The Cameras and Lenses of Sundance 2023— Filmmakers Embrace Old, New, and Weird

Credit: Jonathan Hickerson/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
While ARRI still holds the crown, custom and vintage tools are taking center stage. But where is RED?

UPDATE 1/20/23: After publishing this article, Blackmagic Design and Panavision reached out to give us an update on a few Sundance projects that used their tools. Specifically, we are adding a bunch of BMD cameras and Panavision lenses to our survey list.

After what seems like a decade of staying indoors and battling a pandemic, Sundance returns in person once again. The 2022 event was unfortunately moved completely online, but this year, we can all shake hands, hug it out, and pat each other on the back for getting into one of the biggest festivals in North America. Sort of, creatives will have to follow some health and safety guidelines

As we do every year, we started Sundance by reaching out to all the filmmakers being represented. And we asked about not only the tools they used but also their creative approach to making a film or documentary worthy of such a festival. 

What we discovered was surprising. While ARRI cameras were still the king when it came to production, a lot of other interesting tools kept popping up. From vintage glass to custom-made lenses, the filmmaking landscape seems to be evolving once again.

Cameras and Lenses of Sundance 2023

Among the 65 filmmakers survey, we gathered data on 69 cameras and 80 different sets of lenses. The two most interesting things we noticed are that filmmakers aren’t shy about using different sets for one project and for taking a risk on custom or vintage glass. 

Cameras

To no one's surprise, ARRI is still kind of the hill with a whopping 35 cameras out of 69. While this includes multiple different versions of the Alexa, the most popular tool was the ARRI Alexa Mini once again. Twenty different projects used the Mini, with several DPs waxing poetic about its color and efficient workflow. There's even an old Arriflex 416 in the mix. 

Blackmagic Design reached out to us to give us some more info on what cameras were used for Sundance films and docs. The Pocket series was very popular, with several projects using 4K, 6K, and 6K Pros. According to BMD, Sound Recordist Charlie Vela used Pocket Cinema Camera 4K for select sequences on Going Varsity in Mariachi, while DP Olan Collardy of Rye Lane used a Pocket Cinema Camera 4K for select scenes and intercut them with an ARRI Alexa Mini. 

Canon and Sony are still major contenders as well. While several filmmakers used Sony VENICE for their productions, the Japanese brand wasn’t utilized as much when we compared our results with last year’s survey

But what really piqued our interest is the lack of one camera brand within our survey—RED. However, this doesn’t mean that these cameras were utilized on Sundance projects, just that our sample size didn't include them. Still, it's a strange sight when the likes of RED don't make it into our survey.  With how popular the RED Komodo has been, we can bet that there are a few projects that utilized RED in their workflow. 

Lenses

As for lenses, there are a few more interesting developments in how filmmakers choose their tools. Last year, the king of the hill was Panavision, leading the pack with 22% of the projects we surveyed.

Panavision reached out to update our survey numbers, adding an additional seven lenses to our list. This brings Panavision up to 12, meaning that its lenses make up 15% of our survey results, bringing them neck and neck with Cooke. 

Before we dive into what happens, let’s look at the top lens brands that were used. According to our filmmaker survey, Zeiss and Cooke were the two leading lens makers utilized.

But third place? That’s still reserved for Sigma glass, with Cooke and Panavision sharing second place. Between the Sigma Art series, primes, and zooms, the Japanese lens (and camera) manufacturer takes bronze on our survey. Eight different projects utilized nine different sets of Sigma glass, a testament to not only their affordability but their utility. 

Next up on the list, we have Angenieux, ARRI, and Canon lenses which make up a series of anamorphic, zoom, or rehoused vintage sets. On top of that, a myriad of what we call indie lens manufacturers are also found on our list. We have anamorphic glass from companies like Atlas Lens Co and Xelmus, as well as custom sets like the Xtal Express from JDC, the Meru Anamorphics, and a set of rehoused soviet lenses from Iron Glass Adapters. 

One filmmaker even took the Helios 58mm and flipped the rear and front lens elements to make a wicked cool lens. There’s also a set of 40-year-old Leica still lenses and some glass from Voigtlander. 

