An Interview with Thomas English

"THE GLASS ON THE LENSBABY IS FANTASTIC. WHAT IS EXPENSIVE IN CINE LENSES IS BUILDING MECHANICALLY RELIABLE HOUSINGS FOR GLASS THAT HITS PRECISE FOCUS MARKS...THIS GLASS IS THE SAME HIGH END GLASS WITHOUT THE TECHNICAL RESTRICTIONS."

 

September 2011

YOU’VE SHOT WITH A LENSBABY ON SEVERAL MUSIC VIDEOS AND FASHION PROMOS WHERE IT SEEMS LIKE THERE IS MORE CREATIVE FREEDOM THAN SAY A CORPORATE COMMERCIAL - WHY DO YOU ENJOY PULLING OUT A LENSBABY FOR THESE TYPES OF PROJECTS?

Often you hide stuff with a shallow depth of field. All of a sudden with a shift and tilt system you can place focal artifacts over anything you don't like in a frame. It makes the blandest image in the world look weird. To be honest the corporate guys like these lenses quite a bit. Although this is where the Composer comes into its own where you can just do a subtle smear on the edges of frame rather than a radical tweak. The creative projects are fun, I love it when the directors start shouting MORE MORE when you pull the Lensbaby out. The focal artifacts can get really crazy as well as odd Lensbaby angles.

IS THERE ANYTHING IN PARTICULAR THAT YOU LIKE ABOUT THE NEW COMPOSER PL LENS BODY AND SWEET 35 OPTIC?

The glass on the Lensbaby is fantastic. What is expensive in cine lenses is building mechanically reliable housings for glass that hits precise focus marks. Remember that a Zeiss ZF costs around a quarter of its equivalent the Compact Primes CP2's; which is identical glass but made to a mechanical spec that drama focus pullers are happy with. The Lensbabies have none of these massive costs involved. This glass is the same high end glass without the technical restrictions. It genuinely doesn't matter if the flange focal depth changes with temperature or other variables as these lenses by definition are used by eye. So don't let the Lensbabies fool you into thinking it is cheap glass. It's not! It's great glass in a very cost effective housing!

The Sweet Optic 35 really changes things. You just don’t need to faff around with the iris rings. Especially when used with a Vari-ND. All of a sudden you can see exactly what Iris you need for the focus artifacts you want and then set your Vari-ND accordingly for exposure. We don't mess with shutters in film unless its as an artistic choice. I will want to use a 180° shutter or a 90° for a scene and that will be the shutter I want. The vari-ND/Sweet-Optic combination enables me to quickly develop the focal characteristics I want.

The Sweet 35 Optic is also exactly the right focal length for film. Often on-set we call the lens in that range the (32mm Cooke S4 or 35mm Zeiss Superspeed) the British Standard lens because it's a lens we use SO much. Field of view wise a 35mm lens on a Super35 cine frame is the equivalent to the much favored 50mm in full frame stills. So by bringing out a 35mm optic Lensbaby has given us the 50mm they originally made for photography.

The bokeh of a lens is normally far more attractive if the iris is a perfect circle. I really like that about the original double optics. No messing about, just a pure circle straight into the lens housing. I never really found it to be too much of a pain to use but the Sweet 35 Optic is just awesome. There are so many iris leaves in there it's incredible! It's nearly a pure circle. Stunning!

HOW DID YOU CONVINCE THE DOP AND DIRECTORS ON THE PENDULUM "WATER COLOUR" MUSIC VIDEO TO USE THE LENSBABY? WHY NOT JUST DO IT ALL IN POST?

The Pendulum "Water Colour" had quite a few Straight CGI shots but NO VFX on the live action shots. The Lensbaby Muse did pretty much everything. This is pre-Sweet 35 Optic so I spent most of the day wide open (F2) with the wide angle adapter in front of the 50mm. I did loads of subtle stuff where I am just vibrating the Muse. All those focal smears, image shakes or tremors are done in-lens on the Muse. It was a lot of fun! You can really shake an image in a way only possible otherwise by pretty much half removing a lens from its mount and shaking it about yet you don't have any of the risks associated. The shots where I am flying out of the full-sound system stage with all the wind; I sat on a dolly handheld with the Muse. Pretty much every live action shot is Muse except maybe a couple on the Ultraprimes. Its funny to see a £200 lens cutting in with a £7000 lens.

Barney Steel and Mike Sharpe are very creative directors with firm foundations in VFX. They learned a long time ago that VFX renders are total killers to a fast turn around job like a music video and so they try to do as much in camera as possible. Joe Dyer who DoP'd the Pendulum and lit it is always open to new ideas and immediately loved the effect from the Muse and my shaky hands. So when I offered it up on my camera (B-Camera) first thing in the morning Joe, Barney and Mike were like... Don't take that lens off! It sold itself. We spent the whole day on it. A lot of the day was spent inside a polly bag being attacked by a rain machine.

ARE THERE SHOTS OR SCENARIOS WHERE YOU CHOOSE COMPOSER PL OVER MUSE PL OR DO YOU FIND THEM TO BE FAIRLY INTERCHANGEABLE?

The Composer PL is far better for a locked frame where you need to pull focus. If you want accuracy with a set motion blur artifact the Composer is the one for you. The Muse is awesome handheld where you want to keep a certain part of the frame sharp and you want to smear the rest of the frame. When you shift and tilt the Muse the lens moves far less relative to the sensor than on the Composer so re-framing is pretty minimal. So it really depends what you are doing and if you want the shift/tilt happening in shot. The great thing is they intercut perfectly. So I tend to use the Muse when I need to move the Sweet Spot in shot and the Composer for locked down accuracy.

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE USING THE COMPOSER PRO PL ON STEADICAM? WHAT WERE THE BENEFITS? ANY CHALLENGES? HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM?

The Composer is good on Steadicam but you do need an HD wireless link so people can keep an eye on what you're getting them. If you lock the Composer down you can even, using a strap-on focus ring, fit on a radio follow focus. I've had success with the manual Bartech where you dial in the end stops as I suspect my Preston would just tear the ring off. I used a Bartech radio follow focus and M-One motor on that lens using a Noga arm. It worked! We never pull focus on shift and tilts on steadicam anyway and jeez a proper Clairmont Cameras shift and tilt system is heavy. Oddly you can often hold focus knowing where in the frame there are sharps at what distances so you can move what you want sharp around the frame depending on how far away it is from you.

Check out more of Thomas' work at thomasenglish.co.uk.

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