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Dan Sasaki, Panavision VP of Optical Engineering

This article appeared in the April 2016 issue of Film & Digital Times magazine

Dan Sasaki is VP of Optical Engineering at Panavision. In addition to his passionate involvement designing, tweaking, building and repairing lenses, Dan is the guru many cinematographers consult in the eternal quest for quintessentially distinctive looks. I was delighted to spend a day with Dan at Panavision in Woodland Hills, and hope I didn’t wreak too much havoc in his busy schedule.

Panavision Large Format Lenses

JON FAUER: Dan, can you please explain the recent interest in large format cinematography, lenses and cameras.

DAN SASAKI: Oddly enough, Panavision has seen more large format activity in the past 5-10 years than ever in the history of Panavision’s involvement with 70mm photography. The introduction of large format digital cameras has opened new opportunities. The availability of more cameras has made accessibility to large format photography much easier. 

Artistically, large format offers many depth perception cues that are very attractive to our visual processing system. This facet offers many features that both cinematographers and directors can identify with immediately, including increased magnification, perspective, and character. 

For years, we have turned to anamorphic photography as a novel way to exploit the area available on the 35mm format area. Anamorphic photography offers many similar visual cues as large format photography. With this in mind, a true large format sensor will contribute additional cues. Many cinematographers recognize this fact and are gravitating toward the new realm of possibilities this alternate capture format has to offer. Having said all that, the motion picture industry is going through a great renaissance. We’ve seen offerings that span from Super 16mm all the way up to IMAX. Cinematographers are no longer bound by old standards in formats or capture media. Ultimately, though, whether 65 mm, 35 mm, 16 mm, anamorphic or spherical, the cinematographer will choose the best format to fit the story. They now have more choices than ever. 

There are around 30 Alexa 65 cameras, and ARRI is making at least 25 more. RED Weapon 8K cameras are delivering... 

The increase in camera quantities and options—for instance the Red Weapon 8K—will allow for more accessibility to the larger format. This will open up many opportunities for extending the range a cinematographer has to describe a story visually. The one thing I would like to emphasize is that the aesthetic qualities of the lenses wed to these cameras have just as much, if not more, of an influence of how an image looks and feels. There is a certain evolution of optical traits associated with the imager’s diagonal, and this time-tested rule applies to both film and digital imagers. In short, a lens requirement for a smaller imager diagonal does not scale up to a larger diagonal imager. Therefore, it is very important that there are various degrees of lens performance available to the cinematographer. This becomes especially true with the larger format imagers that will produce images with much higher magnification and MTF potential than their 35mm equivalent. 

Are many people asking for Primo 70 and classic 65mm lenses? 

Yes, ever since Hoyte Van Hoytema used Primo 70s on Spectre, we have built up our inventory of 65mm capable lenses quite a bit. We have introduced 8 new variations of 65 mm capable lenses in the last two months and we are rapidly adding quantities to our inventory to meet the increased demand. The challenge was making sure the lenses were both digital and film compatible. Interestingly enough, each set of lenses had its own characteristics that was defined by the cinematographer. For example, the Primo 70 series were used by Rodrigo Prieto on Passengers. The newer Sphero 65 series were used by Bob Richardson on Live by Night and by Jess Hall on Ghost in the Shell. And the System 65 lenses were used by both Ben Davis on Dr. Strange and Adam Arkapaw on Assassin’s Creed. These three series of lenses have intrinsically different imaging characteristics. The one thing that is becoming essential in this format is the request for T2.0c or faster optics. In nearly every case we had to create optics from scratch to achieve lenses with such large imaging diagonals and high speed. 

Were the lenses huge? 

No, they’re actually no larger than the Primo 70 lenses. The main goal was to produce a lens that is compact and suited to dynamic shooting situations.

Are the new sets of vintage lenses built from the ground up? 

Some of the lenses were built from the ground up and some were mechanical updates to the original vintage lenses we had in our inventory. An advantage we have is we are in possession of a large array of vintage optics we acquired many years ago. In some cases, we had to design certain lenses to match the vintage look that a cinematographer requested, because either that focal length didn’t exist or the speed of the true vintage lens was not adequate. 

