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An introduction to anamorphic lenses

Anamorphic elements
By: The Cooke Team  |   6 min read

Introduction

An anamorphic lens is designed to capture a wider horizontal angle of view than would be possible with a spherical lens in order to create a widescreen presentation. This is achieved by optically-distorting the width of the image at the time of capture, known as squeezing, and later reversing this process – known as de-squeezing. Historically this latter part was realised optically at the point of presentation but nowadays can be achieved digitally inside of editing software and in real-time within a digital camera system for monitoring purposes.

Anamorphic lenses have many distinct qualities which all play a crucial role in creating a unique feel. Compared to spherical lenses there are an extended range of optical artifacts that one may choose to employ.  With this of course comes greater subjectivity and matters of taste but it would be fair to say that in general spherical lenses feel more grounded and real whilst anamorphic lenses include elements of the fantastical and mysterious.

The history

“Anamorphic” is derived from the Greek ‘anamorphosis’, meaning ‘form anew’. The concept of anamorphic imagery originated in drawn art in the 1500s in the form of ‘anamorphs’. Artists drew in a distorted fashion but when this was viewed via the reflection in a mirrored cylinder the artworks would appear undistorted.

Anamorphic art

Anamorphosis Art – Ariaan P Goddijn

A variety of techniques for anamorphic photography were introduced to the filmmaking community from the late 1920s onwards but adoption was limited and advancements to streamline the systems were hampered by The Great Depression. By the early 1950s cinema attendance was in steep decline post World War II and with the growing adoption of home television sets. Keen to increase audience numbers the studios began to revive long-abandoned 3D processes and re-examined widescreen possibilities from the 20s and 30s.

In September of 1952 the documentary ‘This is Cinerama’ premiered in New York. Directed by Merian C. Cooper and shot by Harry Squire the Cinerama system utilised a specialised camera fitted with three separate 27mm spherical lenses. These would capture slightly overlapping images onto three individual strips of film simultaneously. These three strips were then projected separately to present an ultra-wide presentation which was three times the width of a normal movie screen. The complicated projection system and footprint of the screen limited the film to playing in only four American cities but it did so successfully to sold-out crowds over two years. Seeing an opportunity, Hollywood studios rushed to develop their own widescreen systems.

Cinerama projection process

CinemaScope

20th Century Fox’s president at the time, Spyros Skouras knew that for widespread widescreen presentations to become feasible, existing capture and projection technologies would need to be used as the base equipment rather than the bulky and complicated systems which Cinerama relied upon. The race was on and in December of 1952 Skouras visited Europe with Earl Sponable, his Technical Director, on the hunt for one Professor Henri Chrétien, a French astronomer, who’s “hypergonar” lens attachments and “Anamorphoscope” process was seen a possible solution for wider screen presentation.

Chrétien was no stranger to Hollywood, in 1927 he’d filed a patent for his own version of an anamorphic optical system for use in motion picture photography. This process squeezed the image horizontally and was based on a viewfinder system he’d created for tanks during World War I which allowed the operator to see 180º out of their periscope without distortion. His process translates as “beyond the angle” and he presented it to Hollywood in the late 1920s. Paramount Studios purchased the option but failed to bring it to market and when the Great Depression hit the rights reverted back to Chrétien. By the 50s the rights were owned by the Rank corporation and Fox gained them at the moment of expiry – just one day before rival representatives from Warner Bros. studios made contact with the astronomer!

Fox named their system CinemaScope and it utilised the 35mm 4-perforation Academy film frame making it compatible with equipment of the time. Anamorphic lenses manufactured by Bausch & Lomb based on Chrétien’s innovations worked with existing cameras and projectors only required an additional anamorphic lens to be fitted to the front of them. 20th Century Fox didn’t make the system proprietary but instead offered it to competing studios and it quickly became the most prevalent widescreen format during a turbulent time in cinema history.

