Magical Glass: Part 1, Schneider-Kreuznach

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Tue, 07/29/2014 - 11:10 -- Nick Dager

Schneider-Kreuznach 75mm Xenon FF-Prime lensA lens by itself is rarely magical. Yes, it represents the painstaking work of many dedicated people who put their hearts and souls into the creation of a precision blend of metal and other materials encasing carefully polished glass. But by itself it is simply a tool. What makes any lens truly special is how and why a filmmaker chooses it for a particular shoot and how they use it. Put a great lens into the hands of a talented cinematographer with a trained eye and magic can happen.

Spend time with any cinematographer and sooner or later the conversation will turn to lenses. Almost without exception, experienced shooters have a handful of lenses they rely on and trust. For many of them it can come to define how they prepare to make a film and, in turn, define the movies they shoot.

Cinematographer Mark Woods gives several examples of this in a long and fascinating article he wrote entitled Lens Personalities. In it Woods says that for him “a 25mm feels like my aunt. An 80mm lens is much like a niece of mine who is very pretty and self absorbed.” He also provides some specific examples from famous films: “William Fraker, ASC, with director Roman Polanski, used a 25mm lens on Rosemary's Baby. Caleb Deshanel, ASC, with director Hal Ashby, almost exclusively used a 50mm lens on Being There.” Then he speculates about why those men may have chosen those specific lenses.

Woods recalls a project of his own and explains the creative decisions that went into his lens choices. “I recently shot a pilot for a children's TV show in 16mm. The directors wanted a particular style that included the use of extremely wide lenses. Our ‘go to’ lens was a 9mm. During pre-production, I referred to this as our ‘wide world.’ More than occasionally we shot with a 6mm lens. The children's single shots were all shot with a 25mm lens with the idea they would be the only ‘normal’ elements in the show.” His insightful article can be found on the website of Local 600 of the International Cinematographers

Choices of these kinds are being made every day by countless cinematographers around the world. Depending on your particular viewpoint, their choices are getting easier or more difficult.

A growing part of their challenge is the seemingly endless number of new camera formats that are coming to market. Lens manufacturers face the same challenges but from a different perspective. Faced with all these new formats and understanding the complex issues their customers face, they have to decide what lenses to make and how to bring them to market at a competitive price and in a timely fashion.

Schneider-Kreuznach Cine Xenar lensesTo understand this dynamic better Digital Cinema Report is beginning an ongoing series of conversations with the major professional motion picture lens companies. Today in this, part one, Digital Cinema Report spoke with Daniela Kesselem, product manager, Schneider-Kreuznach.

What drives lens development at your company? Is it customer demand, products introduced by your competitors, or innovations discovered by your own designers? A combination of all of those? Something else entirely?

It's a mix of customer demand, developments in the camera market, and new innovative ideas from our side. We follow a product roadmap, which is put together based on those elements.

What is the single biggest challenge in making a high quality professional lens?

Cutting the time to market is a major issue. The product cycle of digital cameras is becoming shorter. We have to meet this pace.

How much time does it take to bring a new prime lens to market?

It is difficult to give a general answer here. It all depends on where you start. The process of bringing a lens into production can be as short as 6 months going up to 2 to 3 years for a complex lens system that you start from scratch. This applies to both prime and zoom lenses where the primes would be at the shorter end most of the time.

Describe the steps in each process, prime and zoom.

This is a confidential area. All we can say here is that the process is pretty much the same for all our lenses. It starts with the optical/mechanical/electrical design followed by several stages of prototypes and trials followed by pre-production and then serial production. Naturally there are loops and iterations for optimization or new technical solutions.

To what extent has digital cinematography changed lens design and manufacture?

Different technology always brings different requirements and the necessity to improve designing and manufacturing processes. Smaller pixels are demanding more light and a higher resolution of a lens system. In order to achieve this, the tolerances in R&D and manufacturing are becoming much tighter in the digital world.

Schneider-Kreuznach Xenon FF prime lensesHas there been a dramatic change in the kinds of lenses cinematographers request? If so, what?

There are very good older lenses in the market already that still work fine on new cameras. More and more different sensor-sized cameras appear in the market on much lower price levels. This triggers the demand for “affordable” lenses that cover the main formats and that are adaptable easily to the different camera mounts.

How much of the lens-making process is still done by hand?

There are more and more automated processes in the lens production. The precise adjustment of the optical elements in the end-assembly are areas that still involve a lot of manual skills.

Where are your lenses made?

The main production is in Germany, Bad Kreuznach and Göttingen.

Where do you source your glass?

From premium and well known glass manufacturers like Schott and others.

What new lenses are you developing now?

Besides all the developments in photo and industrial applications, we are adding more lenses to the Cine Xenar III and FF-Prime lens families.  

Will lenses always be analog or can you envision an all-digital high quality professional lens?

Finally all the innovations in electronics and software will lead to lenses that will be completely controlled automatically and will be able to communicate with the cameras. As a lens manufacturer we see this and we are working on the long-term integration of digital technology.

Here are the links to the other articles in the series:

Magical Glass: Part 2, Canon

Magical Glass: Part 3, CW Sonderoptic