Some examples of the scratch-built lenses are certain focal lengths in the Sphero 65 line. The goal of this line is to create a set of optics that are for most part T2.0 and have included aberrations that create a classic roll-off that can take the edge off the apparent heightened sharpness commonly associated with digital photography. 

Another example is the re-optimization of the Ultra Panavision 70 anamorphic lenses used by Greig Fraser on Rogue One. We started with the base 1.25x anamorphic squeeze lenses used on The Hateful Eight and made many modifications to suit the needs of the cinematographer and accommodate the Alexa 65 camera. In many cases, we had to completely start over with the base lens and rebuild it to become a more modern version that met the expectations of Greig.

Large Format and Natural Perception

Will the future be 65mm or Full Frame VistaVision format? 

I honestly can see room for all formats: from 16 mm to 65 mm. However, VistaVision offers magnification benefits more than 1.5 times greater than traditional 35mm capture. For example, if we use a 27 mm lens in Super 35, we would choose a 40 mm lens in VistaVision in order to get a similar field of view. As a result, the image produced by the VistaVision combination would provide a much more natural perspective and magnification than the Super 35mm counterpart. This is because the imaging characteristics produced by the greater magnification and perspective characteristics of the larger imager more closely relate to how we see naturally. The larger format gives us a more natural perspective, meaning fewer distortions and a more natural depth of field. Objects appear to look sharper even though we may not be using a sharper lens. How is this? Our eyes, at best, have one arcminute of resolution (1/60th of one degree). Unless we’re watching a movie with a magnifying glass, we’re not going to see the fiber count in an actor’s shirt. What we do see are the larger details that are important to our core visual system, which help us distinguish who or what we are watching. 

On top of that, once we introduce motion—one of the biggest contributors of image blur—all the high spatial frequencies disappear. The lower spatial frequencies that help identify what we are seeing are very important to our visual processing system. As an example, we are not really worried about how many leaves are on a tree; we’re more interested in whether it’s an oak tree and that our actor is under it. The higher magnification associated with large format photography, be it 65mm or VistaVision, emphasizes the imaging cues that convey reality more accurately than with traditional 35mm photography. 

A convenient feature of VistaVision is that it shares many of the characteristics of the 65mm format yet the lenses don’t get really large and there’s an existing infrastructure for it. Because of this, VistaVision has a future that will serve both the television and feature segments. On the other hand, the formats offered by imagers greater than VistaVision create magnification and natural perspective cues that are unique in the art of cinematography. 

There are more than 200 million full frame still photo lenses that people are familiar with. 

Exactly. You can get high speed lenses in a manageable size. We’re finding out the hard way with 65mm large format sensors that the lenses can get a bit cumbersome and costly, especially ones with large apertures. With the full frame format you can easily meet the 4K to 8K requirements without making a pixel insanely small. An added benefit to the full frame format can be revealed when we add all of the combinations possible with anamorphic compression. It gets really interesting. 

What is the “normal” field of view in anamorphic? 

There is an old conception that we view the world through the angle of view of a 20 mm lens but with the magnification closer to a 40 mm lens. This “schizophrenic” combination plays very closely to how a 2x anamorphic lens works. In anamorphic photography, that would also be the width of a 20 mm but the magnification of 40mm. Anamorphic photography offers similar depth and perceptual cues associated with large format photography—with the economy of a 35mm production. 35mm anamorphic continues to be an attractive format because we can achieve many of the attributes associated with large format photography in a small form factor.

Large Format Anamorphic

And yet “The Hateful 8” was both 65mm and Anamorphic— Ultra Panavision 70. (1.25x squeeze, projected at 2.76:1) 

There were many scenes in The Hateful Eight that were very dynamic and not limited to small camera movements. This broke my misconception that 65 mm anamorphic photography is cumbersome and limited to static set-ups. I originally underestimated the power of the anamorphic squeeze ratio of 1.25x. My initial thought was, “Okay, this anamorphic look is going to be benign. It’s too weak of a squeeze.” However, when I walked into the first screenings, I was completely overwhelmed by how much texture and depth there was and how it was neither overly sharp nor overly soft. Interestingly, Bob Richardson used the entire frame dynamically. The misconception about large format is that it is limited to photographing large vistas. What we forget, however, is that due to the inherent characteristics of large format photography, interior sequences become even more intimate and more realistic. 

