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Categories: Features

Catherine Goldschmidt reports on her trip to the Cooke Optics factory, in which she gained insight into their manufacturing processes and why the “Cooke look” is so unique.

On a sunny morning at the end of April, I met up with a small group of cameramen at the Onsight camera hire facility at Shepperton Studios.  After a little caffeine/sugar intake, we bundled into a van and set off on the 2-hour pilgrimage up to Leicester to tour the Cooke Optics factory.  I was thrilled to be invited on this outing organized by Onsight, as Cooke lenses have always held a special mystique for me.  I was eager to see what exactly went into crafting a Cooke lens, and wondered if we would uncover some secret magic formula behind the “Cooke look.”

Before I go into what we did (or did not) discover at Cooke, I should probably give just a little background on Cooke lenses, and their famous (and trademarked, by the way) “Cooke look.”  For those who don’t know, Cooke is one of the oldest and most well-respected cinematography lens manufacturers in the world. 

Founded in 1893 in Leicester, England, Cooke began by making still photographic lenses.  Their portrait or soft-focus lenses were used by early-20th century impressionist photographers such as Clarence White and Alfred Stieglitz.  According to Cooke’s website, a 1913 lens catalogue noted about these lenses: “Whoever expects sharp definition will be disappointed, but the photographer who desires softness and roundness coupled with fine modeling and a true perspective will be both astonished and delighted.”  

Cooke-anamorphic-25mm-135mm (1)

But what about Cooke cine lenses today?  Ed Lachman, one of my favorite cinematographers, is quoted as saying: “Cooke’s have a shapeness, a presence to the image, a roundness, a feeling of giving depth and shape to the image. It’s sharp edge-to-edge but the image has more presence – a depth and shape that’s pleasing to the eye.”  

Personally, I have always been a fan of this indescribable quality of Cookes. It isn’t that they’re not sharp- it’s just that they’re not clinical.  They have a personality, a warmness.  When I shot a 1960s period film last summer (Wishin’ and Hopin’), I opted to use an older set of Cooke Speed Panchros because we wanted a warmer, vintage look.  Yet recently, I just shot a commercial on Cooke S4s to achieve a more contemporary, clean and subtle look.  For me, Cookes are not only classic but also completely and technically up-to-date.  I expected, then, that their factory, and means of manufacture would be a similar mixture of their rich, historical tradition and a much more current approach.  In this, I wasn’t disappointed.

When we arrived at the factory, we were greeted by Robert Howard and Alan Merrills, the CEO and the COO, respectively.  These were to be our tour guides, and I was extremely impressed at their level of knowledge and expertise about the entire process of manufacturing a Cooke lens, from the first acquisition of the glass to the final assembly and inspection.  In other words, if I thought that guys with titles like that were just the suits who pushed the money around, I was very much mistaken.  We were split into two groups and taken around the entire factory floor, everybody having to wear a white lab coat, mostly for visual effect rather than for any practical purpose, I learned to my delight.

Although I took copious notes on the step-by-step method that we were walked through, I’m still not sure I feel adequately informed to write an in-depth summary of the process of manufacturing a lens from start to finish.  Not only that, but it is an extremely technical process (obviously), and I might be hard-pressed to make it a fascinating or insightful read.  Instead, I’ll describe a few highlights of the tour, and I’ll leave the Cooke Optics Factory Tour Video to fill in any gaps, or further illustrate the procedures.

Cooke likes to say its lenses are hand-made.  I didn’t really know what that meant, but after going through the factory and talking with the people on the floor- watching them work on their very specific and dedicated tasks, which involve a very unique set of highly trained skills as well as an in-depth knowledge of what they’re doing and why- I started to appreciate the significance of this statement.  There’s another saying at Cooke: “intolerant when it comes to tolerances.”  I saw that this was also true in everything, at any time.  If a piece of glass has any kind of fault, defect or inclusion at any stage of the process, it gets chucked- no questions asked.  And often, as Alan told us, its difficult or impossible to see any defects until that piece of glass gets pretty far along into the polishing phases.

