Made in Frame: Old Fast Glass’ Innovative Remote Lens Test Workflow
While we most often associate the word creativity with artistic pursuits, we also associate it with inventiveness—especially when applied to technology.
So when we learned that cinematographer Mark LaFleur, founder of LA rental house Old Fast Glass, had come up with a creative new use case for the Frame.io Camera-to-Cloud (C2C) workflow, we were immediately intrigued.
We developed C2C with the intention of closing the gap between production and post-production. But Mark ingeniously discovered the value of C2C during pre-production, and was happy to share his inventive new workflow that helps cinematographers, directors, producers (and so many other team members) plan and execute their shoots more creatively and efficiently.
A passion for glass
Mark started his career as a cinematographer, shooting for TV and films in the early 2000s.
As a way of helping to elevate his work, he began collecting rare lenses, which he would make available for rental through an online community called ShareGrid to help offset the expense of purchase.
Today, Old Fast Glass rents an array of cameras and accessories, but Mark’s self-described obsession is what has made it Hollywood’s premiere rental house for vintage glass.
They have an extensive collection of rare lenses that have been meticulously restored or rehoused, and are regularly serviced to keep them in top working condition.
Mark considers himself a curator of lenses. “I don’t think the average hardworking cinematographer has the time to hunt down lenses that nobody’s talking about anymore, to go down the rabbit holes online of trying to find them, to test them out,” he says.
“The obsession means that I put in all the time that I don’t think a cinematographer necessarily can, so I can help them access these tools.”
The trouble with testing
Beyond renting gear, Old Fast Glass is also home to a large and carefully constructed lens testing area, designed to give cinematographers an environment in which to replicate a range of real-world conditions.
“We have always been proponents of how important testing is,” Mark says.
“And sometimes that can actually be challenging in a rental house environment, which are typically white walls, no windows, with fluorescent lighting. It’s hard to gauge a lens’s character. So when we moved into our current location, we wanted to make sure we had a nice studio space with a lot of depth. We also have windows with natural light, and we’ve got a real set.”
Why does he put such an emphasis on testing? Because he knows how essential choosing the right lens is to achieving directors’ and cinematographers’ visions.
“Of all the tools we have to affect the image, the lens is one of the most effective in adding character. When you put an interesting old lens on a camera, it changes the shot in a way that nothing else can. It’s not something you can replicate in post or do with lighting. It’s inherent in the way the light passes through it.”
But lens testing is challenging. “The logistics are difficult,” Mark says.
“You need a location, you need the gear, and you need the time to shoot the test. Sometimes people shoot at 4K, 5K, 6K. They shoot all day. They have to dump cards for hours, and then maybe they have to edit that footage. The amount of time and legwork is heavy, but it’s such a necessary part of pre-production.”
These tests need to be shared with directors, producers, gaffers, production designers—really anyone who has a hand in setting the look for the shooting environment—and the likelihood of getting everyone who needs to be involved during the test falls somewhere between slim to zero.
A simple solution
As a professional cinematographer, when Mark became aware of Frame.io C2C, he could immediately see the impact on production.
And as the owner of Old Fast Glass, he could spot the opportunity to take something that was difficult to execute and employ new technology to benefit his clients, who shoot everything from commercials and music videos to television series and feature films.
“Lens testing has always been challenging for rental companies to schedule,” Mark says. “But with Frame.io C2C, we’ve doubled the amount we can do.”
Now, the team at Old Fast Glass preps each test by setting up the camera and the Teradek CUBE655 for the cinematographer prior to their arrival.
“We create the project with their name on it and we send them a link,” he says.
“They have to do so little and it’s just such an easy pitch. ‘Hey, we’re setting this up for you, and your footage will be immediately available to you and securely shareable to anyone in your project.’”
By using Frame.io C2C, Mark’s clients no longer have to wait to download cards in order for someone to edit the takes to show the crew.
Instead, lens tests can happen in real time, with a cinematographer communicating with the director as the test is taking place—no matter where in the world the director might be.
“They can see the differences between lenses and do A/B comparisons on their phone or their laptop,” he says. “So now, with this new workflow, we can loop in directors, producers, investors. We’re making them a part of pre-production and helping them understand why lens testing is so important.”
The other significant factor for Mark is the ease with which new users can start working in Frame.io. “It just takes a few minutes to teach everyone how to use Frame.io—it’s really intuitive,” he says. “You only need to show them a few things and then they’re off and running on their own.”
Proof of concept
Cinematographer Madeline Kate Kann is one of Mark’s regular clients.
She came to Old Fast Glass for a recent TV series that required different looks for different worlds, so she needed a variety of lenses to help give each one a unique quality.