CinemaScope Logo

Anamorphic aspect ratio

With no pre-existing standards for the format Leon Shamroy ASC shot ‘The Robe’ for 20th Century Fox, released in 1953, with cameras configured for the original “silent” full negative 1.33:1 (4:3). With a 2x anamorphic squeeze this gave a projected aspect ratio of 2.66:1. Practical limitations meant that wider projected ratios were unfeasible for most cinemas so having more than a 2x anamorphic squeeze was never explored. In time, four strips of soundtrack were added to the film frame leading to a reduction of the projected aspect ratio to 2.55:1. SMPTE standardized this to 2.35:1 in 1957 before 2.39:1 became the standard in 1971. The dimensions were adjusted once more in 1993 but the projected ratio remained the same – 2.39:1.

The Robe poster

Construction and squeeze factors

In spherical cinematography the image’s aspect ratio is dictated by the shape of the imager. It’s impossible to record a wider aspect ratio than the imager will allow – be that a digital sensor or film stock. People have cropped images top and/or bottom to artificially create a wider aspect ratio but this sacrifices some of the recorded image area and the width is still that of the imager.

Anamorphic photography then allows the same size imagers to capture an image that is wider than the original format – typically twice as wide. A complete anamorphic lens usually consists of a regular spherical “taking” lens – which itself is a group of elements – and an anamorphic attachment that does the squeezing. This is usually a multi-element assembly and is referred to as an “anamorphot” or “anamorphic block”. Spherical lens elements have spherically curved surfaces whilst anamorphic ones have a cylindrical curve instead.

The power of this anamorphot is typically zero in the vertical axis and 0.5x horizontally, which reduces the effective focal length of the spherical lens by half in the horizontal direction. This results in a 2x widening when the image is de-squeezed and presented. By example a 50mm anamorphic lens will have the vertical angle of view that matches a 50mm spherical lens but will have horizontal angle of view equal to that of a 25mm spherical lens.

The 2x squeeze factor is widely seen as the standard through which most characteristics associated with anamorphic filmmaking are perceived. A 2x squeeze factor is found in the Cooke Anamorphic/i S35 lenses. Other compression ratios are also available, such as 1.8x – found in the Cooke Anamorphic /i FF lenses. As the compression factor of the anamorphic elements is lessened so too are the characteristics. Weaker squeeze factors such as 1.3 and 1.5x might then be seen as a compromise compared to the original process.

Also crucial in anamorphic lens character is where the anamorphot is placed within the lens. It can be at the front, distributed throughout or at the rear which gives a vertically stretched image instead of horizontally-compressed one. Rear anamorphic lenses behave much more like a traditional spherical lens and the classic look of anamorphic lenses has been established by the traditional front anamorphot arrangements as found throughout Cooke’s anamorphic range including their anamorphic zooms.

Cooke anamorphic lens
Cooke Anamorphic/i FF, 40mm
Cooke anamorphic lens
Cooke Anamorphic/i FF, 75mm

Anamorphic in the digital world

With high end digital camera systems anamorphic capture has become more accessible due in part to accurate real-time de-squeezed monitoring and higher sensitivity sensors. However, it’s worth touching on digital sensor size in relation to anamorphic capture. The Academy anamorphic specification is 20.96mm x 17.53mm for capture in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio but no digital sensor matches this size. Commonly then, to deliver a 2.39:1 ratio the captured image must be cropped left and right. By way of example a 2x anamorphic on a 16:9 sensor would give 3.56:1 uncropped.

Many cameras have different sized sensors, or various windowing modes for different frame rates and resolution. 4:3 and 3:2 have both become common sensor ratios for example but both require cropping to 2.39:1 once de-squeezed. In short always make sure to check your framelines for accurate composition on set and work within a post workflow that maintains this throughout the process.

Anamorphic desire and characteristics

There are various aspects of anamorphic photography that are sought after. To begin with the wider image more accurately approximates the natural angle of view of the human eye with more of our peripheral vision being left and right than top and bottom. This leads some filmmakers to favour it as a more immersive format.

