The anamorphic process came largely as a result of movie theaters’ low box office turnouts due to the rise and popularity of television. Movie studios needed to give people a new reason to go to the theater, so they came up with ways of making the movie theater experience bigger, more exciting and more visceral. Early versions of surround sound were developed along with immersive ultra high resolutions formats like Cinerama which captured images using 3 separate film cameras stacked side-by-side-by-side and then projected using 3 separate film projectors, which naturally gave the audience 3 times the detail and allowed for larger screens to project onto. The anamorphic process was another format that developed as a way of getting more information and less noticeable film grain as well as another new reason for people to go to the movie theater.
Of all the new formats that were being developed along with Cinerama and large formats like 65mm and 70mm, the anamorphic process was one of the most successful. New lenses for cameras and projectors as well as viewfinders had to be developed, but the same 35mm cameras could be used as well as the same 35mm film stocks to achieve a larger format. Even today, IMAX cameras are enormous, loud and heavy. Anamorphic shooting was more practical, and the unique lenses that the format required, happened to deliver a look that was unlike anything else that come before, and their look is more popular today than ever.


As simple as the concept for anamorphic shooting is, it’s also quite genius. In typical film formats like 1.85:1, we view an image within a rectangular frame, which is more or less arbitrary in it’s aspect ratio. There’s no reason why we couldn’t have a frame that was 2:1, 3:1, or even 10:1 except for the fact that it might get distracting to look at. All of these real and theoretical aspect ratios are all taken from a circular projected image that comes out of the back of a lens, which means we are essentially throwing away a lot of excess resolution since we are taking a square image from a circle. Therefore the wider your aspect ratio, the more information you are throwing away on the top and bottom of your negative. The closer we get to a square image, or a 1:1 aspect ratio, the more information you are keeping and giving to the audience. If you were to squeeze an image horizontally into that circle and then de-squeeze the image in the movie theater, you could take advantage of more of the vertical recording area on your film. Lenses with a 2x squeeze factor which literally squish the image to ½ it’s normal width, take the most advantage of the extra film negative above and below the typical 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
Super 35mm Sensor
ARRI 1.85 26.40 x 14.27mm
ARRI / Zeiss Master Prime 50mm T2.8
4:3 Sensor
ARRI 23.76 x 17.82mm
ARRI / Zeiss Master Anamorphic 50mm T2.8
Final Super 35mm Image
Final 4:3 Sensor Image
As the story goes the oldest use of cylindrical elements in optics were used in tank periscopes in order to see a 180-degree field of view. Lenses were eventually developed for film using similar cylindrical lens elements that squeezed the image before it hit the film plane. One of the most popular front anamorphic lens designs actually starts with a standard spherical lens. You will often here about vintage anamorphic lenses having a “base lens” or “taking lens.” Cineovision and Todd AO anamorphic lenses were often based on Canon K-35 or Zeiss Super Speed primes. The legendary Panavision C-Series are based on Cooke Speed Panchros as their spherical lenses. In these, the base spherical lens’ focus is set to infinity. In front of it are the cylindrical “squeezing” elements. Since the base lens is locked at infinity, you then need a new focusing group, which often is at the very front of the lens. A commonality you will see is that this design typically limits an anamorphic lens’ ability to focus much closer than 3’ on most focal lengths. Another group of anamorphic lenses are rear anamorphic lenses. With this design, the spherical lens is essentially unaltered. The only difference is that the cylindrical squeezing element is placed at the very rear of lens with a simple “rear anamorphic adapter.” The focus system of the original spherical lens remains unchanged, however this design does not produce oval bokeh or the lens flares achievable with front anamorphic lenses and you lose about 1.5 stops of light.
Other lenses had to be created for film projectors, which also used cylindrical elements of the same squeeze factor, only these lenses are essentially rotated 90 degrees so that when the squeezed image on the film passes through the projector’s lens, the image is de-squeezed and appears normal on the screen. Not only that but the nearly square image when de-squeezed ends up with a final projected “widescreen” aspect ratio of 2:40:1. A huge benefit is that you are using optics to project an image that is using so much more of the negative, which results in more detail, finer film grain, more resolution and therefore a more immersive experience for the viewer.


The additional resolution made a big difference, but in my opinion, even more impressive was the aesthetic created by using these new anamorphic lenses. Spherical lenses in many ways mimic the way the human eye sees, and therefore when viewing footage shot with spherical lenses, especially modern ones lacking aberrations and distortion, things look more or less like they typically do. However, anamorphic lenses are warping reality in a way that is completely different than the way our vision works. To me this is a big reason why even to the average movie-goer who has no idea what an anamorphic lens is, subconsciously they know what they are seeing is special. 
Spherical Bokeh
Anamorphic Bokeh
Since you are using longer focal lengths to achieve the same end frame you would normally need a spherical lens twice as wide to achieve, there is less depth of field and more separation between subject and background with anamorphic lenses. The way objects in the frame defocus twice as much on the vertical axis as they do on the horizontal axis creates this amazing smearing of out-of-focus objects, in a more abstract and painterly way. It also results in pinpoint light sources having oval bokeh instead of the typical circular shape seen with spherical lenses. Not only do these unique cylindrical lens elements affect the out-of-focus parts of the frame, but they also create extra distortion due to the way the cylinders interact with the spherical elements. And of course, there are the signature flares. Probably no other characteristic is as iconic as the horizontal streaking lens flares caused by traditional front-anamorphic lenses.


Digital acquisition is now the norm, and for years, all of the high-resolution digital cameras had 16x9 sensors. Here we are again extracting a rectangle from a circularly projected image and leaving a lot of potential resolution behind in the process. In the last few years however RED Dragon’s larger than Super 35 sensor, countless larger format DSLR sensors, RED’s VV camera, the Panavision DXL and of course ARRI’s full line of cameras with 4:3 sensors are all well-suited to take advantage of anamorphic’s taller format. Again, it’s not all about resolution. You can shoot anamorphic on a super 35mm sensor or smaller and take advantage of the beautiful aesthetic of anamorphic lenses. However, it’s the cameras with taller image sensors that can fully take advantage of the entire projected image and all its character.
The anamorphic format was developed to enrich the theater experience but it also resulted in lenses that created a look that cannot be duplicated by any post process. It’s a look that is more popular than ever. Not necessarily because of the gains in resolution, but because it’s an aesthetic that is unique, abstract, beautiful, and because this look is directly connected with some of the greatest films even made. Presently, we are seeing the format used more than ever and not just for the films with the biggest budgets but for smaller productions too. This is an exciting time for filmmaking and a new generation of anamorphic cinematography is on the rise.
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