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#21 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 02 January 2016 - 11:41 PM

Certainly Super-Speeds have character at f/2.8 and lower, but stopped down, I don't see much difference with Ultra Primes.

 

Again, why is it always necessary for a lens to have character?  


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#22 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 02 January 2016 - 11:48 PM

I don't think it's always necessary; but I think of it like food-- sure i can survive on something rather bland-- but in the end why would I want to? That isn't that they don't serve a purpose; they of course do, but we're going moreso here for favorites, things we enjoy and things we don't.


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#23 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 03 January 2016 - 12:07 AM

But the image isn't just the lens, it's what the lens is photographing.  It's not always necessary for the lens to add an extra visual element to the subject if the subject is interesting enough, whether a human face or a landscape, sometimes an accurate representation of what is in front of the camera is enough. Just depends on the project.  If I am shooting a close-up of a beautiful actress, a "bland" lens isn't going to make her less interesting to look at.  Same goes for an amazing sunset over the desert; it's not like a characterless lens is going to turn it into a boring sunset.

 

Also, filters can add character to a lens that is bland.  Sometimes if I know I am doing a filtered movie, I prefer to use the sharpest, most contrasty lenses so I can control the degree of image degradation I am adding with filters.

 

Plenty of interesting-looking movies have been shot on Ultra Primes, from "Ida" to "Amelie".


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#24 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 03 January 2016 - 12:14 AM

I think part of the problem is that I'm not much of a lens fetishist -- I've shot on Primos, Master Primes, Ultra Primes, Super Speeds, Cooke S4's... I actually think they are all fine in most situations.  They've never made or broken the photography.  If I chose one or the other, it's either going to be a weight/size issue, a speed issue, or an intercutability with zooms issue.


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#25 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 03 January 2016 - 12:23 AM

Well David, you're of course right, but, I think for most of us it isn't fetish, it's more so a deeper question of what cinema can be. We can, of course, make great images despite our lenses, or through them, or however the semantics want to put it. But, at the end of it all there is a deep question about the image; whether we should err more towards an unadulterated recording of reality (as best one can) or a heavier handed, I suppose, commentary on it?

For myself, and I think many, right now, we are faced with looking at images which are too "perfect" and which lack a certain feel we have become accustomed to. Maybe this is due to the deeper issue of being surrounded by moving images and images more and more, or maybe it's just a trend, I don't know. But, I think what people are reacting to, by selecting a lens with a character, is the need to, within a certain extent, be surprised.

The "characteristic" lenses keep you a bit on your toes, and much, for me at least, like those many shots I've fretted over screwing up on film-- only to be pleasantly surprised when it came back-- something like an UP just makes the day dull.

But then again, all this comes down to how each of us as an image maker approaches our situation. I don't think there is a specific this is the right way or the wrong way to do it. I will say, though, that having been thrown into more bland situations than I care to count at the level at which I'm working (and yes, much like Shallow DoF fads of times past) there are moment on, say an Epic, where having a wonky old Lomo or something on the front of her can help elevate what's being recorded a little bit beyond what i'd get, all things equal, on a more "perfect," lens.


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#26 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 03 January 2016 - 01:10 AM

I'm not against using every trick in the toolbox to create a look, it's just that sometimes I think people give too much emphasis to something that is not the icing on the cake, but the sprinkles on the icing on the cake.

 

I guess it's just a perspective thing, when I start obsessing over a 1/8 Black Satin versus a 1/8 Hollywood Black Magic, or an Ultra Prime versus a Primo, I think about whether I am missing the big picture, or relying on tricks, or making too much out of the tools and not thinking enough about the real image basics: lighting, composition, movement, etc.  

 

I remember years ago doing some 35mm feature with a budget of only $100,000 and we had to use stock that Kodak had just obsoleted with newer stocks, 5247 instead of the new 5248 and 5294 instead of the new 5296.  But as I was thinking "I can't believe I have to use this older, softer, grainier stock"... I then read that "Legends of the Fall", which had come out the year before, had been shot on these two stocks. I felt a little foolish thinking that these stocks weren't good enough for me.  Same goes for an Ultra Prime, one might think "hell, this is a boring lens" and then remember that movies shot on it like "Ida" and "Amelie" were anything but boring-looking.  I guess what it boils down to is wondering whether I'm over-thinking things, tool-wise.

