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Catherine Goldschmidt had the opportunity to test out a set of Arri/Zeiss Master Anamorphic lenses recently. Here’s a rundown of her experiences with the set.

When I met David Green at the Arri booth at BVE a couple weeks ago, everyone was very preoccupied with the new Alexa Mini.  I, however, couldn’t help but notice that there was an almost complete set of Arri/Zeiss Master Anamorphics behind glass.  When I asked David if he could put up a lens on a camera for me, so I could see for myself if there was truly no distortion, truly no breathing, etc., he asked if I’d like to come test out the whole set the following week.  Naturally, I said yes!image (1)

Accompanied by my fellow DoPs Tom Turley and Alberto Balasz, and assisted by Jason Henwood, I was able to look closely at the characteristics of Arri’s own demo set of Master Anamorphics at the Arri offices in Uxbridge last Tuesday.  At our disposal was a set that included a 35mm, 40mm, 50mm, 75mm and 100mm, all T1.9.  The only lenses missing were the 60mm and the 135mm; the latter I’m told is just starting to ship now. 

Although first introduced in September 2012 with the 50mm, the rollout of this impressive set of new glass has been slow, due to their complex design and manufacture.  The new feature film “A Most Violent Year”, out in cinemas now, is getting a lot of press for having been shot with only the 35, 50 and 75mm, as those were the only lenses available at the time of shooting. Currently, there are only three sets available for rental in the UK, two with Arri Media. Each individual lens retails for around €30,000.00, and now, after testing them, I can start to appreciate why.

Tests of the lenses can be seen in the following video, which I will refer to throughout the article:

These lenses do appear to be completely, technically perfect.  The first test we did (which I have not included in the accompanying video- too boring!) was to put up each lens on a resolution chart.  Here, we looked at all the normal things: focus across the entire image, brightness across the entire image, any color shifts between lenses in the set, any distortion on the edges, any changes in sharpness depending on T-stop. 

We discovered, as per Arri’s claims, that each and every lens was sharp all the way across both the width and the height of the image.  There was no darkening in the corners of the image, no distortion of straight lines even on the 35mm, and no apparent change in sharpness depending on the T-stop.  In other words, these lenses can perform wide open!  Color/contrast/look-wise, there were no discrepancies, and I’m told they also match with the Arri/Zeiss Master Primes (though we did not test this particular claim).

The formalities being over and done with, we then got to move on to the more exciting, real-life test scenarios.  We wanted to shoot an interior scene, wide open, to see how the bokeh looked, to see how the flares looked, to see what a human face looked like, etc.  These tests you can see in their entirety in the accompanying video.

We tested the 35mm, the 50mm and the 100mm here, with a subject close in the foreground and some tiny point sources in the deep background.  If you watch or scroll through (sorry, this test is unedited!), you can see that the lenses really don’t breathe at all.  We racked the iris a bit as well as the focus, just to notice the way the bokeh and the flares changed.  (Focus-wise, I feel I should apologize across the board- none of us are focus pullers anymore, and we sat the subject at minimum distance on the 35mm… he is sometimes embarrassingly soft!)

I had read about how the iris itself is ovular to enhance the shape of the bokeh and to make it consistently bright.  I did find the shape to be pleasing, but I also noticed that it does change its shape depending on the angle of the lens.  You can notice the way the shape can shift and bend as we pan and tilt.  I hadn’t read too much about the flares, except that they tried to minimize them somewhat to keep the image cleaner and sharper.  You can see that the wider lens is, and the deeper the stop, the more pronounced and articulated the shape of the flare. 

What was really surprising to me were the harsh and straight blue lines that would sometimes be created with just the right angle of light, at a deeper stop on a wider lens.  See the screen grab below.  When we first saw this in the monitor, we thought we had accidentally left the blue peaking on- but actually, this is an in-camera effect.  We surmised that it’s probably a combination of the lens and the sensor, and that basically the blue channel must be clipping here in order to create such a harsh, bright, unnatural blue.  Not my favorite effect- it screams digital error to me, which sharply contrasts the otherwise filmic look of the skin tones and the focus fall-off.


** Since this test, Arri sent me a link to their new flare sets- replaceable front and rear elements that affect the look of flares.  See bottom of the article for a link…

Being more or less pleased by the indoor, low-light performance of the lenses, we decided to take them outside, to see them resolve the finer details of distant tree leaves contrasted against bright, cloudy skies.  The scenario here was a very strong backlit subject, with no additional fill light to help out the balance.  We wanted to see the way the lenses handled the extreme contrast, and again- we wanted to look at out-of-focus backgrounds, and how they changed their appearance depending on the focal length and T-stop.  We wanted to see how and if the lenses naturally flared, now protected somewhat by a matte-box.  And in a real-life scenario, we checked out once again the 1.4x extender and the internal NDs.

Overall, what did I learn?  Besides corroborating everything I had read and heard about the extraordinary perfection of the lenses, what else did I take away from this exercise?  Spending an afternoon with a set of Master Anamorphics (or really any new piece of kit for that matter), you come away with knowing some facts but also having some opinions.  In my opinion, the lenses perform perfectly well wide-open, but I actually like the look of the bokeh and the fall-off better somewhere around T4.  The lenses are incredibly sharp and contrasty, but in my opinion- a little too sharp. 

I can’t say the flares really do anything for me- they’re fairly subdued, and when you try to exaggerate them- they go crazy, weird, sharp blue.  For something like a high-tech, futuristic Sci-Fi movie, or a super slick car commercial, or as Alberto pointed out- for something with a real emphasis on architecture and straight, clean lines- these lenses are absolutely right.  In fact, they are really the only solution.  I’ve truly never seen anything quite like them.  They’re ideal for visual FX work, and they really do make the focus puller’s job easy (relatively lightweight, matching front diameters, LDS, etc.)  

For me, these lenses are like your favorite, old country vinyl record re-mastered and played on your super-high tech stereo from a digital file.  The image is super clean and crisp, its quality is repeatable and consistent, and its look is totally reminiscent and representative of the classic scope films I grew up loving.  And yet, there is a warmth (not color necessarily- think sound quality) missing, a certain organic unpredictability that can often be so beautiful, as much as it can also be annoying and difficult to work with sometimes.  I love the fact that these lenses exist, because it means that people (or studios or agencies) who might have been afraid of anamorphic in the past now cannot be.  These lenses are safe: they match, they don’t distort, they’re easy to work with, they truly are technically perfect.  Nobody has any excuse now not to shoot the most beautiful format in motion picture history.  Except, of course, that it’s expensive.  Ah- the price of beauty.

** See the new flare sets here: https://vimeo.com/122549891

Catherine Goldschmidt is a Director of Photography, living and shooting in London, Los Angeles and anywhere the next job takes her.  

Posted on Apr 3, 2015

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