Working with Anamorphic Lenses

Alumnus Brandon Trost was the DP on Diary of a Teenage Girl starring Kristen Wiig, Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård.

Everything You Need to Know About Anamorphic Lenses

Anamorphic lenses have a long history of capturing the world in a wide-angle view. They provide unique qualities to a film that can enhance the tone or feel of a specific story. A relatively simple piece of equipment, anamorphic lenses can make all the difference in a single shot or an entire film. Some of the most recognizable movies are shot with anamorphic lenses. Find out how this lens creates amazing motion pictures on the big screen.

How does an anamorphic lens work?

French astronomer Henri Chrétien invented the anamorphic widescreen process in the late 1920s, and it is now a standard technique in cinematography. The lens “squeezes” the wide picture, changing the dimensions of the image on one axis. Then a projection lens restores the image’s clarity and expands it onto the widescreens of our theaters without distorting the proportions.

After Chrétien’s creation was used in the First World War, filmmakers saw its potential for entertainment. It could make a theater experience larger than life! With Cinemascope, viewers could see the film in stunning clarity and enormous size.

The L.A. Film School held its Gear Expo during FAME Week in 2019. Photo of an Orion Anamorphic Lens.

How cinematographers use anamorphic lenses in film

Anamorphic lenses are about more than size. They can add incredible dimension to a film. An anamorphic lens gives a cinematographer the benefit of wide aspect ratio and depth of field. It is incredible at adding a nostalgic feel to a movie or show, one of its most valuable characteristics.

There’s also a beautiful anamorphic lens flare that is different from what comes with other lenses. The flare is horizontal with a distinct oval-shaped bokeh.

For example, the director of photography (DP) for Black Panther chose an anamorphic lens because director Ryan Coogler wanted a “naturalistic feel” and a “deeper depth of field so that the audience could see and experience the world of Wakanda.”

The Bad Times at the El Royale director and DP also chose anamorphic lenses because they loved, “the natural inherent distortions of squeezing and un-squeezing an image …There’s nothing more beautiful than an anamorphic close-up with the way it focuses on the eyes and drops off. You really get a sense of being inside someone’s head.”

You might be surprised at how many films used an anamorphic lens in 2019. We’re talking Avengers: Endgame, Aladdin, Rocketman, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, and Jojo Rabbit, just to name a few.

The artistic elements of anamorphic lenses allow DPs a wonderful amount of flexibility in the creative side of filming. Depending on the look they’re going for, an anamorphic lens can add just the right amount of depth and focus that can’t be achieved with another lens in such a seamless way.

DP Brandon Trost shares his favorite lens

How to use an anamorphic lens on your smartphone

Anamorphic lenses are large and heavy, making them useful for certain types of films but not for others. If you’re shooting a “run and gun” type of film, they’re not what you’re looking for. That being said—there are some incredible new developments in anamorphic lenses for iPhones. Just a little attachment to your phone and you can be shooting with that nostalgic feel you’re hoping for.

The Moment Anamorphic Lens allows for “sweet horizontal flares and that widescreen, letterboxed look” with just an iPhone. No more lugging a big lens around. You can chase after your subject if you need to and still achieve the look you want.

How to Get Started

If you are just starting out in anamorphic, it’s important to do some studying and practice. Find out what lens would work best with your camera and what kind of kit you need. If you have no idea where to start, ask your film friends or take a look at cinematography blogs to see what filmmakers use. From there, we suggest renting a lens or finding a gently used one before taking the financial plunge of purchasing your own brand new lens. You also might want to try out more than one model before deciding.

That being said—it’s all about practice. As Ed Rakochy, a DP of almost 30 years and a cinematography instructor at The Los Angeles Film School says, “The best way to hone your skill is to get behind a camera and shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot as much as you can.” The more you practice, the better you’ll be at mastering the beauty and unique language of anamorphic lenses.

The Film Department offers different concentrations for students to choose an area of study. Learn more about our cinematography concentration within the Film Program at The Los Angeles Film School.