Where we are today
Zoom lenses aren't used to their full potential because there isn't a way to program them. Or a way to make them zoom slowly. There is no way for the director or cinematographer to easily set up a zoom shot. There is no repeatability, which would make it easy to do rehearsals and then make multiple takes. After 60 years, the lack of programming tools has kept the zoom lens an unevolved cinematography tool.
The same holds true for things like pan heads. They're pretty much the same as they were sixty years ago. They can't be programmed, so they're needlessly difficult to use.
This is what I'm working to change. It's an opportunity to expand the vocabulary of cinematography.
Imagine having programmable zoom lenses along with fully programmable pan, tilt, and focus, all synchronized together, with multiple moves running seamlessly together. All programmed directly by the director or cinematographer.
Sounds great, but is it worth doing?
Since this equipment doesn't exist, there's no way to test it in the real world. So I'm going to need some sort of cinematography simulating software that runs on the computer. Bad news: While there are cinematography simulator programs that can model movie sets and some actors movement, there are none that can actually simulate a series of programmable moves.
So I'm building a simulator. It will use realistic field of view/focal length, distances, and timing. Measurements will be accurate.
Characters will be simplified 2D, for ease of setup, with 3D characters when necessary. It will be able to model multiple characters moving around while programmable moves are executed.
The simulator will output video files so that others can see the effects of different moves and timing.
One of the advantages of using a simulator is that you can test different variations of a move in advance.
More about the simulator in a later post. This is about the samples generated by the simulator.
This is a T-Zoom
I call it a "T-Zoom" because, seen from above, it looks like the letter T. In this shot, we start with a close-up of a character in the middle of a crowd. As the shot begins, the actress starts walking directly toward the camera. She will walk about 35 feet in this direction, while the lens zooms backward, keeping her about the same size in the frame. At the end, she stands next to a person, entering from the left to meet with her. This move is timed at about 20 seconds.
Normally, this sort of tracking shot would be done with a dolly or a Steadicam, where the camera remains a fixed distance from the subject, while moving backward to keep pace. The other actors wandering around, in front or behind the subject add further complication. You have to rehearse both the actors and the camera crew, and hope that everything stays synchronized during the shot. Precisely framing the start and finish, or getting the exact timing you want will not be easy. You can see where multiple takes will be difficult. I leave the actual setup to the Steadicam guys and the focus pullers. I'm a zooming guy.
Let's see how this shot would be set up using a programmable zoom lens. First off, the camera remains in a fixed position, which greatly simplifies the setup. The whole field between the crowd and the camera is clear, leaving space for actors to move around without worrying about bumping into the camera crew. It also means that the rehearsals involve only the actors, and not a mobile camera crew.
The first step is to set up the camera, in its fixed position, at the widest end of the zoom, framing the two actors, filling the frame, with the crowd in the background. Then, zooming in to the starting position, with the subject filling the frame. This may take some fiddling with the camera position, until everything lines up, but it only has to be done once. Now have the subject walk between the start and finish marks so you can get the time to program into the zoom.
From this point on, setup is complete and you're good to go. We can concentrate on the actors, their expressions, movements, timing. Rehearsals and multiple takes will be a lot easier.
This is what a T-Zoom looks like
This scene was shot with an Angenieux 25-250mm zoom lens. The zoom was from 125mm telephoto out to 25mm wide angle.
Now let's talk about perspective and its creative use. With a dolly or Steadicam shot, the lens remains at a fixed focal length. At the end of the move, the crowd may not seem that far away. The perspective will remain fixed throughout the shot.
With a zoom lens, we go from telephoto to wide angle in a single shot. At the beginning, the telephoto perspective forces things together, creating the effect of being inside the crowd. At the end, the wide angle lens gives a greater separation between the subject and the crowd, even though the actual movement was not that far.
On the cutting room floor
The original version of this scene was shot with the figures full in the frame. As you can see, it lacked the drama of the tightly-cropped version above. This zoom was the same range, but with the camera further back.
Combining the T-Zoom with other programmable equipment
In this shot, the programmable zoom is combined with a Discovery Technology AngelCrane to move smoothly to an overhead shot.
On the cutting room floor
In this version of the crane shot, the crane went higher, showing more of the two actors in front, but giving less drama than the more tightly-cropped version. Since the simulator lets us accurately measure the distance to the subject and the height of the camera, it was also determined that this version of the shot required a bigger crane than the budget would allow.
The programmable cinematography equipment of the future
These scenes were shot with a programmable Angenieux 25-250mm zoom lens. About half of the zoom range was used. The programmable focus was handled by information generated by the simulator, with the areas to be in focus selected by the director.
During the zoom, a Discovery Technology DiscoPan programmable panhead was used to pan and tilt the camera to keep the framing exactly as it was set up by the director.
Here's why I called this meeting
Fifty years ago, I designed and built the programmable zoom controller used to shoot the opening scene of The Godfather. At the time, it seemed like an impossible task, but somehow things worked out.
Now, fifty years later, it turns out that this was the only programmable zoom controller ever built. In spite of all of the technological advances since then, that's it. So I guess that this makes me the world's foremost authority. By default.
Today, this is an opportunity to build something new. It's an opportunity to add new camera moves and storytelling tools.
I'm 83 years old, and I've long since hung up my soldering iron. But I still have all of the knowledge that it took to build the original. And my days are free.
Surely, there must be folks in the cinematography equipment industry who are looking to build something new. A new set of tools that will extend the vocabulary of cinematography.
Arri, are you listening?
Angenieux, are you listening?
Sony, are you listening?
A question for cinematographers:
If you had the same sort of tools that they used to shoot the opening scene of The Godfather, what sort of shots would you make?
Copyright 1957-2023 Tony & Marilyn Karp