The polishing might have been my favorite stage, as it utilized what was by far the most beautiful and historic piece of equipment on the floor.  We were told that for the most critical glass elements, the best polisher to use is still one that dates from 1915!  This 100-year old polisher can be seen in the photo below, as well as hard at work in the previously mentioned Cooke Video about 1:20 in…  (Though, true to my expectations of old meets new- at 1:37 you can also see the more modern, computerized polisher, used for the easier diameters and less critical elements.)


Photo credit: Sam Higham

Another interesting part of the process was the coating phase.  Unfortunately, there are no pictures or illustrations of the 1960s massive, million-pound (as in GBP) vat we saw behind glass, which supposedly coats the lenses in a unique co-evaporation process.  Rather than a single-layer coating, which lays on one mineral at a time, the co-evaporation process mixes all the minerals together into a mist which settles over the lenses, reducing flare and reflection and allowing them to be faster and cleaner.  It was at this stage that I was hoping to uncover some secret recipe or ingredient, such as, “Cooke coatings have always used a unique combination of x, y, z minerals”.  Sadly, although I’m sure this may be the case, we were not to learn any such secrets here.

Actually, if I might cut your anticipation short, we didn’t learn any real secrets…period.  And, looking back, I’m sure this is standard procedure.  I mean, we could have been secret Zeiss super spies, for all they knew.  And speaking of Zeiss, the most enlightening and specifically informative part of the tour (my actual favorite part) came at the end, when we were ushered into their projection room to look at one of their brand new Cooke Anamorphics up on the wall.

The Cooke Anamorphics were introduced at NAB last year, in 2014.  On the same Cooke tour last year, Paul Carter of Onsight told me that they weren’t allowed to see these lenses ahead of the NAB unveiling.  Paul and his crew were coming back again this year in the hopes of seeing an in-depth demo of the lenses, now that Cooke has shipped 60 sets in the meantime. 

Sadly, a very thorough demo was not on the cards- but what I did see briefly was still surprising.  A 50mm Cooke Anamorphic was projected on the wall so we could see all the normal things: focus fall-off, resolution across the lens, etc.  Diametrically opposed to Zeiss’s new Master Anamorphics (see my previous review of those lenses here), instead of touting perfectly straight lines, perfectly even focus and resolution, Cooke demonstrated proudly to us that their newest lenses are purposefully not perfect. 

As Alan explained to us, Cooke sees the choice to shoot anamorphic as a choice to shoot something different from the straight spherical perspective.  As a result, Cooke didn’t want to entirely remove certain aspects of the anamorphic look that people have come to expect, ie: focus fall off, slight distortion, etc.  Instead, they wanted to make those irregularities regular throughout their line.   They wanted to develop a set of new, modern lenses, which would be color-matched, fast and light, but with controlled characteristics that still allow the viewer to feel the format.  There are some nice test examples of these lenses on their website, including this clip shot by John de Borman ASC in London:

In this digital age, where a consumer-driven marketplace creates competition for the highest resolution, the clearest, sharpest picture, the greatest amount of quantifiable perfection, it is refreshing to see a respected name in the industry stick to their guns about what they see as quality in an image.  Not only that, but Cooke recognizes that while Red might be pushing an 8K image down our throats, we cinematographers are often looking for what will work against this sharpness, this clean-ness, this characterless same-ness… 

Visiting the Cooke Optics factory drove home for me the idea that sometimes it takes 122 years of experience to know when to stick with the old ways, when to advance with the times, and what special alchemy can occur when you know how to balance these two approaches.

Catherine Goldschmidt

Catherine Goldschmidt is a Director of Photography, living and shooting in London, Los Angeles and anywhere the next job takes her. Her work, both narrative and documentary, has screened at film festivals all over the world including Sundance, SXSW, Toronto and the London Film Festival, among others.

Posted on Jun 1, 2015

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