Just days after launching a video featuring Panasonic’s new anamorphic feature for the GH4, it had received more than 15,000 views. That’s awesome, but we also received a lot of tweets and emails asking “What’s the big deal with anamorphic?” As we attempted to reply to the messages it was obvious that a better approach was to write a post on the topic. So, here we go!
A Brief History of Aspect Ratios
Before the introduction of sound, the entire width of the film was exposed. This format, known today as Super 35 (25mm x 18.7mm) is pretty much the same format developed by Edison at the very beginning of motion picture film.
With the introduction of sync sound around 1930, room had to be made on the negative for the optical track reducing the area to 21.95mm x 18.6mm. This format is often known as “Academy Aperture.”
The need for a wider format that didn’t require special cameras or wide-screen projection equipment gave birth to the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Anything wider than this is still considered widescreen. When shot for broadcast release, the 1.33 (4×3) aspect ratio is still very popular.
For true widescreen, anamorphic lenses squeeze the image onto a 35mm film or sensor giving it an aspect ratio of 1.18:1. During projection, it is then expanded to provide a wider image; generally 2.35:1.
In the past, a special lens was attached in front of the prime lens which compressed the image horizontally. With current anamorphic lenses, the horizontal compression happens in the lens itself.
Widescreen is usually associated with epics and war movies, but you don’t need thousands of extras and vast landscapes to fill the frame.
Simply put, we are still shooting into a square-ish piece of film or sensor but as filmmakers and viewers we want to work and watch a more rectangular, wider shape. In other words, we are trying to shoot aspect ratios that don’t correspond with the camera’s aspect ratio. And to make things more interesting, we don’t want to waste a single piece of film or pixel.
There are currently two standards for cinema release: 1.85 and 2.40. The aspect ratio for HDTV broadcast is 16×9 (1.78:1). Since 1.78 is so close to 1.85 many people shoot in 16×9. If your project will only be distributed online, 16×9 makes a lot of sense. If you prefer 2.40 you will have a letterboxed image on a 16×9 TV set.
Making the choice between 1.85 and 2.40 can be an extremely subjective decision. Kevin Reynolds shot “Waterworld“ in 1.85 because “a sailing boat on the ocean was essentially a vertical subject matter.” The very next year Ridley Scott shot “White Squall“ in 2.40 because “the ocean itself is a horizontal subject matter.” Roger Deakins shot “Prisoners” in 1:85 because “it just felt right.”
For “The Theory of Everything” cinematographer Benoit Delhomme chose spherical lenses for the first part of the film and when Dr. Hawking is diagnosed with ALS; he later switched to anamorphic lenses and used them until the conclusion of the film. Delhomme’s goal was to show that Hawking’s perception of the world and space had drastically changed. “The anamorphic lenses gave a slight feeling of distortion and a more shallow depth of field. I think that even the normal audience can feel that optical shift. It was an idea I had early on during the prep and I was so pleased that the director James Marsh embraced that idea immediately,” according to Delhomme. “The first part was set in the 1950s and I wanted to capture the romance of the time, make it beautiful but simple. The second half was more interesting to film, and as a DP I could express myself more artistically. I wanted to give the audience a slight feeling of distortion to link to Stephen’s horrible news of his diagnosis.”
Trent Opaloch (the director of District 9, Elysium, and Captain America among others) shot “Chappie” in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio mostly because he “grew up loving movies from the 70s that were mostly shot in Panavision anamorphic.” He especially liked the way anamorphic “renders backgrounds and throws your attention to the focal plane.”
As you can see, there are many reasons why directors and filmmakers would consider shooting anamorphic. From the psychological (“The Theory of Everything”) to the personal (Trent Opaloch) or like the grand master Deakins says, ”because it feels right.”
A great benefit of the 4:3 sensor (like the Panasonic GH4) to shoot anamorphic lenses is that it closely matches the physical 4-perf 35mm film size, matching the lens’s angle of view.
With the Alexa 4:3 cameras, the full area of the sensor is used and a much higher image quality is retained. In addition, the unique optical characteristics of anamorphic lenses—the magic at the heart of anamorphic cinematography—are rendered faithfully and fully in the digital image.
For most productions outside your traditional Hollywood studios, swapping from spherical to anamorphic lenses is simply cost prohibitive. Not only do you need two sets of lenses but you either waste precious time changing lenses, matte boxes, and accessories or you opt for acquiring different cameras for each set of lenses. That is, until now. The new Arri Alexa XT Open Gate camera can be rebooted to select a different sensor size and load the pre-determined aspect ratio, frame rate, ISO, and other settings.
Advantages of shooting anamorphic
According to David Mullen ASC, “When James Ivory shot ‘Howard’s End‘ in 2.40, he found that he could hold more characters in a row in medium shot with the wider aspect ratio, whereas in 1.85 he would have had to back up the camera to hold the same number of people. So 2.40 worked well for dinner table scenes where he wanted to keep more than one character in the frame. Conversely, with 2.40 it can be harder to frame out things sometimes due to the naturally wider view of the space.”
Some high-end anamorphic lenses like the Master Anamorphics capture every pixel on the sensor but without much distortion.
When racking focus with spherical lenses, the image appears to expand or diminish slightly. The “out of focus” subject/object appears to stretch lightly and there’s a more obvious horizontal effect.
We can see a good example of this at the beginning of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when Belloq turns toward the camera with the natives behind him. The focus follows him and you can see, more than usual, how anamorphic lenses distort what is behind the plane of focus.
“The Imposter” by Bart Layton was shot in 2.35 to include as much as the interviewees’ homes as possible. They also used zoom lenses to reframe the subject according to the intimacy of their stories. The Imposter himself was the only subject talking directly to the camera, using the “Interrotron” method, made famous by Errol Morris.
Disadvantages of shooting anamorphic
Anamorphic lenses are typically slower than standard spherical lenses and because of the in-lens horizontal squeeze the depth-of-field is half of that for the same image size. Because of this, shooting anamorphic typically requires more light, which can translate into additional time and money.
Additionally, unless we are shooting on very high-end systems like an Arri Alexa, we still need an external device to expand the image during production. Luckily we now have at least two wonderful and affordable options, SmallHD DP7 and Atomos Shogun.
When shooting digital, increased resolution is no longer the main reason to shoot in anamorphic. One would do it more for aesthetic reasons, like anamorphic lens artifacts. Or just for fun!
Eduardo Angel is an independent Technology Consultant, Educator, and Emmy Award winning Visual Storyteller based in Brooklyn, NY. He currently teaches at The School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography, and mentors the photography program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Eduardo is a co-founder of the idea production company The Digital Distillery, author of popular filmmaking courses on Lynda.com, and regularly shares his thoughts on technology, photography, and cinema on his website eduardoangel.com