Home Brew Anamorphic Lenses

As I mentioned in my recent post, I love looking for ways to create a look in-camera so as to create something a bit more original rather than relying solely on post and a grade to create a look. Not only that, there’s nothing like taking a genuine risk to get your images.

I was asked to shoot a Screen Australia short film for the Cairnes brothers, Celestial Avenue. I’m sure you’ll be hearing a lot more from them over time and the film itself has proven very successful. It was just nominated for a 2010 IF award off the back of winning Best Film at the  Flickerfest 2009 and official selection at Slamdance 2009.


Celestial Avenue is a love story.  Kath is looking for love in all the wrong places. In Chinatown in the middle of a less than successful blind date, she overhears the soulful Cantonese singing of Ah Gong. Kath is intrigued. Is there more to Ah Gong than meets the eye?

We originally wanted to shoot on 35mm Anamorphic, but circumstances conspired against us. (Screen Oz put a ban on us shooting film !). Directors Colin and Cameron Cairnes wanted to reference 70’s Hong Kong visuals and they felt anamorphic would be a big part of the visual style.

So I thought about how to re-create an anamorphic look on video.  And this is the important bit….Anamorphic lenses have a very distinctive look. They tend to have associations with cool blue lens flares, but I think they just do amazing things to an image in a very imperfect way. But there’s a really beauty to their imperfections.

One way would be to use 35mm anamorphic lenses on a camera like the RED, but there are lots of issues that I wasn’t happy with in this scenario that are probably too complex to go into here. The main issue is that 35mm anamorphic lenses squeeze the image horizontally by a factor of 2 or 2X. Most digital cameras can’t capture the full size of that image with their 16×9 sensors.

Panasonic anamorphic lens adaptor


And then I remembered that Panasonic made an anamorphic lens adaptor for their old 4×3 DVX100 consumer camera.  When they first came out, there was a problem with making 16×9 sensors in a camera that size, so their temporary solution was to use an optical anamorphic adaptor on the front to get 16×9 images from their 4×3 video.

That meant that Panasonic’s adaptor was a 1.3x squeeze.  And if I applied that to a 16×9 image I’d get an aspect ratio of 2.43…very close to the official widescreen aspect ratio of 2.40.

I had a eureka moment when I realised that the relatively new Si2K camera was a 2/3″ camera that could take PL mount lenses. MK2 super speeds would be small enough to have the anamorphic adaptor fitted to the front.

What did it mean ? Well, I now had a way of shooting full height anamorphic images using a $200 plastic lens that had been frankensteined for another purpose. The directors Colin and Cameron were understandably nervous but when they saw the first tests they started to get excited.

framegrab from the first test shoot


Although the pictures were starting to come together, it was still a  big risk.  Focus became a big problem.  The adaptor made the witness marks on the lens next to useless. And every time you changed to a different lens, focus would change again.  It meant that Josh Flavel, my long-suffering focus puller would have to eye focus each and every shot.  It would mean having to allow more time for each camera setup.  We wouldn’t be able to turnover shots as quickly.    We had to make the choice to take the drawbacks with the good as well and modify our shooting style.

It’s hard to describe the quality. Logic says this cheap adaptor that literally is a plastic lens bolted onto the front of 25 year old 16mm primes on a top shelf digital cinema camera shouldn’t look very good at all. And in some ways it did look soft….but in a beautiful kind of way that was unique. I was lucky enough to see the film finished all the way to a DCP or digital cinema print by my very good friends down at Deluxe Melbourne

It looked magnificent on the big screen, even if I do say so myself.

(Actual frame-grabs. Click for larger versions)

Celestial Avenue frame-grab. Cath Moore as Kath

Celestial Avenue frame-grab. Gabrielle Chan as Madame Wong

Celestial Avenue frame-grab. Jason Gann as Joel

Celestial Avenue frame-grab. Jin Yi as Chef Wong

Watch the film !

About johnbrawley

Director Of Photography striving to create compelling images
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3 Responses to Home Brew Anamorphic Lenses

  1. James says:

    Where did you get your hands on a that adapter, been trying to track one down that isn’t over $800

  2. Pingback: 100 Bloody Acres – A film shooting in January | johnbrawley

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