Cooke Anamorphic/i SF Lenses Capture a Wider View for 'A Star Is Born'

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Matthew Libatique, ASC, worked as cinematographer on the 2018 production of 'A Star is Born' and has won the 2018 Hollywood Film Award for Cinematographer of the Year for his work on the movie. The production marks the fourth time the story has been produced as a Hollywood film, and is actor Bradley Cooper's directorial debut.

The director also took one of the starring roles in the film, which Matthew Libatique said resulted in a less defined workflow on set. “It meant we were working with one person tasked with many hats including acting, directing, music,” he said. “It made everyone on set responsible for a lot more than they normally would be - especially me - watching for things we wouldn't be responsible for in our regular craft. I watched how things looked, how they sounded, how a scene was going that Bradley was acting in.”

Choosing Anamorphic

When Bradley decided to shoot the project in anamorphic format, Matthew took time to determine the best lenses to use. He said, “I’ve used the Cooke S4/i spherical for a long time, plus the old Panchro glass, but I needed an anamorphic with character and personality that could perform in a variety of settings and produce the right amount of light hits and flares. An important part of my job was progressing the story by shifting attention from the main superstar character Jack to the newcomer Ally in a way that would be believable to today’s audience.”

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Matthew chose Cooke Anamorphic/i SF ‘Special Flair’ lenses and worked with a set of seven primes - 25, 32, 40, 50, 65 MACRO, 75 and 100 focal lengths - using these for about 90% of the project. The 40, 50, 65 Macro and 75 were used for most sequences.

Wanting to limit the distractions on set, the ARRI ALEXA Mini was chosen as the camera, shooting handheld as the lead actors established their characters within their relationship. Except when shooting with the larger Cooke 65mm Macro prime lens, the crew used the camera with a Movi or an anti-gravity stabiliser rig. “The ALEXA Mini has a great form factor for mobility combined with a great sensor,” said Matthew. “I knew the camera would need to be mobile the entire time.”

Going Up Close

“The 65 Macro is a stand-out performer for this format,” said Matthew. “It’s an anamorphic that lets you get up close to the actors just like a spherical lens. I didn’t have to be even 3 feet away. Shooting from only one foot away gave 'A Star Is Born' its most dramatic shots. At Jack and Ally’s wedding, I got such a great close-up of Ally’s face using the 65 Macro. The close-up performance the lens exceeds what an anamorphic could be expected to achieve.”

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Typically, an anamorphic lens has less depth of field than a spherical lens of the same focal length, so that objects in the same frame will appear more isolated from the environment. This shallower depth of field of anamorphic lenses creates the lenses' special combination of a close-up feeling within a wide shot frame. Consequently, for people, shooting closeup can sometimes give the shot an unexpectedly emotional effect.

With a 4.1:1 magnification ratio with close focus of 5.5" from the front of the lens, the Cooke 65mm Macro Anamorphic/i SF 2X Prime lens is built for close-ups, either for cinema or commercial work. The ‘Special Flair’ coating adds more flare that cinematographers can use to add their own style and creativity to their work, while retaining the pretty oval bokeh and other familiar aberrations associated with anamorphic productions.

A Few Surprises

Matthew also noticed that the looks resulting from the lenses were sometimes hard to predict or explain. “At the beginning of the film, we have a bathroom stall shot where Ally screams 'Men!!!' but I couldn’t get wide enough on the 32. My first AC suggested the 25. I was initially hesitant, but the recorded image was completely flat!

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“Usually, you get some bend on anything wider than a 40, but the 25 was perfect for this scene. Conversely, when we used the 32 for a very wide upstage shot of Ally at The Shrine Auditorium, very little focus falloff showed around the lens.” This shot served as a homage to the earlier 1954 version starring Judy Garland, which also shot segments at the Shrine.

For Matthew, the Cooke Anamorphic/i SF primes' modularity and optical quality rival or surpass the anamorphic lenses he sees elsewhere. Their modular design, applied to the focus and iris drive gear and the iris assembly, allows them to be re-used in different contexts with different cameras.  

He also used them on the project he worked on next, the super villain film 'Venom', when he shot with the Alex Mini, Alexa XT and RED Monstro 8K VV. “It’s very rare that I’ll use the same lenses from one project to the next,” he said. “I usually try to mix it up. But not this time.”