Earlier today I had a brief, but nice, conversation with some of the good folks over at Panamorph. Panamorph, for those who may be unaware, is company based out of Colorado that specializes in anamorphic lens attachments for consumer grade front projectors -i.e. home theater. I’ve been a fan of Panamorph for a while, and have even used their product(s) from time to time. I was calling because I wanted to use one of their products in a shoot I’m doing next week, which inevitably sparked a conversation over whether or not I’d be filming my next project in the aspect ratio known as anamorphic or 16:9.

Example of an anamorphic lens, note the curve of the front glass.

Anamorphic is in reference to a lens that was developed some time ago that features a special type of cylindrical glass that when used is capable of optically “squeezing” a wider field of view onto an existing 35mm frame of film. This in turn gave rise to formats known as Cinemascope and the like. It is possible to achieve a variety of different aspect ratios when using anamorphic glass, though the most common aspect ratios used to describe the  format are 2.35:1 or 2.40:1. The numbers 2.35:1 or 2.40:1 simply refer to the image’s ratio of width to height; meaning, it’s 2.35 times wider than it is per unit of measurement in height. In inches it would equate to 2.35 inches of width per every 1 inch of height. When viewing anamorphic content this 2.35:1 ratio results in an image that is decidedly wider than those captured natively via 35mm film. In movie theaters this is often visible by either the top and bottom of the screen lowering and/or rising before the start of the show, or with the sides opening up. In your home, when viewing anamorphic content via your typical HDTV, the result is black bars top and bottom, not wholly unlike what we lived with back in the pre-HD days of 4:3 TVs.

Above example of the 16:9 aspect ratio used by today’s HDTV standard and the 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio within that same 16:9 space. Note the bars top and bottom.

For many, the aspect ratio associated with anamorphic content is where their knowledge and/or interest stops. But there’s more to it than that. A lot more. Because the images being captured are done so through cylindrical glass interesting visual traits are achieved as a result. For starters, light doesn’t flare in a circular fashion but rather in a horizontal one. Think of films such as J.J. Abrams’ relaunch of “Star Trek” or “Super 8″ and you’ll quickly understand what I’m talking about. For many, these horizontal flares are not only desirable but also a mark of perceived production value. The latter no doubt the cause of a booming streak filter market aimed at “cheating” the anamorphic look without actually having to resort filming with anamorphic lenses. There are other traits too, anamorphic changes the way both depth of field and resulting bokeh are rendered. Its wider than widescreen view can also help to convey space more effectively, which can be used to both awe inspiring and/or dramatic effect. Above all it is most definitely a style, one who’s roots are very much in line with what many perceive as “cinematic”.

The horizontal light streaks (lens flare) are a result of filming via an anamorphic lens. Source: “Super 8″

From a more technical side, filming using true anamorphic lenses or attachments means that you’re using 100-percent of your negative or digital sensor. It also means that in order to be viewed correctly, either at the cinema or home theater level, a similar type of anamorphic lens must also be used. Without, you either suffer a stretched image or endure black bars top and bottom of your screen -albeit on an HDTV or front projection screen. Because of anamorphic’s so-called “special” requirements both at capture and exhibition, it has somewhat been reduced to a mere aspect ratio -a number -or worse, fallen victim to cheats.

One of the benefits of digital capture as opposed to analog is control. With today’s digital cameras, and even projectors, it is possible to capture and/or project an image using but a part of the available sensor space. If such a thing were possible with analog film it would be similar to pre-exposing the top and bottom portion of the negative before hand and then putting in one’s camera to shoot*.  The result of course is a “native” 2.35:1 or anamorphic image. But is it really? For all intents and purposes the resulting image is a native 2.35:1 aspect ratio image, though I wouldn’t classify it as an anamorphic one. You could employ special streak filters and the like and probably fool most everyone, but it wouldn’t be anamorphic.

Filming in anamorphic is a style choice. A look. Like tubes to an audiophile, anamorphic evokes a certain feeling. Both a V8 Mustang and a 4-cylinder Subaru may hit the same speeds at the same time, but no one would say the driving experience of either were remotely the same. The same is true for anamorphic. While anamorphic in general may require a touch more effort to film in and to get right upon exhibition, the resulting experience is one that resonates beyond mere numbers. It’s in anamorphic’s quirks and imperfections that we often find beauty. Beauty that we inexplicably try to capture elsewhere and by other means cinematically, and yet never really manage to convey convincingly. That’s because anamorphic is more than just an aspect ratio and a couple of light flares, it’s an intangible.

As always I thank you all so much for reading. Until next time, take care and stay tuned…

Andrew

*Following the writing of this post I was contacted by a reader and filmmaker who informed me that such a form of analog “cropping” exists. Techniscope is a type of 35mm film that essentially uses only a portion of the negative that when used in conjunction with NON-anamorphic lenses still results in an anamorphic-like aspect ratio. It should be noted however that Techniscope is not true anamorphic but rather an ingenious ”cheat” so to speak. Still, it is somewhat widely used in cinema. The more you know. 

UPDATE: Please read my follow up article, Is Anamorphic Still Relevant? 

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