Magazine article American Cinematographer

Two Special Lenses for "Barry Lyndon"

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Two Special Lenses for "Barry Lyndon"

Article excerpt

How the stringent demands of a purist-perfectionist film-maker led to the development of two valuable new cinematographic tools

My first contact with Stanley Kubrick was when he was referred to me by our mutual friend, Haskell Wexler, ASC, during Kubrick's preparation for "A CLOCKWORK ORANGE". Haskell indicated to him that I and my company were very responsive to the demanding needs of professional filmmakers, especially when it came to coming up with unique solutions to difficult problems.

For "CLOCKWORK" we purchased a standard Mitchell BNC for Kubrick and overhauled it, but did not reflex it or modify it in any special way. Kubrick's attitude has always been that he would rather work with a non-reflexed BNC and thereby gain tremendous flexibility and latitude in the adaptation of special lenses to the camera - as was subsequently the case on "BARRY LYNDON". For "CLOCKWORK" we also supplied the major accessory items for which we are well known, such as the "Joy Stick" zoom control, the BNC crystal motor and the Arri crystal motor.

At the very early stages of his preparation for "BARRY LYNDON", Kubrick scoured the world looking for exotic, ultra-fast lenses, because he knew he would be shooting extremely low light level scenes. It was his objective, incredible as it seemed at the time, to photograph candle-lit scenes in told English castles by only the light of the candles themselves! A former still photographer for Look magazine, Kubrick has become extremely knowledgeable with regard to lenses and, in fact, has taught himself every phase of the technical application of his filming equipment. He called one day to ask me if I thought I could fit a Zeiss lens he had procured, which had a focal length of 50mm and a maximum aperture of f/0.7. He sent me the dimensional specifications, and I reported that it was impossible to fit the lens to his BNC because of its large diameter and also because the rear element came within 4mm of the film plane. Stanley, being the meticulous craftsman that he is, would not take "No" for an answer and persisted until I reluctantly agreed to take a hard look at the problem.

When the lens arrived, we could see it was designed as a still camera lens, with a Compur shutter built into the lens. The diameter of the lens was so large that it would just barely fit into the BNC lens port, leaving no room for an additional focusing shell. As a consequence, we had to design a focusing arrangement so that the entire lens barrel rotates freely in the lens port. To avoid possible binds that might result from this unconventional mode of operation, we added a second locating pin to the standard BNC lens flange, so that the two pins securely held the lens barrel concentric with the lens port during operation.

The problem of the close proximity of the rear element to the film plane was a much more difficult matter to resolve. To begin with, we removed the adjustable shutter blade, leaving the camera with only a fixed maximum opening. We then had to machine the body housing and the aperture plate a considerable distance inward so that the fixed shutter blade could be pulled back as far as possible toward the film plane.

Naturally, the Compur shutter had to be dismantled and the iris leaves altered so that they could be manually operated in the normal manner. Calibrating the focus scale on the lens presented quite a problem, too. A lens as fast as this has an extremely shallow depth of field when shooting wide open, so Kubrick understandably wanted to have as broad a band spread on the scale as possible. To do this we used an extremely fine thread for the focusing barrel and this resulted in a scale which required two complete revolutions to go from infinity down to approximately 5 feet. We had to stop at 5 feet or it would have taken several more revolutions to bring it to the near focus point. Kubrick agreed that this was as close a focus as he would require, and that stopping at two revolutions would make the scale less ambiguous. …

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