Vox goes through a plethora of movies that use lens flare, anamorphic flare, and why it’s still such a widely loved technique.
At this point, lens flare and specifically, anamorphic lens flare, has become a huge part of the cinematic experience. Knowing how to capture lens flare while using an anamorphic lens can level up your footage.
Lens Flare: How to Use it & Avoid it
Now that you have this under belt, you may start to get a little anamorphic-happy and use these lenses in all of your footage. If you want to start producing pretty lens flare for instance, anamorphic may be the way to go. But are you in control of how you’re using it to better tell your story, or is it happening by accident? The next post will give more insight into how to use and avoid lens flare with confidence.