One of the unique aspects of the anamorphic process is the elliptical quality in its bokeh. The placement of cylindrical elements in front of the entrance pupil leads to elliptical blur patches due to the two different axes of magnification in an anamorphic lens. This is mostly observed in out of focus highlights but this elliptical focus tracks to all out of focus elements. The elliptical shape is considered by some to be more painterly and can also help mask the actual shape of out of focus elements quite substantially. The compression factor reduces the size of the bokeh on the horizontal axis so with 2x anamorphics the resulting oval shape will be 50% as wide as it is tall.

anamorphic oval bokehAnamorphic Bokeh – ‘Polite Society’ (2023) d. Nida Manzoor, c. Ashley Connor – shot on Cooke Anamorphic /i S35 SF

The most commonly recognised and referenced element of anamorphic filmmaking is the anamorphic flare. Whilst all lenses flare differently and have unique characteristics a more dramatic and recognisable flare has long been associated with the format. These flares manifest themselves as horizontal (or vertical) streaks and elliptical orbs. The look is distinct and the artifacts can be unique and beautiful.

Less direct flares, ghost flares, still mimic the shape of the iris but they tend to become more elliptical. The colour of the flare is usually dictated by the element’s coatings but blue streaks have become synonymous with anamorphic over the years. In certain circumstances an anamorphic lens may exhibit a combination of anamorphic and spherical flares – a look truly unique to this format. Rear anamorphic lens designs do not demonstrate these unique flare properties.

 

 

anamorphic flare
Flares on Anamorphic, more extreme and more subtle – ‘The Neon Demon’ (2016) d. Nicolas Winding Refn, c. Natasha Braier ASC ADF – shot on Cooke Xtal Express
anamorphic flare
Flares on Anamorphic, more extreme and more subtle – ‘The Neon Demon’ (2016) d. Nicolas Winding Refn, c. Natasha Braier ASC ADF – shot on Cooke Xtal Express

The more subtle differences

In most situations the composition of a shot is dictated by the horizontal angle of view. This means when shooting anamorphic people typically tend to shoot with a lens that is twice the focal length they’d use if shooting spherically. As such, when shooting from the same camera to subject distance the base spherical lens inside of the entire assembly is double the focal length that it would be otherwise. Therefore there will be less depth of field for a given horizontal angle of view than would be achieved spherically, an aesthetic that many filmmakers find to be more pleasing to the eye.

The elliptical compression in anamorphic lenses also adds an abstract element to the out of focus areas of a shot. This is a look humans don’t experience in the real world as our eyes operate more along the lines of a spherical lens. The in-focus parts of an anamorphic image may then feel more tangible in contrast to the blurred areas.

As humans we can readily interpret out of focus elements in the real world and this is the same when viewing images captured with spherical lenses as the blur is rotationally symmetrical. However in anamorphic two points of light are projected from the rear of the lens for every point single point that is received at the front: one in the vertical direction and one in the horizonal direction. They are two different perpendicular planes of focus which have distinct magnifications and shapes. This leads to the oval or elliptical bokeh but also leads to much more impressionistic out of focus objects that our brains cannot as readily interpret. We are more intrigued by the overall image from an anamorphic lens and its unique bokeh than we are a spherical one.

anamorphic bokeh

Out of focus objects, ‘Polite Society’ (2023) d. Nida Manzoor, c. Ashley Connor – shot on Cooke Anamorphic /i S35 SF

Slightly harder to quantify is the anamorphic image’s change from in-focus to out of focus. The combination of a longer focal length coupled with cylindrical compression to the image can create a more “organic” quality in the out of focus areas compared to its spherical counterpart. Longer focal length plays a role in this but even when there is sharp focus there doesn’t appear to be such a hard transition between in and out of focus. It feels more natural as a result of the magnification, less depth of field and elliptically elongated bokeh.

Many anamorphics also tend to have some degree of distortion. This may be seen as desirable and used as a way to guide the viewer’s eyes towards the centre of the frame. Barrel distortion curves straight lines offering a look that has come to be associated with a vintage feel and may be suitable for certain projects. Focus breathing registers differently on an anamorphic lens with the vertical axis growing or shrinking when racking focus. This can be more or less pronounced from lens to lens but can be a sought after characteristic.

