Luckily for me, I have yet to catch Covid. However, I have spent the latter part of the past two years in and out of clinics and hospitals for other reasons. It has been hard to get any projects done in a reasonable time and even harder to shoot anything for myself. When I felt well, I usually worked for others. I did what I could.
That aside, I have been very lucky over the past two years. A lot has happened. I’m thankful that I continue to improve and hope that I can feel normal for more than a week at a time. It’s not something I want to get into, but let’s just say it gave me a lot of time to be hunting for lenses and not much else.
Earlier this year I was lucky enough to grab a Kowa Anamorphic 35-BE 40mm T 2.3 cine lens. This purchase ended up being overwhelming in more ways than I could ever imagine. It threw me down a rabbit hole of lens mystery, lens design, more luck, and some amazing connections in the industry. Rare glass opens doors and this journey is just beginning.
First off, the obvious visual and important point is that this is NOT a normal Kowa cine anamorphic. There are actually 3 kinda of Kowa Cine anamorphics. The very common Prominar 35-BS, the 35-BR telephotos, and these, the 35-BE cine anamorphics. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things I can’t get into yet, but this lens uses the counter-rotating astigmat design, hence the hump on the side. Unlike the Kowa 35-BS 40mm Prominar anamorphic, there is almost zero edge distortion or breathing. These are the only Kowas ever made with this design, and there is almost nothing known about them. There *are* some famous vintage cine lenses that have the exact same optical design and characteristics, but I am waiting to confirm 100% before I say anything here. I have my hunches and others have said they know, but I want facts. Will hopefully get them soon, but until then I have to be vague but my hint may be obvious to some.
Second, the lens itself is in excellent condition for it’s age. Focus is perfect, aperture is perfect, it’s as sharp as it was new, most likely. And these things are 60 years old. On top of that, my copy hasn’t been used in maybe 30 years. These had to have been built by the great lens masters of the time. It still has a double mount with Arri Standard and nac mount (common in Japan vintage cine lenses). My lens has an aperture of T 2.5 and a close focus of 2.5 feet, with both rotating butter smooth. How did I luck out like this?
And speaking of nac, I visited them a few weeks ago to look at their sets. They have the only known rental 35-BE lenses in the world, and they have two sets of them. I compared my 40mm to theirs, and the lens tech was amazed at the condition of mine. They have the same sharpness and mechanic feeling, but the coating is slightly different. They know of one other set owned by a production house in Hokkaido. I know of one through a friend that may be somewhere in Scandinavia. That means there only 4 sets known previously, and I may have the only privately-owned 40mm 35-BE in the world. Crazy. I would love to be proven wrong. I just want more information on these lenses.
The oddest thing is how little information there is about these on the internet. I found a few movies and music videos shot on nac’s sets. But unless somebody who shot with them states it publicly, we have no clue as to haw much has actually been shot on them. I know that Toei Company used these for some of their films back in the day, but there is no “Shot On What” for Japanese vintage cinema. These lenses are absolutely amazing, so why isn’t there more information about them? Well, I’m working on this. I would appreciate any information the internet masses may have as well. I am still gathering as much as I can. I got a bit from my nac visit and a few friends overseas, but nobody has been able to answer my main questions: Why were these made, who made them, and why is there so little information on them?
As for shooting on the lens, it was a bit of a challenge. Initially, I borrowed RAF Camera Arri Standard to PL mount. It fit and locked OK, but the flange was off. With Anamorphic lenses, the flange has to be perfect to get optimal sharpness and focus. I acquired some spacers and was finally able to get perfect infinity focus. I was absolutely floored with the lens’s sharpness, wide open, on the GH5. It was 100% usable as-is, but I wanted something more stable. I tried a few other adapters but ran into multiple issues, so I will stick with the RAF adapter for now. I am looking into getting it adapted to PL, which will be easier than most other lenses. (more on this later) I am slightly afraid to shoot with this lens, as there is no way to replace it whatsoever. But these were meant to shoot, so shoot I must.
I went to my friend’s studio and we did a few basic tests. The lens has a beautiful rainbow halo in strong light. The “X” flare is a result of the focusing mechanism. It will take the color of the strongest light, which looks more natural out on the field. The bokeh is just amazing. I love it. One of the best I have seen in a 40mm lens. Sharpness on these tests are bit off, as I had yet to figure out the proper shim situation then. But trust me, when you get it right it is razor sharp.
I finally arranged a model and I borrowed a S1H to shoot with. I also bought a Polar Pro Basecamp Matte Box, which fits snugly on the front of the Kowa. I was ready to go.
I just wanted to get some basic test shots done that show what the lens can do. I did them all hand held and focused with my wireless follow focus. When doing these kind of test shoots, sometimes I really wish I had a small crew so I could focus more on shooting, but in the end it shows what you can do with the bare minimum of effort. If this is how the lens looks with this kind of test, imagine using it on a proper production.
The bokeh is perfect. The lens is so sharp wide open. The lens takes the flare color of the strongest light. It’s so clean, and yet still has a perfect vintage feel. To me, this is absolutely as good as it gets for anamorphic lenses. I am still in awe that I own this lens. How is this thing 60 years old??? My only issues were all me. I’m still not familiar with the S1H and I forgot a white balance card. This shoot was super fast run-and-gun, but I’m happy with how it came out.
But this is just the beginning of the story. To take a page from Steve Jobs…
“Oh yeah, and one more thing…”
More on this picture soon. That’s all I can say. (Also, none of the lenses here are for sale or will be for sale any time in the near future.)
I would like to thank Alice Iwamoto for helping me out with the shoot. You can find her Instagram here.
4K S35 48fps 10 bit
Converted to 24fps
Kowa Anamorphic 35-BE 40mm T 2.5 PL Adapted
PolarPro Basecamp Mattebox
Ikan Life Air Wireless Follow Focus
Atomos Shinobi Monitor
Filmed in Yokohama, Japan
Music made by me in the Launchpad app