A Master Anamorphic in China
Cinematographer Sheng Lu speaks with ARRI about I SEE, a film he shot in Baotou, China with an ALEXA M camera and an ARRI/ZEISS Master Anamorphic lens. Lu and director Chakme Rinpoche chose to work only with the MA50 50 mm Master Anamorphic, deciding that this would help ensure a purity and uniformity to the visual storytelling. Having gone into the shoot conscious and wary of the difficulties associated with older anamorphic lenses, Lu was pleasantly surprised by the MA50 and deeply impressed by its optical performance.
Cinematographer Sheng Lu combined the 50 mm ARRI/ZEISS Master Anamorphic lens with an ALEXA M on the film I SEE, which he shot in Baotou, China. Finding that he could work in very low lighting conditions with the T1.9 lens, Lu was pleased with the Master Anamorphics' performance across the T-stop range and to the very corners of the image.
What was it like, shooting the whole film with one lens?
Our director, Chakme Rinpoche, is a monk and his approach to the film was influenced by the idea in Buddhism that all beings should be treated equally. We looked upon shooting the whole film with just one lens as a way of maintaining visual equality, following that Buddhist philosophy. Chakme felt that when you have dozens of lenses at your disposal, it can bring about selfish ideas and personal considerations that distract the audience's attention and undermine visual consistency. In my earlier days when I was studying in France I looked at films like AMELIE and A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT, which were shot with only one or two lenses, so I knew it could be done. I just had to maximize the value of the one lens I had.
And you shot with an ALEXA?
Yes, with the ALEXA M. I have used all of the different ALEXA camera models, but on this shoot we had a lot of handheld and vehicle scenes, so I needed a flexible camera configuration that would work well in small spaces; we chose the M without any hesitation.
Did the ALEXA and the Master Anamorphic go together well?
They worked together perfectly. In terms of weight, we were easily able to shoot handheld and the shoulder balance was good. We found we could be very responsive in our camerawork when filming action scenes. Doorways in China are very narrow, so it's easy to catch your camera on doorframes when following actors in and out of rooms, but we didn't have that problem with the ALEXA M and Master Anamorphic on this shoot. We were extremely mobile and never snagged on anything.
Where did you shoot? Were there any environmental challenges?
We shot mainly in Baotou City and several surrounding towns of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in northwest China. The highest daytime temperature on the grasslands was about 34° C and sometimes it was overcast and rainy. Before the shoot I wasn't really worried about the rainy weather, or the temperature and humidity, because I knew that ARRI equipment has good heat dissipation and moisture protection. What did concern me were the very bumpy mountain roads of the region, and the old, jittery truck we would be using. However, we were delighted that during our one-month shoot, we didn't have a single problem with the ALEXA or the Master Anamorphic.
What did you think of the MA50's optical characteristics?
When I worked at the MA50's close focus distance to shoot characters' faces, there wasn't any of the normal anamorphic distortion at all, which was impressive. I was able to position actors on the left and right sides of the frame because there was no resolution weakness at the edges. There was also no breathing with focus pulls, or 'mumps' phenomenon in faces with far-to-near movement, which meant that our actors could move around anywhere in the frame without any distortion.
The coating technology used on the Master Anamorphic lens is remarkably good, and the internal design is also very clever. With a 16-blade iris, the bokeh is beautiful and the focus fall-off is smooth and attractive. All in all, the MA50 lens creates a very pleasing sense of three-dimensional space; it's a highly immersive image.
How did the lens perform at T1.9?
The performance at T1.9 exceeded my expectations. I was often wide open when shooting the characters' faces, because there were some scenes about the blind and we wanted to shoot the characters' eyes as though they were ears. There is less than 10 cm between the eyes and the ears when looking at someone straight-on, so we had to have very accurate control of our depth of field to be sharp on the ears and soft on the eyes, without sacrificing skin texture. Being able to shoot at T1.9 achieved this perfectly.
With older anamorphic lenses it was hard to shoot wide open because of acutance, so in the past we had to use a lot of lighting equipment for night scenes. My gaffer had some bad memories from anamorphic shoots, but working with the Master Anamorphic really changed his mind. For moonlight effects with the MA50 we needed only a couple of 6Ks, adding just one 12K when we shot the indoor scene.
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