Traditionally productions stick to either spherical or anamorphic throughout a shoot but there’s nothing to stop people mixing systems and then cropping one to achieve a common aspect ratio, or not as the case may be. This has been made easier with modern digital cameras ability to quickly change between different aspect ratios of capture. This is showcased in ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World’ shot by Bill Pope ASC with anamorphic used for the fight sequences and cropped to 1.85:1 for a common aspect ratio throughout. By contrast director Wes Anderson regularly jumps between spherical and anamorphic without cropping leading a change in a ratio throughout the film.

spherical shot
Spherical shot in ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ (2010) d. Edgar Wright, c. Bill Pope ASC
anamorphic shot
Anamorphic shot in ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ (2010) d. Edgar Wright, c. Bill Pope ASC
spherical aspect ratio
Spherical shot in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ (2014) d. Wes Anderson, c. Robert Yeoman ASC
anamorphic aspect ratio
Anamorphic shot in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ (2014) d. Wes Anderson, c. Robert Yeoman ASC

Cooke and anamorphic

Over the years as more anamorphic lenses were created, the Cooke Speed Panchro became the most common taking lens used within a plethora of anamorphic lens systems. One of the earliest uses was on Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Spartacus’ which was photographed by Russell Metty ASC with a Delrama anamorphic adapter. The Panavision C-Series and JDC’s Xtal Xpres lenses used on countless productions also used Speed Panchros.

‘Spartacus’ (1960) d. Stanley Kubrick, c. Russell Metty ASC

In 2013 Cooke released a full anamorphic lens system of their own with the Anamorphic/i S35. The lenses incorporate the Cooke look in a modern anamorphic series with 2x horizontal compression and exhibit many of the hallmark scope characteristics previously discussed. Anamorphic lenses with strong barrel distortion can suffer from image artifacts during pans and tilts so optical designer Iain Neil induced slight pincushion distortion at the edges of the image to eliminate this “swimming” effect.

In time and with the adoption of larger capture format Cooke turned their hand to full frame anamorphics and in 2018 released the Full Frame Plus Anamorphic/i Lenses. A 1.8x squeeze factor was chosen as the best way to deliver the desired characteristics of traditional 2x anamorphic whilst more efficiently covering the aspect ratios of modern digital sensors.

For both these anamorphic lenses Cooke also released a “Special Flair” version of the series with more enhanced flare characteristics synonymous with older anamorphic glass. There is also a macro lens in each series offering unique anamorphic possibilities.

 

An example of anamorphic lens flare
Cooke Anamorphic/i FF SF flare - La Cabeza de Joaquín Murrieta, Paulo Perez, ADFC
Anamorphic still 1
Anamorphic still 2
Poker Face, Aaron McLisky, ACS & Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Glen Keenan, CSC Shot on Cooke Anamorphic/i FF

Zooming and anamorphic?

An anamorphic lens is already a more involved design than a spherical one – adding the ability to zoom to that is a real engineering feat. As a workaround many anamorphic zooms on the market are rear-converted conventional spherical zooms but as previously mentioned the distinct characteristics are drastically reduced or completely lacking in rear-anamorphic. Rear anamorphic lenses also suffer loss of light and image quality compared to front-anamorphic. Thankfully there are some front anamorphic zoom options out there and included in this are two modern offerings from Cooke. The 35-140mm T3.1 released in 2016 and the 45-405mm T4.5 released a year later.

Cooke anamorphic zoom lens

Cooke Anamorphic/i S35, 35 – 140mm zoom

Anamorphic lenses have their origins in the desire for windscreen presentation but owe their longevity and allure to the unique aesthetic and characteristics they allow cinematographers to utilise. Whether it’s wanting to add an element of the mysterious to an image, create an impact with distinct flares or underpin the look of imaginary worlds, anamorphic lenses are an invaluable option for creating a unique and emotional look.