There’s a sequence in The Hateful Eight where Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is playing a guitar. Within this scene, it’s very easy to get caught up in the all the details within the confines of the Haberdashery, yet Bob Richardson was able to contain his audience’s attention through controlled use of depth of field and focus racks. This method was so effective that I noticed the audience was mesmerized by the back and forth action to the point where everyone’s head turned back and forth at the same time. People were reacting to the strong anamorphic directional cues. At this point I realized that Bob was manipulating the audience’s attention. It was like watching cats follow a laser pointer. 

The old saying that 1.25x or 1.3x squeeze is not enough is false? 

Yes, I am embarrassed for falling into that belief myself. 

And Panavision invented 1.3x squeeze? 

Yes, we did. We have the patent on the process and we built prototypes to prove out its efficacy. Thanks to the foresight of Panavision’s marketing team and The Hateful Eight’s Quentin Tarantino and Bob Richardson, we are actively reviving this format. 

Why does Ultra Panavision 70 look anamorphic if the bokehs are not oval and the depth of field isn’t much different? 

I thought that at first, too, but in reality the bokehs are oval and the depth of field is shallower. This is in part due to the unique disproportionate focus compensation that is in Panavision anamorphic lenses. It makes a normally benign 1.3x squeeze look very anamorphic. Instead of a rounded defocus, our cylindrical compensation accentuates a vertically biased defocus. As a result, we produce a lens that appears more anamorphic with less depth of field and many of the traditional attributes including horizontal flares.

Primo 70 Lenses

Going back to the Primo 70 lenses, the flange focal depth is 40 mm. Classic Panavision PV Mount depth is 57.15 mm (2.2500 in). How do you attach Primo 70 lenses on an Alexa 65 camera, whose depth is 60 mm? 

We’ve created a Primo 70 sub-mount that replaces the Alexa 65 XPL mount. 

At IBC and InterBEE, everybody was wondering what will be the standard for the next generation of mirrorless motion picture cameras. Does a shorter flange focal depth than PL or PV give you benefits in designing lenses? 

The shorter flange focal depth enables the designer to create a lens without the need to retro-focus or push the optics further away from the image plane to clear traditional reflex camera mechanisms. This more natural system is not burdened down with optics that are dedicated to achieving this greater back focal length and allows for a more compact system with higher performance. 

Is that how you were able to make the new Primo 70 lenses so small—almost the same size as previous 35mm format Primos? 

Yes. They are very compact lenses.

It seems like many companies are going with shorter flange depths. Fujifilm’s X-Mount is 17.7 mm. Sony’s E-mount is 18 mm. Leica’s SL is 20 mm. Canon is 44 mm. 

The writing is on the wall. Shorter flange depths have a lot of benefits. 

New Panavision lenses 

Would you like to talk about the new Panavision lenses? 

The T Series. We wanted to create a new set of anamorphic optics that are all similar in size, form factor, and weight. We wanted imaging characteristics that were consistent throughout the entire frame and hallmarked all the aesthetics associated with previous Panavision anamorphic lens series. Do you remember Tak Miyagishima? The T Series represent everything that he would have wanted in an anamorphic lens line.

The focal length range of the T Series is: 28, 35, 40, 50, 60, 75, 100, 135, 150 and 180 mm. The new AWZ 2.3 zoom is 37-85 mm T2.8. The T Series 100, 135 and 150 mm lenses are ready now. The rest of the set should be available later this year. 

Due to the resurgence of large format photography, we are continually adding variations to the large format portfolio. Currently we offer optics choices ranging from high MTF performance in the 50 cycles/mm realm to vintage lenses that tastefully reproduce aberrations that artistically break down the effects created by digital sensors. Oddly enough, while we’ve offered customers the option of high performance lenses, we’re continually asked to provide alternatives to this look. What dawned on me was the importance of developing a variety of lens options that offer more choices of imaging characteristics.

