When you're on a big show like Star Wars, you can get lenses designed just for you.
Director of Photography Dan Mindel, who shot Star Wars: The Force Awakens (along with a number of J.J. Abrams films), worked with Panavision to come up with some new anamorphics, along with the two custom cameras built for the film (you can see one of them above). Mindel was looking for a set of lenses that called to mind the warmth of the lenses used on the original films, but didn't want any of the technical issues that are generally associated with the older optics, like edge falloff on the top and bottom.
Panavision started with C and B series cylinders, and developed a hybrid version that used some T Series technology. Current optics were used for the spherical components. Once the right combination was determined, it was applied to a full set – 35, 40, 50, 60, 75, and 100mm, with a minimum T-stop of 2.8. A couple of longer focal lengths were also adjusted slightly. Dubbed the Retro C Series, these lenses were on the camera for scenes featuring the brave Rebel Alliance, rendering a warmer, softer feel. New Order Stormtroopers were usually filmed with Panavision Primo glass for a harder, cooler look.
“The level of forgiveness with the softer lenses is so beautiful,” says Mindel. “It will definitely affect the audience in a subconscious way.”
Some desert exteriors and effects plates were shot with 15-perf IMAX. On those shots, the lenses included T-2 80mm and T-2.8 50mm models refitted with Panavision mechanics and Panavision proprietary glass. These IMAX lenses had been originally developed for Wally Pfister, ASC on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
Since I've only seen the film in 2D digital, I can only comment on the image in that respect. I think Panavision and Mindel achieved their goal coming up with anamorphics that weren't too sharp but also weren't too soft and didn't have strange artifacts. These lenses, combined with shooting on 35mm (and some IMAX), definitely gave the image some added warmth that's noticeably absent from most sci-fi films, and it would not be surprising if the next films in the series used these same lenses.
The Force Awakens definitely delivered on the nostalgia aspect, and the lens/film combo certainly helped.