The blog by Angénieux

The question remains among the DP community and it keeps the conversations going. After his visit to the Angénieux factory in 2017, Kees Van Oostrum (ASC), President of the American Society of Cinematographer gave a long interview to Jon Fauer (ASC), for the magazine Film & Digital Times, titled “Kees Van Oostrum, ASC on Zooms”.  

Zooms and/or primes, what was his choice ?

kees-von-oostrum.jpgCourtesy of Kees Van Oostrum

JON FAUER: Tell us about your experiences with zoom lenses.

KEES VAN OOSTRUM: I’ve been shooting with them for 35 years. I started in 16mm and owned several. Now I own most of them in 35mm format. I’ve always been very fond of Angénieux lenses because of the look and the very useful focal lengths that they have. For example, I used the 9.5-57mm for many years on documentaries, and I thought it was an excellent lens. It was very high speed; the wide angle coverage and the length was perfect for documentary work. I also liked the 12-120mm. It has become a classic and worked on many productions. When I started to do features, the 25-250 was the only practical zoom lens around.Then it was improved with the HR version, it became one of my all-time favorite lenses, and I still have it 20 or more years later. I use it on a daily basis on shows in conjunction with my Optimo 17-80 and the 24-290.

Over the years, Angénieux has shown the ability to deliver zoom lenses of astounding quality, and they’ve always fit the bill for me. I seem to be using those lenses all the time. I think they’re optically excellent and also the feeling of the lens, the tonality and look have always been very appealing to me.

How would you define that look?

I think it’s the way they manage human faces. When you photograph a face with an Angénieux lens, it seems to be gentle. It is very “kind” even without putting diffusion in front. It’s not only the definition. It’s also the way that it treats the skin tones – the tonality of the skin – that have an influence over me.

Details like eyelashes are sharp, but skin tones and textures are nice, cosmetic and smooth?

Yes. Also, I’m very interested in where lenses come from and how they’re made. Some deliver a very pleasing image. Others, although technically excellent, have not been as successful in conveying that look. I am very active in finding soft focus lenses. The biggest market for developing soft focus lenses for still photography seems to have been Japan. They are very enthusiastic about bokehs, blooming highlights and how the out-of focus areas look. That’s interesting, because when you come to cine lenses, you may find that some of them are the opposite. I don’t know why that is – perhaps it’s the influence of the TV networks. But, I’d say that 80% of all cinematographers are leaning toward the more gentle style of lens.

Of course, we use sharp and ultra-sharp lenses for certain scenes, but if I had to live on an island alone with just one lens, I would take an Angénieux right now.

Kees van Crusoe! Getting back to the beginning, your first Angénieux 16mm lenses were used for shooting what kind of films and with which camera?

I was shooting 16mm documentaries on Éclair ACL cameras that I owned. I had an Angénieux 9.5-57 and a 12-120, and that’s all I used. I also had an Angénieux 10mm prime at the time. It was the famous retrofocus prime. I worked on documentaries for five years. Then I switched to feature work and bought Angénieux 25-250 zooms.

When the Optimo series came out, I got the 17-80, and that has been my go-to lens for many years. As for the 24-290, I’m not usually a fan of large lenses, but it has become another favorite lens, and I’m very pleased to have these two zooms because they completely match. I can interchange them. I like their maximum apertures.The 17-80 is a T2.2 and the 24-290 is a T2.8, and they work well in today’s world of digital cameras. We all know that digital cameras have a tendency to be edgy on texture and not necessarily the same quality we find in film. Angénieux lenses help take the edge off digital for me. They round out the image beautifully.

These days, are you using filters to soften the image as well?

I’m not a big filter guy because I like to use the lighting first, and then as a last resort I might use diffusion on the lens. Sometimes I use filters for a specific effect. In general, I like to shoot with the lens clean and try to soften where I can with the lighting.

You were talking about big lenses and smaller ones. Are you using the Optimo short zooms?

Yes. I use them almost like variable primes. I have the 15-40 T2.6 and the 28-76 T2.6 for handheld and Steadicam work. My only trepidation with the shorter lenses—of course, they’re wonderful because they’re short—is that I think the optical quality of the 17-80 T2.2 is hard to beat. But the shorter lenses are very useful, and on the kind of shows I do right now, primes are not really the way to go because they are really too time-consuming to deal with, especially because of the multiple camera setups that we are using. Most of my work these days is on television series. So it’s almost inevitable that we shoot a whole show with zooms.

Have you used Angenieux anamorphic zooms?

Yes. I shot two commercials with their anamorphics. I liked the lack of distortion, small size, and convenient focal lengths.

You rarely use primes these days?

Correct. I don’t really use primes on the show at the moment. Not that I don’t want to. I’ve always been an avid prime person. On features, sometimes I didn’t even bring a zoom on the show at all, but the reality of what I do today on a TV series is that it’s a zoom world. Of course, that perspective could change. I wish I could seduce Angénieux into building a set of primes. I think that would be really great.

It’s too bad Angénieux ceased production of primes. They once had a big business building primes for cine and stills.

Their 180mm f/2.3 and 200mm f/2.8 Full Frame primes for still photography were wonderful. For many years, these were among the most beautiful lenses around. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the water that they use in France that makes the lenses look terrific. It’s like you’re looking at a fine leather bag that is just so exquisite, and people try to copy it, but they just don’t quite get it.