 

We all get passionate about the tools of our trade, that's part of the mentality of a crafts person, but it doesn't hurt to now and then step back and remember the relative importance of these tools in the overall picture.  Ultimately, what makes a great piece of cinematography isn't the bokeh of an anamorphic lens or the flare from a Cooke Panchro, it's more likely to center on the basics of the subject, lighting, composition, focal length, etc.  The shot is probably not going to succeed or fail because an Ultra Prime was chosen instead of a Cooke S4.


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#27 Robin R Probyn

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Posted 03 January 2016 - 02:37 AM

Is it not anyway better to go with a "clean boring" lens and add "character" with way more  control in post..  if character is a lens being warmer or less "perfect" I presume meaning less optically sharp.. all this can be done in post .. as presumably it was in the non boring films mentioned shot on boring lenses.. ?


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#28 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 03 January 2016 - 02:39 AM

Adrian, this is exactly how I'm feeling right now. Maybe that has to do with being journeymen working on a lot of low budget projects where we're often asked to make up for the shortcomings of other departments instead of being equal collaborators on a strong team. I feel like this is much less of an issue once you are shooting projects beyond a certain budget level. Of course, David is right that memorable images are made by a collaboration of talented people, not the tools. But when you have to pull a rabbit out of your hat on a regular basis, having the right hat can make that a lot easier.
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#29 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 03 January 2016 - 03:13 AM

I'm just trying to imagine a scenario where a shot would fail or not work or look bad because it was shot on a Ultra Prime but suddenly work and look great when you switched to a Cooke S4. I didn't sit through "Amelie" thinking "what's wrong with this picture? I know, it was shot on Ultra Primes!" There are shots in Emmanuel Lubezki's movies like "Tree of Life" that used Ultra Primes. Darius Wolkski uses Ultra Primes, are all of these guys -- and me -- blind because they can't see what's so wrong with these lenses?

Really we are talking about a difference more subtle than the lightest diffusion filter ever made would create, more subtle than the differences between two film stocks, and more subtle than the difference between a prime and a zoom.

So what rabbit would be pulled out, what problem would be solved, by a Cooke S4 that an Ultra Prime would fail at? I'm all for tools that solve problems on sets... Are you saying, for example, that you couldn't make an actress look good if you had an Ultra Prime? That you couldn't pull off some Steadicam move?

Again, I'm just suggesting a little perspective here on the relative level of effect that these choices make. I'm not saying that there aren't differences in look but I'm suggesting that they are relatively subtle.

I'm speaking as someone who deliberately would switch things up from project to project, alternating between Kodak, Fuji, and Agfa, between Panavision and ARRI, etc. I know there are differences in look that all these choices make, but some decisions are bigger than others.

Anyway, I just don't get the hostility towards a workhorse lens like an Ultra Prime. I guess I'm not very emotional about lenses, to me they are just tools.
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#30 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 03 January 2016 - 03:48 AM

It's not necessarily hostility, it's just not liking the images it produces out of the box, on it's own and being more moved and attracted to another lens out of the box on it's own. In a world of choices, why wouldn't you want to go with what you, yourself like? Why the need to embrace what you don't value? This isn't to say one person's or another person's values should be the same, but it is to say that while it might not mean a thing to anyone else, that you are a craftsman have stood up and said, when it comes to my own work, this is what I value.
That's voice and as we DPs are increasingly muted by technology and politics, it is very important, I think, to use that voice as best you can.


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#31 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 03 January 2016 - 03:49 AM

I don't think there is anything wrong with the Ultra Primes at all, to me they are just as you say, great workhorse lenses. Maybe others here will disagree. Hell, they looked great on 'The Fellowship of the Ring'.

That's a particularly good example given the incredible amount of work that went into production design, sets, costumes, locations, miniatures, special and visual effects. On the one hand, perhaps the film would have looked even more lush and otherworldly had it been shot on 'scope lenses like 'The Empire Strikes Back' or 'Legend.' Or it may have just complicated the effects work to the point that certain composite shots between the full-sized and hobbit-sized Bag End sets may not have been possible, lessening the otherworldly quality of the film overall. The film works so well to transport you to another time and place because of the collaboration of excellent craftspeople. The scope lens artifacts would be the sprinkles on top in this case.