So what does this tell us? From what we’ve seen from our survey, filmmakers are getting bold with their lens choices, choosing unique and sometimes custom-made tools to get a unique image for their projects.

What Filmmakers Are Saying

Let’s start with that modified Helios lens we just mentioned. Jacqueline Castel, director of My Animal, spoke about their approach to shooting the POV of wolves.

“During development, I was very interested in understanding how wolves “saw” the world, how their perspective differed from humans, and how we could use lensing to tell that story,” Castel wrote. "I simultaneously wanted to explore an organic “transformational” hallucinatory look that was inspired by my early experiences with migraines as a child and the ways my vision would distort during the aura stage of my headaches.” 

My Animal Sundance
'My Animal' directed by Jacqueline CastelCredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

To achieve this look, Castle and her DP “discussed a variety of different techniques to achieve these looks.” They used “the Helios series—which Bryn then modified by hand by flipping the front and rear elements to create a warped perspective for some of the “wolf vision” moments.”

Jeff Hutchens, Director of Photography for the docu-series Murder in Big Horn, utilized a Canon C500 Mk II and a set of Leica R Summilux still lenses. “I usually prefer to cradle the camera in front of me rather than shooting on my shoulder,” Hutchens wrote. This was to give his subjects an extra presence within the frame and give Hutchens what he called compositional agility. “The 10 stops of internal ND are hard to argue with when working in unpredictable situations,” Hutchens added. “With 1/8 Black Pro Mist filters for a slight touch of halation, wide open at f/1.4 (the Leica’s) dovetail in a beautiful way with the naturalist and intimate style of filming we wanted for this series.” 

Murder in Big Horn - Sundance
'Murder in Big Horn' directed by Gazelle Benally and Matthew GalkinCredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Liz Sargent, the director and writer of Take Me Home, relied on the Kinefinity MAVO Edge 8K and a set of lenses from IronGlass.

“The innovation was in how we were thinking about production, time, and money. Each choice had to be sensitive—the crew, the lighting, and the direction. And even into post-production,” Sargent wrote. 

Take Me Home Sundance
'Take Me Home' directed by Liz SargentCredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

For Rye Lane, DP Olan Collardy searched far and wide for a unique set of lenses. “I discovered the JDC Xtal Xpress High Speed Anamorphic lens, which has a lovely vintage look, very unique artifacts and aesthetic that really lend itself to the film's visual language,” Collardy wrote. “The distortions on the wider end of the frame gave the film a distinct look and feel that were perfect for the style of the film.”

The Xtal Express lenses were developed in the 80s by Joe Dunton Cameras, which ended up being acquired by Panavision. These lenses were used on small little pictures like Star Wars Episode VI and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Rye Lane Sundance
'Rye Lane' directed by Raine Allen-MillerCredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Finally, Curren Sheldon, the director of photography for King Coal, chose a set of Voigtlander Heliar Classics. “To heighten the magical realism elements of the film, I tested a variety of vintage and modern lenses to find the look we were after.” Sheldon wrote. “We settled on the Voigtlander Heliar Classic, which is a modern design but has an incredibly unique out-of-focus rendering that, when paired with a 1/8 pro mist filter, gave us exactly the look we wanted. We used that lens for nearly all of the imaginative scenes.”

King Coal Sundance
'King Coal' directed by Elaine McMillion SheldonCredit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

How the Landscape Has Changed

From everything we’ve seen from our survey, filmmakers are slowly escaping the bounding box of big brands. While creatives are still utilizing lenses from tried and true manufacturers, the trend of using vintage glass, weird custom creations, and even still lenses is now becoming a common occurrence. Sure they won’t take over the filmmaker landscape completely, but there is a growing market share of tools that don’t fit the mold. 

And that’s what we’re learning from our results here. There are new creations, either made new or from vintage bones, that are making a splash. Also, affordable lenses are now super commonplace in all sorts of productions. Finally, from a top-down view, we’re also seeing a shift in what big brands are utilized in movie-making. Whatever Zeiss and Cooke have been doing for the last year is working extremely well, and creatives are paying attention. 

What conclusion have you come to after seeing the surgery results? Let us know in the comments!     

No Film School's coverage of Sundance 2023 is brought to you by Adobe.

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