Widescreen In A Digital World

The anamorphic format was developed during World War I in order to give soldiers a wider view while traveling in tanks. But in the ’50s, with the explosion of television, 20th Century Fox took the technique and created CinemaScope, a marketing ploy to lure audiences back to movie theater seats instead of their couches.

So what exactly are anamorphic lenses, and why should we care? Anamorphic is a format that was (and still is) used to capture widescreen images on standard 35mm film. The lenses typically use cylindrical, or curved, optics to squeeze the image horizontally onto a film frame, and then during projection, the image is "unsqueezed" to a widescreen theater screen by an anamorphic projection lens. The aspect ratio of the widescreen format is usually 2.39:1, but it’s commonly referred to as 2.40:1.

In terms of the look, besides widescreen, anamorphic lenses are typically known for lens flares and a strong bokeh (defocused backgrounds). The flares have a bluish tinge, which have become a cool stylistic effect for many filmmakers. (Even when not shooting with anamorphic lenses, there are VFX plug-ins that can create the flares in post.)

When Super 35mm film became popular in the ’90s, cinematographers gravitated toward the system because traditional spherical lenses were typically more flexible, especially in terms of speed and price. Theater owners preferred Super 35, as well, because they didn’t have to use anamorphic projection lenses. The only problem with Super 35mm was that, for widescreen, you had to crop the top and bottom of the frame, which was throwing out image information. Anamorphics are superior in this regard.

But since we’re now living in the digital age with few films being shot in 35mm film, the anamorphic format is making a comeback. The principle of shooting digital anamorphic is similar to film, but the process has a few differences. Most high-end digital cameras with Super 35mm-sized sensors (ARRI ALEXA, RED EPIC, Sony F65, etc.) feature an anamorphic de-squeeze feature to properly view footage on set. But since the cameras have varying sensor sizes, each will have a different crop factor.

And with this new interest in the format, we’ve seen a surge of new anamorphic lenses. Here are some of the latest lenses targeted toward cinematographers.