“Lenses are hugely important to cinematographers because there’s no such thing as reality in filmmaking. You’re already shooting a rectangle and nobody looks at the world as though it’s a rectangle,” she says.
“Our focus falls off naturally around the edges when we’re looking at the world. So to me, it feels more real to find lenses that have a swirl or a curvature on the edges so the focus falls off.”
As digital cameras have become capable of capturing at higher resolutions, Madeline thinks it’s more challenging to capture the intimate, subjective looks that were possible with film.
“I love vintage glass,” she says. “Particularly Mark’s selection, which is incredible. And his knowledge around all of the subtle differences between them makes him such an invaluable resource.” It’s why she turned to Mark for this show.
“I like to create distinct ‘spaces’ in the visual language, and those are a function of what the character is feeling. So I like to use different lenses for each of the spaces.”
Madeline was shooting the series on full-frame spherical lenses but wanted to shoot the flashbacks anamorphic. However, full-frame anamorphic lenses felt too sharp for flashbacks, so she wanted to find a set of older Super 35 anamorphics that would cover full-frame after being cropped to 16:9.
At that point, she was already prepping in Atlanta. “Mark wanted to help figure it out. He had high hopes for one set of lenses and wanted to try out a couple of others,” she says.
“His guesses were based on his vast bank of knowledge, namely that if we used an anamorphic with a full-frame base it would be more likely to cover me.”
Mark set up a lens test using Frame.io C2C and was able to show Madeline, in real time, how they looked.
“I was able to look at the tests as they were uploading, and we were texting each other. ‘Could you pan around? I want to see how the focus falls off on the edges.’ And we found a solution that I don’t think anyone’s used before with this particular aspect ratio and lens combination in full frame.”
“We found a solution that I don’t think anyone’s used before.”
That was Madeline’s introduction to Frame.io C2C.
“Old Fast Glass is the first rental house to implement this technology, which shows how much Mark cares about his clients. Downloading was always a really annoying part of the process—you have to go in with your laptop and drive, and wait for several hours for the footage to download. It’s not really feasible for cinematographers who are popping around to different states for different jobs,” she says.
“After I did the test, we were able to send links of specific lenses to the showrunner to illustrate what we were thinking. And then, while I was in Atlanta, we were curious about another set of lenses that I hadn’t been able to test while I was in LA, so Mark shot a test for me and instantly it uploaded to my Frame.io account.”
Madeline gives full credit to Mark for creating a workflow that truly enables creativity.
Cinematographer Matt Plaxco also admires Mark LaFleur for his knowledge and ingenuity, and is blown away by not only the collection of lenses available at Old Fast Glass but also by Mark’s meticulous care when it comes to mechanically improving and rehousing them.
He also very much appreciates the new lens testing workflow with Frame.io, which (like Madeline) he tried for the first time with Mark.
“I had heard from some friends that Old Fast Glass had one of the first C2C systems. At around the same time, I had a director who was out of town and I was raving about a specific set of lenses. He wanted to see them, so that was a perfect opportunity,” Matt says.
“When we got there, they already had an iPad on standby and we had the dailies within minutes. That was really powerful.”
Matt does a lot of work on celebrity promos, known for their short turnaround.
“There’ve been multiple times where the client is in New York and we’re shooting in LA and they’re worried about getting the footage to the editor as quickly as possible. They’ll pay for a courier to get on a flight to take it. So a lightbulb went off in my head. It’s perfect for this. It couldn’t be any better.”
Of course, time is always at a premium when creating any form of video, so saving it allows creatives to devote more of it to their craft.
“Your primary goal as a cinematographer is to support the movie and communicate its aesthetic to your team,” Matt says. “In this business, immediate feedback is invaluable.”
Madeline has similar thoughts. As someone who often shoots music videos, where the schedules are notoriously tight, she envisions using Frame.io C2C to get footage to the editor much faster.
The (im)perfect lens for the job
Hearing about Mark, Madeline, and Matt’s shared passion for what unique lenses bring to their artistry is like sitting in on a master class in cinematography.
“Lens design is like music,” Mark says.
“In music there are only a few notes to choose from, yet an infinite number of distinct songs can be made from those few notes. Similarly, there are really only a few approaches to designing a lens, yet within those few optical designs, an almost unlimited number of lenses can be created, all with a unique look.”
The imperfections are what Mark loves most and what he looks for.
“I love that sometimes optical engineers are trying to design a lens that does a certain thing, but then happy accidents come out that the engineer didn’t intend. Then, all of a sudden, a cinematographer gets that tool and they see that imperfection and that’s what they fixate on.”
