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Digital River - Talk to the Experts

Shoot Super Widescreen Films With an iPhone? Seriously?

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Dec 4, 2013 5:00 AM PT

Budget filmmakers, here's one for you: Scott Cahall, a lens designer at Moondog Labs, has invented a 1.33x anamorphic adapter lens for the iPhone 5 and 5s and is offering it through a new Kickstarter project.

Shoot Super Widescreen Films With an iPhone? Seriously?

Film buffs have already stopped reading and are scanning this article for a direct link to the project.

For the rest of us, what's anamorphic? And why is it so cool?

An anamorphic lens let you capture expansive panoramic images and film in gorgeous widescreen. It introduces organic lens flares and distortion that add character and depth, Cahall explains.

"Think landmark films like Indiana Jones, early James Bond films, Pulp Fiction, Star Trek and Inception," he says. "Unfortunately, anamorphic lenses are incredibly expensive and out of reach for most filmmakers."

Instead, many filmmakers shoot conventionally and crop the top and bottom of the image to get a widescreen aspect ratio; however, the technique wastes available pixels and the resulting picture lacks the traditional "feel" of widescreen cinema. These sorts of digital techniques -- versus images captured and created through a real lens -- just don't seem as lush.

I'm no movie expert, but I've definitely noticed that some expansive films have a different feel to them, particularly when placed next to indie films. Might some of this have to do with anamorphic lenses or the lack thereof? Perhaps.

Far more goes into setting up and shooting scenes than most of us can even imagine. Still, there's something going on here -- something that caused Moondog Labs to blow past its initial US$30,000 project goal with 18 days to go. Check out the explanatory project video for examples of iPhone-based cinematic-feel video shot with the prototype lens:

If you're a family-and-friends iPhone videographer, tell me this video didn't spark some interest. The examples somehow seem to fit more into a widescreen shot, and they do: They are able to capture a 33 percent wider field of view, says Cahall.

How It Works

The built-in iPhone camera captures a 16:9 aspect ratio, but when you shoot with the 1.33x Anamorphic Adapter, you optically squeeze a wider scene onto the iPhone's camera sensor. If I understand this correctly -- and I might not -- the lens collects information from a wider field of view and throws the light (information) onto the standard iPhone sensor.

The resulting image gives you skinny looking objects. Then, through a software program, the compressed anamorphic image is stretched into the full widescreen video image, turning the skinny objects into "normal" objects.

Again, if I understand this right, this stretching used to be completed in movie theaters through optical lenses on the projectors.

Bottom line? It sure looks cool.

Project Details

The first tiers of pledges that offered up lenses at $85 and $105 sold out quickly, but Moondog Labs says the $125 Kickstarter project price is a special introductory price for Kickstarter backers only. Presumably a retail version will cost more, but no details are given.

Moondog Labs says there is some inherent risk in launching any new product, but it has experience creating more complex products. For instance, while they have screened suppliers for small batches of materials during prototyping, it's possible that larger volumes could introduce quality or scheduling problems. Of course, Moondog Labs seems confident it can overcome these types of hurdles.

All-in-all, a crowdfunded project seems perfect for this sort of niche product -- because it's hard to say how many people will be willing to buy these specialized lenses. Crowdfunding removes a lot of the initial risk and lets smaller projects like this flourish.

And the result? Might we someday watch an iPhone-based film shot by the world's next great filmmaker? Maybe it'll come from an anamorphic lens for the iPhone. You never know.

For the rest of us, a trip to the beach can now turn into video that feels a little more like being there.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com.

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