Even by itself a professional motion picture lens feels magical. Each one 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, in fact it is simply a tool. What makes any lens truly special is how and why a filmmaker chooses it for a particular shoot and, especially, how he or she uses it. Put a great lens into the hands of a talented cinematographer with a trained eye and magic happens.
How and why a given DP chooses a specific lens for a particular shot involves a mix of objective and subjective factors that are unique to each shot, each individual. And these decisions are being made every day by countless cinematographers around the world. Today, 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.
To understand this dynamic better Digital Cinema Report is presenting an ongoing series of conversations with the major professional motion picture lens companies. For part four Digital Cinema Report spoke with Thom Calabro, director, marketing and product development FujiFilm North America Corporation, optical devices division.
Digital Cinema Report: 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?
Thom Calabro: Customer demand is a big component in our development decisions. Our 2/3-inch Compact Cine lenses were a direct result of speaking with cinematographers who were willing to jump into digital cinematography. Speaking with many of our mobile customers led us to develop the XA99x8.4. These customers wanted a tele lens that would be able to get relatively wide angle shots. The HA18x5.5 came about after a top sports network requested a wide angle ENG style lens that would be able to go long.
DCR: What is the single biggest challenge in making a high quality professional lens?
TC: One of the biggest challenges is making a high quality lens that is affordable. It has become increasingly difficult to do this. As cameras have gotten higher in resolution, the lenses have had to become better. Cameras, being electronic devices, have come down in price over the years; lenses have not. In fact, lens pricing has gone up.
DCR: Why does FujiFilm not make prime lenses for the cinema market?
TC: While it was difficult to break into the cine market with zoom lenses, we did so because of our expertise in making zooms for the broadcast industry for many decades. We feel that our zoom lenses compete, and in many cases beat the primes in quality comparisons.
DCR: How much time does it take to bring a new zoom lens to market?
TC: I could give you two very recent examples. At NAB 2013 we sat down with one of the sports cable networks. Their request was for us was to produce a high-quality lens that is rather multi-purpose. The need was for a wide angle lens that could also go long. The lens had to be similar in size and weight to what was currently being used. At NAB 2014 we were able to show a working HA18x5.5 lens, and we made deliveries in June. Also at NAB 2013 we were discussing with various customers what their requirements would be for a new PL cine lens. One year later we showed the Cabrio PL 25-300. This lens already has been delivered to a number of customers. So a bit over a year would be about normal.
DCR: Describe the steps in each process.
TC: We develop a set of parameters; size, weight, optical performance, and cost. Our designers work with our proprietary software, Global Optimization Technology, or GO Tech. This software allows us to produce lenses in a very short period. One of the ways it does this is by eliminating the need for early prototyping. We, of course, still develop prototypes, and we go through design changes, but it a much more streamlined process with GO Tech.
DCR: To what extent has digital cinematography changed lens design and manufacture?
TC: The resolution in today’s cine camera is very high, and most of the video being produced on these is slated for theatrical release, meaning very large viewing screens. Any and all chromatic aberrations will certainly show on these. So our tolerances have to be maintained to a very high degree.
DCR: Has there been a dramatic change in the kinds of lenses cinematographers request? If so, what?
TC: We are seeing that more and more cinematographers are using zoom lenses. While most don’t “zoom” the lens during a shot, they are using them as variable primes. Our cine zoom lenses have been compared to the finest primes, so quality is not an issue. The zoom lens allows the cinematographer to work faster, because there’s no need to stop production to change the lens to a different focal length.
DCR: How much of the lens-making process is still done by hand?
TC: Lens grinding, polishing, and coating are automated processes. The actual assembly and adjustments of all of our high-end lenses are very much a manual process.
DCR: Where are your lenses made?
TC: In our Japan factory.
DCR: Where do you source your glass?
TC: From premium and well known glass manufacturers like Ohara and others.
DCR: What new lenses are you developing now?
TC: We are working on a number of lenses for various applications, but I’m not at liberty to disclose anything more.
DCR: Will lenses always be analog or can you envision an all-digital high quality professional lens?
TC: Lenses will remain analog, but digital technology can help analog lenses. Chromatic aberration compensation is currently being used by many camera manufacturers. The digital electronics in the camera talk with the digital servo on the lens. This was originally designed to compensate for aberration errors in lower cost lenses, but even the finest lenses can benefit from this function.
The links to the previous conversations are here:
Magical Glass: Part 1, Schneider-Kreuznach http://bit.ly/UIyuIz
Magical Glass: Part 2, Canon http://bit.ly/1pPxY6R
Magical Glass: Part 3, CW Sonderoptic http://bit.ly/1rw1Kf5