On the other hand, when you are given a crappy white room or a dull office space to photograph you are relying on the shallow depth with waterfall bokeh to render the art on the back wall in a pleasing way, the odd kick off of the desk lamp practical, and the falloff and curvature of field to spice up an otherwise dull frame. And now the scope lens is more like the cream filling instead of just sprinkles. I think that's all we are saying. When all you afford to eat is cup o'noodle, do what you can to spice it up and hope to move on to bigger and better things where these tricks are no longer necessary because you can afford real food that tastes good on it's own. :)
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#32 Phil Rhodes

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Posted 03 January 2016 - 06:50 AM

One man's character is another man's promist!


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#33 Robin R Probyn

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Posted 03 January 2016 - 08:50 AM

But arnt you all shooting RAW or least Log on drama /commercial,s .. then surely the lens coating etc will make no difference in post when you can dial in what ever you want..  then its just rental cost,size,weight considerations ?


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#34 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 03 January 2016 - 11:24 AM

I think since I use some form of diffusion on 70% of what I shoot, what interests me about a lens is mainly that it has enough contrast and sharpness to compensate for the diffusion, which I'm mainly using to get halation.

 

One interesting thing to me is the difference between "The Revenant" versus "The Hateful Eight" in terms of lenses because essentially with "The Revenant" the lenses were picked for not adding character to the image, just for their perspective and lack of flare, otherwise the image is very pristine like you are looking through a clear window.  "The Hateful Eight" on the other hand, despite being shot on 65mm film, chose to use 1950/60's anamorphic optics with a lot of character, flare, and some distortion as a mild form of diffusion.  

 

I liked both approaches.  The thing is, I like variety, and that includes the option of using lenses with character or using boring lenses and adding the character in other ways like diffusion, smoke, etc.

 

But then, I'm not a lens owner, I've never had to make a choice as to which type of lens set I would put my own money down on.  I suspect that if money were no object, I'd probably both get a set of super-clean, sharp lenses like Zeiss Master Primes or the Leicas, and a set of old Cooke Panchros, B&L Baltars, Lomos, or something else with a ton of character.


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#35 Bill DiPietra

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Posted 03 January 2016 - 12:33 PM

Very interesting discussion. 

 

Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of experience with different lenses, but I am a lens owner.  I have a set of Zeiss Planars - 16mm, 32mm & 50mm - as well as a 9mm Cooke Kinetal, all with Arriflex standard mounts.  Old lenses, but really nice.  They have a soft, filmic quality to them and I was lucky to get them in very good condition.

 

I definitely want to get experience with other lenses out there.  I remember watching Monster's Ball (2001) and falling in love with the milky circle of confusion those lenses created.  I initially thought they used Panavison Primos, but according to IMDb it was shot with Zeiss Standard Speeds and Angenieux HRs.


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#36 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 03 January 2016 - 02:13 PM

I like and use the old Schneider Kreuznach Cine Xenon because of how organic they look, the softness and the bokeh, which is beautiful and very special.

 

They are great, and probably my favorite vintage lenses. But hard to consistently find at rental houses unless you're in the production hubs.


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#37 Stuart Brereton

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Posted 04 January 2016 - 12:39 AM

Certainly Super-Speeds have character at f/2.8 and lower, but stopped down, I don't see much difference with Ultra Primes.

 

Again, why is it always necessary for a lens to have character?  

 

It's not about using lenses which are soft, or flare easily, or which have other aberrations, it's more about finding a set of lenses which look subjectively 'good'. It's no different from choosing Kodak stock over Fuji, or deciding that you prefer Sony color to Arri color.


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#38 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 04 January 2016 - 01:36 AM

So it's not about choosing a lens for various image characteristics like flare, contrast, bokeh, sharpness... and yet it's about choosing a lens because it is subjectively "good" but that good cannot be measured or even defined?

 

I know we are artists and there is some emotional gut feeling aspect to what we do, but I also am someone who likes to get at the heart of something, understand it -- like what exactly are the differences between Sony color or Arri color, what are the differences between Kodak and Fuji?  I've never been comfortable with the pseudo-science thinking that goes on in the film industry though obviously one can do great artistic work without needing to think scientifically.

 

For example, when I started shooting, one thing that I read was statements by people like John Alonzo and William Fraker that you have to "put light on your blacks if you want them to look black".  Like pounding a black-tiled bathroom with light to make the blacks black.  This didn't sit well with me because what if your black was truly black and not an object, like a dark hole lined with black velvet, or a moment when the camera lens gets covered with the lens cap, some blackness you couldn't light but you wanted it to be a pure black.