“For so long, lenses were designed to be as sharp and as clinical as possible because they were being used on film cameras, and when you’re shooting on film you want that,” he says.
“When the RED One came out it kind of shook everything up. People realized that the digital image was really sharp and they wanted to soften it a little. People were doing it with filters, but they also started to rediscover lenses that had been sitting on shelves for a long time.”
“People were doing it with filters, but they also started to rediscover lenses that had been sitting on shelves for a long time.”
There are numerous factors that influence how Mark evaluates a lens. He takes into account such things as halation, the halo that appears around a bright light source in the frame and veiling glare, a milky effect that occurs as a result of reflections within the lens’s optics. He describes how chromatic aberrations, generally considered undesirable, can sometimes become a welcome artifact.
And then there’s the importance of bokeh, the look of the part of the frame that’s out of focus, which varies widely according to lens aperture and focal length.
Mark also talks about lens coatings and how they’ve changed over time.
“The early cinema lenses in the twenties and thirties were just glass, with no coatings, which meant that cinematographers were always fighting to keep stray light off of the lens,” Mark says.
“Older, vintage coatings helped with contrast and reflections, and also added beautiful flare character. Then modern coatings became so effective at eliminating reflection that lens flares and ghosts have been almost eliminated altogether. It’s one of the reasons cinematographers are going back to vintage lenses, as well as removing modern coatings and recoating them to mimic the look of the vintage coatings.”
According to Mark, Matt is as obsessed with lenses as he is. “He understands how important lenses are to such a degree where he’ll specifically choose a lens and then exploit that characteristic by pairing it with his production design, his wardrobe, and his locations.”
“It’s very important to me to have a variety of lenses, whether they’re slightly sharper or a little softer on purpose, or have a very shallow depth of field or barrel distortion or interesting flares,” Matt says.
“The list goes on and on, but I think what’s important is that you have different paintbrushes for different stories.”
Madeline agrees. The series she’s working on has given her an opportunity to work with what she calls “adventurous” lenses. “We were so excited to work with the Clavius lenses because it looks one way without the anamorphic inserts, but then it gets more subjective and surreal when you add them.”
“Mark will never give you a lens that’s problematic,” Madeline says. “One of the risky things about shooting with adventurous lenses is that they don’t always match sometimes wide open. He has lenses that can go wide open even though they’re vintage—hence the name Old Fast Glass.”
For both Madeline and Matt, the bottom line is that Mark’s knowledge and “impeccable” collection allows them to find lenses that help them tell stories in unique ways.
“Optical variety is hugely important to cinematographers because our job is to express worlds with a specific vision,” Madeline says. “Every story has been told before so it’s not just our job to capture. It’s our job to express. What is the subtext of the story? What does it feel like to the character?”
“That’s what’s so much fun about our job. We get to be emotional and nerdy and think about how those little differences in the lenses feel different.”
A lens on the future
Looking to the future Mark, Madeline, and Matt all agree that Frame.io C2C will enable cinematographers before and during any kind of production.
“I think anybody who’s skeptical of it needs to try it.”
Matt had already been using Frame.io on projects, but when C2C became available, he could immediately see the value.
“I think Frame.io is a two-fold solution. It’s the robust cloud infrastructure and the interface. And I think anybody who’s skeptical of it needs to try it. The first time I used it I thought, ‘I need this on every shoot.’ I think the cloud is the future.”
“I think the burden is on us as cinematographers to make sure that we’re always investigating new technology because that’s how you push boundaries,” Madeline says.
“I enjoy taking technological risks because I don’t want to just accept the status quo. But Frame.io C2C wasn’t even a risk. It was so seamless and so easy. And the security that Frame.io is already known for applies to all of this. I’m already looking forward to using this again because filmmaking is all about collaboration, and there are so many departments that bring their wizardry to the table.”
“The easier it is for us to get our eyes on the footage, the better the project can be. I can imagine a script supervisor not only being able to look at the screenshots they’ve taken but be able to look at the previous take and answer a question on the fly on set or remotely. Why would you not use it?”
“It’s that thing you never knew you needed until you have it. And then nobody can go back.”
Mark sums it up for all three of them. “Frame.io C2C has created a workflow shift that our clients feel they now can’t live without. When we tell people about it, at first they think, ‘Oh, that sounds great.’ But when they try it, it’s that game-changing moment where they realize that it’s that thing you never knew you needed until you have it. And then nobody can go back.”
At Frame.io, we focus our lens on enabling creativity through intuitive technology.
So to see experts in the realm of cinematography create this new application is both gratifying and validating. We can’t wait to see what other creative new workflows will evolve in the future.