As you know, I visited the factory in St. Héand recently. It was a wonderful experience because, working with these lenses, I didn’t really know where they came from. As far as I knew, they came out of a dark basement in the suburbs of Paris. No, they are built in this incredible, idyllic village where Pierre Angénieux started the company. Almost all the families around there work at Angénieux. There’s so much tradition behind their lenses. I was so pleased to meet the people who create the lenses—some of them have been working there for three generations. They are very knowledgeable. Even with all those engineering specs, there is a human touch that is just incredible. I think that is the reason for the continued quality of Angénieux lenses over the years.

It’s an artisanal quality, isn’t it?

Yes, and at the same time it’s very high-end technology. Their polishing machines are some of the best. Why couldn’t somebody else build these lenses? You’d figure that if someone put enough money and technology into it, they should be able to deliver similar lenses. But nobody has been able to match the quality or the look. It always seems to fall back on something intangible.

It may be the people who design, create and craft the lenses?

Yes, and it was also interesting when we were visiting and talking to all the people, they wanted to hear our feelings about what we liked about their lenses. They weren’t interested in whether it’s a little sharp or it’s a little this or that. No. They wanted to know how we felt about the shots that these lenses were used on. This is very unique, especially in today’s world where everything is so geared to technology, and everything is so calculated.

We went from an era in which an engineer would put a lens together empirically. They would build a prototype, and try certain things out. Today, they design a lens mostly with a computer and it calculates all the elements and everything. Angénieux does not build prototypes anymore. When they design a lens, they make it. It’s not like, “Oh, we’re going to build one and see if it works.” They have figured out how to create a lens that’s optically perfect, which many people can do, and then, at the same time, instill a feeling of warmth and tenderness into the lens. That doesn’t come out of the computer. That’s not a mathematical calculation. That’s the human touch.

They can predict, scientifically and artistically, the outcome of the lens without a prototype?

I think they know they can calculate it scientifically, certainly. An optical engineer with a substantial background and a computer do a lot of the work, but the touch is something that comes from somewhere, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I couldn’t tell you why it is that

when they build a lens that’s successful, and when other people try to do zoom lenses, they still may never reach that point where you say “That’s a beautiful-looking lens.”

Getting back to primes versus zooms: when I was in Tokyo the other day, I was talking to Japanese cinematographers and rental houses. They seem to be working mostly with primes, even on their TV series, and they were asking why zooms are preferred in the US. Is it cultural?

There are different cultures. If you go to Europe, for instance Belgium, few people use zooms. I’ve heard companies complain that they rarely sell zoom lenses in Belgium.

Even TV?

Even TV. The zoom lens hasn’t really entered into that terrain in some places. Of course, things might change. Fashions and styles come and go, but there is a tradition where some people like to shoot on primes for various reasons. It’s just a choice – a creative choice. For the longest time, I was a prime shooter. Here’s a funny story. Prepping a movie, the director once asked what lenses I would have along. I said that I had six or eight primes. And he asked, “What about a zoom lens?” I replied, “Well, you know, I don’t really want to bring it.” He said, “But I really want you to bring one.” So, as a pure experiment, I put an empty case on the truck without the zoom lens inside, because I was hoping to make a point that we would not use it.

Now we’ve changed from a more classic way of shooting movies to a more vibrant, fluid one. In this world, a zoom lens is almost an inevitable tool to have in your equipment package because you want to change focal lengths. You don’t want to be relegated to the 32mm and then have switch lenses to go to the 35mm. You might want to end up on a 34mm, and also you might use the zoom as an additional tool while you’re doing the shot by changing the focal length.

There’s been a change in certain areas where the primes have become more and more the ones you’d use for Steadicam or for night shooting, and where you really do need a very fast aperture.

But you still go out with a large package of zooms and primes?

Once you scout and discuss the movie, you put in an equipment order. Invariably, production comes back, and they ask “Do you need all this stuff? I can say, “Absolutely yes or quite probably no.” I could do the whole movie with one camera and a 35mm lens. I’d be very happy. Many great movies, including Chinatown and The Pianist, were shot entirely on a 28mm or a 32mm, and that’s what some directors profess is the way to shoot a movie. That kind of discipline actually creates a reality in cinema that is quite welcome because everything is suddenly very related. You get a sense of spatial continuity within a movie that, if you keep changing focal lengths all the time, you wouldn’t have.

So, realistically, no, we don’t need all that equipment, and theoretically, yes, we can shoot everything with one prime lens. But that’s just a theory. The reality, of course, is that 80 percent of the time I need to adjust focal length—often unobtrusively to get slightly tighter or wider. We need to have the flexibility to change our focal lengths instantly, and therefore I think the zoom lens has had a renaissance from being an additional lens to being basically the main tool that you use on a daily basis. Zooms may have once been sort of the fifth wheel on the cart of movies. For many of us, zooms are the main lenses on entire shows. We are shooting predominantly with zooms. More than we ever did.

Interview by Jon Fauer, courtesy of Film & Digital Times,  April-June 2017, issue 81-82

This testimonial is the first of a series of testimonials on technical subjects. Keep following us.

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