Lately I had the chance to shoot a lot with vintage anamorphic lenses and I sometime had a pretty hard time dealing with them, not only focus wise but really in general. And I have the feeling that sometime directors or Dop forget that everything is a tool and every job have a specific "tool" that fits best its needs. Here you have an example: last week I have been shooting in Southern Spain with a foreign production a commercial. We had to shoot a lot, in quiet a few different locations, almost everything was going to be handheld and we were a relatively small crew, meaning that the camera crew was only the dop who also operating the camera, a focus puller and a 2nd camera assistant. The Dop and director choice about camera and lenses was Alexa xt and vintage Elite anamorphic lenses. Now, for those of you who don't know them, you have to think than they are huge, and when I say huge I mean that the 75mm (for instance) has a length of approximately 40cm and a weight of about 10kg (which is even more than the camera itself with its 8,3kg). So, when I was sweating under the burning June sun in the sand of a beach, I couldn't help but ask myself "is this really the best choice for this particular job?" And I came up with this five questions
WHAT YOU SHOULD ASK YOURSELF BEFORE SHOOTING WITH VINTAGE ANAMORPHIC LENSES
1 How fast will you need to be?
Specially when you don't have a full camera crew (and when I say full I mean Dop, camera op, focus puller, 2nd AC, video assist and DIT), you need to consider that this kind of glasses are big and heavy, they pretty always need a supporting bridge and a 6x6 mattebox (in our case even that wasn't enough for the 32mm and the 40mm), and sometimes the bridge gets in the way of the follow focus or hits the sliding tail so if you have a lot of shots in your call sheet and you need to be really fast maybe these lenses are not what suits you best . Of course the look they give is very important for your project but at the end of the day what really matters is that you could shot everything you need for your story.
2. What movements will you need to do?
Once again, with a camera set up that weights that much, if you want to go hand held or on a steadicam things are going to get rough for the operator and it's not just a matter of him getting tired, thing is that a tired cam op is less precise and can not give you all the takes you may need. Are you open to having shaky or imprecise shots because of the anamorphic look?
3.How the focus rack will be?
The world of vintage lenses is a real jungle where you're never sure about what you're going to get. Some set are in stunning conditions and the focus ring is as smooth as it gets, but others have really strong focus rings that sometimes even give problems with motors of FIZ systems (trust me, I've been there). Also, depending on where the anamorphic element is in the lens architecture, the focus racs will produce very visible geometric aberrations. So, if you're shooting action or fast things that need quick and nervous focus racking you may want to consider some other options.
4. At what stop are you going to shoot?
It is true that there are some vintage sets that are pretty fast and can open at T2 or 2.2, but always keep in mind that anamorphic lenses (just like any other lens, by the way) always perform much worst when wide open and all the flaws becomes much more visible. There are some sets for instance that you need to use at 4 or even 5.6 if you want to get completely rid of cromatic aberration. With the light and the power you are bringing on set, are you gonna be able to do that?
Last but not least, remember that a lot of the vintage anamorphic set have lenses that literrally travel, meaning that the size of the lens during a focus rack changes about 5 or 6 cm and guess what? Sometimes they have very strange front size and is not the same along all the set. Plus, if it does exists, a clip on or adapter ring may not be available. So is not impossible that during a focus rack with filters on a ghost image or weird reflection suddenly appears, and if you are in a hurry in exteriors and/or don't have the possibility to repeat the take, it could be a huge issue.
As I use to say, if you spend some time thinking about what's the best tool for the job, you'll save time, money and have the best possible result. Stay tuned!
Fabio Giolitti - Focus Puller