 

The more I thought about it, I realized that there were two different components to achieving good blacks in print, one technical and one perceptual.

 

Technically, a good black was essentially when the print achieved D-max and couldn't get any denser, and that was a function of the print stock and the printer lights used. It had nothing to do with how much light you poured onto a black object.

 

The perceptual aspect was that something looks black relative to something bright, so highlights and points of light will make surrounding blackness look blacker to one's eye.

 

And you could say there was a third aspect, which is that while it might be a good idea to see texture in a black object through lighting, that's really not about achieving pure black, by definition if there are details in the black, those details are lighter than black, that's why you see them!

 

As for the notion that there is something wrong with a boring characterless lens, again, I think the subject matter in front of the lens should be taken into consideration as to whether you need the extra "character" of an interesting lens if the subject is already interesting.  A white T-shirt, for example, is rather boring as a piece of wardrobe, but if Scarlett Johansson is wearing that T-shirt, suddenly it seems less boring...  So if I'm shooting a spectacular sunset, I might not need or want the lens to add more character to the image.

 

I just have a feeling that if I went to a rental house and borrowed an Alexa and went out into the parking lot and did a wide shot with an Ultra Prime and a Cooke S4 at, let's say, f/5.6 -- same focal length, same composition -- and posted a frame online, most people would say the images look almost identical, they wouldn't label one "good" and the other "bad", or one "interesting" and the other "boring".

 

I also think that some of you should give yourself more credit, if your work is interesting, I wouldn't give a big portion of the credit to your lens, I'd give it your eye and how you handle light, exposure, composition, color, etc.

 

I respect a lot of people in this industry, and some of my heroes prefer Cookes over Zeiss, others prefer Leicas over either, some of the greatest cinematographers working today are using Zeiss Ultra Primes and some other great cinematographers say they would rather never use those lenses.  Who is right and who is wrong?  If Shane Hurlbut says that Cooke S4's are beautiful and Leicas are boring and then maybe Jeff Cronenweth or Claudio Miranda says that he loves the Leicas over the Cookes... who is right?  If you respect someone like Emmanuel Lubezki who uses Zeiss Ultra Primes, then how can you say that he's making a bad choice?  I think if you gave Roger Deakins a Cooke or a Zeiss, he'd make a great image with either one.

 

I think with a lot of projects that Lubezki or Deakins shoots, they aren't looking for the lens to add an extra characteristic or texture to the scene, other than the perspective due to the focal length.  Look at how Deakins has avoided anamorphic lenses for most of his career, for example.


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#39 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 04 January 2016 - 03:26 AM

Another thing is that the lens is one element in the image formation process - there are the filters in front of the lens and the sensor or film stock behind it, and then there is the color-correction step in post.  One cinematographer may prefer a film stock with a very accurate, even "boring", representation of reality but use a lens with character as a way of adding texture, and yet another may prefer a film stock that has a lot of character, and maybe is a bit soft and grainy, but then want a very clean, sharp, and accurate "boring" lens in front of that stock.  And another cinematographer may use a boring lens but with an interesting filter in front of it.  And another may create the "character" or texture to the image in post.


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#40 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 05 January 2016 - 12:21 AM

We are probably just as likely to get distracted from the actual job of storytelling by tools and tricks as producers and directors are. It's just human nature to try and make sense of the world by creating formulas I guess. When I share frame grabs of my work now, I try to avoid listing any tech specs unless asked since the tech shouldn't really matter. There's still a part of my brain that wants to though.

I think a lot of us are trying to find ways of introducing an element of magic or mystery back into our craft - that really is at the heart of some of the responses, in my opinion. But it becomes a bit of a grey area, since we also don't want to stifle the spirit of sharing knowledge and experience. It would suck to go back to the old days of every cinematographer being an island unto themselves, jealously guarding their own tricks of the trade.

Also, in some ways this is a much bigger issue for younger, less experienced cinematographers like me who have yet to make their stamp on the craft. When you have a large body of work behind you that demonstrates a consistent visual aesthetic and artistic process, then it's easier to avoid talking about tools since the work speaks for itself. The aesthetic attributes ascribed to particular tools stands in as a shorthand for the type of work we hope to make. It's about trying to establish your voice by saying, I like this but I don't like that.
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