The Future 

Will you make more spherical or anamorphics in the future? 

Without a doubt we will continue to develop more spherical and anamorphic lenses. What we have realized with the growing number of sensors available to our customers, optics play a more important role than ever. 

What about zooms in the future? Let’s assume that we are going to the VistaVision size, and every lens manufacturer in the world is wondering, at this very moment, what will be the flange depth, minimum T stop, mount, and how to keep the size manageable. Do you think the high-end industry will accept aperture ramping to keep it small, the way they do in stills? 

From my experience, I do not think the high-end industry is ready for lenses that don’t have constant aperture throughout their zooming range. In the past, we have introduced a couple of lenses that had ramping apertures and we were called out on it. Despite the increasing speed of cameras, the request for high speed lenses continues to exist. This makes it much more challenging for the lens designer, especially when you factor in the increase of imager diagonal. The request for compact high speed lenses is pushing the lens development technology to innovate non-traditional lens design solutions. 

A frustrating part to this puzzle is defining a line between what is technically perfect and aesthetically beautiful. It is very hard to redefine a flange depth in a system that has an existing protocol. Even though it’s easier to produce a lens with a shorter back focal length or flange depth, it becomes more difficult to integrate that big of a change immediately. 

Is the current move to larger formats driven by technological or aesthetic decisions? 

It’s a bit of both. The technology is driving the aesthetic. Until recently, the use of large format was limited to a small finite pool of cameras. This limitation allowed only one or two movies a year to be filmed in large format, and the aesthetic unique to this format went widely under-utilized. Now that the digital revolution has introduced a wave of super sensors, large format is much more accessible. This has allowed cinematographers to rediscover the potential of large format photography.

Tweaking Lenses 

The current trend of degrading of lenses—decoating, recoating, antiquing—provides tools for DPs to have a different look. Do your clients say, “I must have an impressionist look that is like Monet 1872 with slight blue haze?” Or do you offer them choices as if from a menu? 

It’s a mixed bag. Many cinematographers come in asking for a look that’s in their head and it’s our job to try to read that. Other times we’ll offer them some choices and suggestions. For example, on Star Wars, Dan Mindel said, “I want it to have a 1970s kind of aesthetic.” In this case, we did research on what a lens from the 1970s might have looked like with modern film stocks and started to build something that we felt would maintain that aesthetic without the liabilities associated with an older lens. In another example, John Schwartzman on Jurassic World said, “Show me what you have that would be good at taking the edge off the Primos?” We responded to his request by giving him five samples and he picked the one he liked best. 

It’s ironic talking about a ’60s or ’70s look—like remembering “The good old days.” Most films from that era don’t look at all like the perception we now think we have of them. Did they really have lots of flares and haze? Until “Easy Rider,” the studio probably would have fired the DP back then. More than vintage coatings on lenses to evoke the era, isn’t it also our modern interpretation and embellishment of those earlier styles. 

Yes. We have found that we have to create deliberate imaging characteristics that go beyond the technology associated with the period they intend to mimic. The characteristics that were iconic with the period pieces we are trying to mimic are a combination of film stock available, lens choice, and effects that were trendy at the time (filters and processes). 

How do you “tune” your Panavision lenses? 

It depends. Many times we ask for a still photo or example of what they would like to see. Based on the example or description the Cinematographer gives us, we can start determining methods to “customize” a lens. It usually takes a couple of iterations before we match the cinematographer’s expectations. The method of detuning is constantly evolving and we are continuously trying to innovate new ways to create a unique look. 

An example would be non-coated lenses. Originally, we would remove the coating off lenses. We found this was an unnecessary and destructive method of achieving a look. Now, we have found a way to produce the same look without having to destroy the lens and have better control over the degree of effect and unwanted glare. 

Were Panavision lenses originally designed for this kind of adjustability? 

Every case is a unique challenge. Very rarely are we asked to duplicate a detuning scenario. 

You have to make new mechanical housings then? 

In some cases we do have to make new mechanical housings. There are some versions of custom lenses that require adding additional optics. A recent trend is the use of custom coatings to control the characteristics of flares.