Lens choices for ‘The Lighthouse’

Granted this is not a catchy title and as it suggests might not be everybody’s cup of tea but for slightly fixated people like myself it’s an endless source of joy and fun. In fact there is something about the tools that we use to make films that causes constant argument and infatuation. I was on speaker phone to my business partner the other day and we were getting very excited about different benefits of tripod makes when eventually his wife spoke up and asked us to question whether we actually had a life? I think she might have a point?!  However, when it comes to lenses, well that’s a whole different kettle of fish – surely anyone can see that?

So, for Lighthouse, what lenses and why? To start this story we really have to go back to way before Lighthouse as the choices ultimately came from a period of testing and experimenting that started with the last feature I shot with Chris Crow, Viking Saga – The Darkest Day. With this film we used a lot of 1970’s Canon FD stills lenses and placed glass objects in front to distort and diffract the light. We also used a lensbaby for one scene. We loved the layering that this gave as it became more of a texture than an effect, anything that looked like an effect was immediately binned but what we were left with we loved. After Darkest Day we shot a couple of pop promos and then a tease for Lighthouse, both of which built on these lens choices, pushing them more into the world of visual texture. Chris sent me quite a few references with distortions and foreground details that he liked and I started thinking about how they could work for Lighthouse. For the tease and the pop promos we had become a bit fixated with lens whacking (shooting with the lens removed from the camera body so that you allow light to leak through from the camera mount). Here’s the one of the pop promos to give you an idea – you will also see use of the lensbaby on it as we were exploring how far you could go before it becomes a definite effect.

The problem we discovered with the lens whacking was that you could not focus on anything far away as you could not get the lens close enough to the camera body without losing the flare as the lens clashed with the camera body. To solve this I bought an old 35mm Tokina lens with a Nikon mount and took it apart so that only the central lens housing remained. This meant that you could move the lens right in towards the sensor without clashing with the body and hence could focus at any distance. I’ve put in a picture of it below, the crew affectionately labelled it, ‘the skinny one’.

Chris also showed me a vimeo film where someone had reversed the front element of a lens which blurs the outside edge of the picture. I blatantly ripped  off this idea (sorry I can’t name check you as I can’t remember the link now) and made my own reverse element lens which the crew imaginatively named ‘the reverse element lens’ (who says we are not a kooky bunch!) I will put some frame grabs of the reverse element lens and the lensbaby below but framegrabs do not really work for the lens whacking as it is the collective effect of the moving image which gives the look. I should mention that we decided to only use the lensbaby in the most unobtrusive mode – ie with the lens straight in it’s mount and a deepish stop. Before we see the examples I would like to say a special thanks to my team who not only put up with all this nonsense, but embraced it and even suggested how we could take it further, they were an amazing crew to have on board and I’m thankful to them all for their commitment, skill and wonderful approach to the continual pressure of the Lighthouse shoot. They were;  Camera team, Keefa Chan – focus puller, Steve Owen – 2nd assistant, Jonny Mason – Camera Trainee, Jordan Wallace – Camera and DiT Trainee, Grip was Sean Harding and the Gaffer was Vern Raye with Spark Edmund McKay. I salute you all. Here are some example of the modified lenses.

These modified lenses worked well with our main set of lenses which were a set of rehoused Nikon prime stills lenses dating to the 1980’s. These lenses are less sharp than the Masterprimes or Ultraprimes that I would use for a more action based film and they flared beautifully. That said there were times that we wanted to create some additional artificial flare but both myself and Chris always favour creating this in camera if we can. To achieve this I asked my local glass cutter to cut 10 x  4″ x 4″ squares of good quality glass. I then asked my camera team to tape them around the edges and crack them in as many different ways that they could. It was Sean who really took this on board and attacked them with style. We then put these one by one in the matt box and looked at the effect they gave.

Whenever a direct light source hit them they flared rather beautifully but we ended up using the less broken ones as the end result could be too heavy. This is definitely something  I’ll do again when the right film presents. Here are a couple of framegrabs that show the effect.

And finally a first rough grade test that show you what the Nikon lenses look like;


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