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Here’s Why the Co-Founder of Slamdance Invented a New Lens System

Here's Why the Co-Founder of Slamdance Invented a New Lens System

I recently came up with a crazy little invention that I like to call the MirvishScope lens system, which I’ve been peddling as part of my Kickstarter campaign for my new film, “Bernard and Huey.” In short, it’s a unique two-handed way of shooting: with your left hand holding a magnifying glass and your right hand holding the camera with a small, fixed lens. By varying the distance, angle and position of the magnifying glass, you can get all kinds of reflections, flares and distortion for any still or moving image. If you dig playing around with tilt-shift, bokeh or lens whacking, then this is a similarly funky way to get some cool imagery. 

READ MORE: Does an Expensive Lens Make a Difference?

Will I or anyone else ever shoot an entire feature length film on the MirvishScope lens? Probably not. But for those odd shots where you need an artsy-fartsy look – like dream sequences, flashbacks, hallucinations, or just a cool montage, this could be the right lens.  I think it could also be really valuable in music video, concert and commercial applications. The real question isn’t if you need one, but rather why I came up with it in the first place.

After having loosely defined myself as a filmmaker for over 20 years now, I’d always just put my faith in my DP or at least in the cameras I used when I shot things myself. But now seems as good a time as any in my career to question the very nuts and bolts of how we put moving images onto a medium. Forget about the film/digital debate – I want to open up the discussion of why we’re still using the same basic cylindrical lens design that hasn’t changed in 400 years.

Ever since Galileo started messing around with telescopes in 1609, astronomers, photographers and then cinematographers have used cylindrical tubes with internal lenses to looks at stuff. Inside those mysterious tubes, light goes zipping along, bending and bouncing through different lenses and holes, and finds its way to either your eye, a piece of film, or a high-tech image sensor. The optical magic happens behind closed doors, so to speak: All the lens elements are safely ensconced in some sort of cylinder that prevents any distracting outside light from sneaking in. But the result is that now we have incredibly expensive lenses with a multitude of super-sharp glass elements, stabilizers and motorized auto-focus systems. The lenses themselves have become sharper, smarter and pricier than our cameras, and definitely smarter than us.  

A couple years ago, while on the festival circuit with my film “Between Us,” my two favorite looking films that were shot on the RED were “Starlet” by Sean Baker, and “The Porcelain Horse” by Javier Andrade (which wound up being Ecuador’s submission to the Oscars that year).  Both films used retro cool lenses to glorious effect:  Sean and his DP Radium Cheung used old Russian Lomo lenses smuggled into the Valley years ago but a crafty Russian. Meanwhile Javier’s DP Chris Teague used old Nikon still lenses from the ’70s that Chris got in New York. I was completely blown away and jealous of both these films. Although I’m super proud of the look that my amazing DP, Nancy Schreiber, ASC, got out of our RED with its fancy modern lenses, we had to spend a lot of time in color correction and post trying to dirty up our images, adding flares, grain, vignetting, defocussing and other artifacts so it didn’t always look so clean.

So a few months ago, after getting my first decent camera in about 15 years, I started literally deconstructing this cult of the high-end lens.  I’d bought a Canon Rebel 5ti (which uses the same sensor as the C-100, but is about $5000 cheaper). Essentially these cameras are lens platforms now, and all the Canons all have the same EF mount, so why not start with the cheapest one? I know it’s probably not the camera to use for shooting a whole feature, but it’s been great for shooting docu-interviews, locations scouting, family videos and of course, stills.  Immediately I started buying old still lenses at antique and thrift stores. I’m especially proud of a 1971-era Nikon 50-300mm lens that weighs in at over five pounds. Now, THAT’s a lens! It retailed for $5,000 when it was new, and I got it for $45 at an antique mall in Omaha. With a $10 Fotodiox adapter, it fits perfectly onto my little Canon. With a fancier adaptor it even fit onto a friend’s mirrorless Sony-a7 and took gorgeous shots.

I also started buying some even cheaper lenses, including an Albinar 135mm prime. What or who is Albinar? Some cheap store-brand in the ’80s. But I picked it up for $8 and realized when it had an Olympus mount that I’d need a $45 adaptor to make it fit on the Canon. So instead, I started unscrewing it and removed the aperture and a few other metal rings off the camera-end of the lens. I then drilled a big hole in the Canon body cap that came with the camera, and Gorilla-glued it to the back of the lens. To keep things nice and tight, I wrapped it up with my daughter’s purple-camouflage duct tape. Voila! My first Franken-lens!

A couple months ago, I was hiking with my son in the mountains, and stopped by a name-your-own price thrift store in Frasier Park, California. My son picked out a game of Risk in mint condition, and I picked up a 1990s 35mm point-and-shoot plastic panorama camera.  When I humbly offered to pay $5 for both, the nice woman at the counter laughed at me. Too little? No, too much! So I offered her $3 for both and we left happy. I got home – and while my son and his friends were battling over Kamchatka for the next 6 hours – I cracked open the camera and discovered not one, but two little lenses in there. I grabbed an extra Canon body cap (I’d bought some extras for just this purpose), drilled a hole in it, and taped in one of the lens. Sadly, everything was out of focus. But it was close! So I grabbed a handy magnifying glass, held it in front, and eureka, the MirvishScope was born!

By literally opening up the lens to the elements, I can now introduce so many more exciting, dynamic and yes, random, aspects to your image. With the big magnifying glass, I can sometimes see reflections of what’s beside or even behind the camera. It sometimes can give almost a film-like flashing effect or soft flare. It I catch the edge of the glass, I can get distortions that would be almost impossible to recreate digitally.  And I can also get some really creative frame-within-frame and split-diopter (ish) effects.  

What’s really fun about the MirvishScope is also the WAY to use it.  Normally, we’ve got our right hands poised on a shutter button and maybe a thumb or forefinger on a knob or dial.  Meanwhile, our left hand is anchored to the lens with our fingers forever slavishly spinning focus and zoom rings. When was the last time you shot something and really let your left hand’s freak fly?  With my little MirvishScope, your left hand is finally having most of the fun: twisting, turning, moving in and out like a trombonist in a tripped-out jazz solo!

Meanwhile this spring, after an epic three-year hunt, I was able to secure the rights to “Bernard and Huey” – a brilliant 29-year-old script by the legendary Pulitzer/Oscar/Obie-winner Jules Feiffer (“Carnal Knowledge”, “Popeye”).  To kick off momentum for the film, I launched a Kickstarter campaign and rather surprisingly, we hit our modest $10,000 goal within the first 10 days.  But what to do with the next couple of weeks? Well, why not add the MirvishScope lens system as a reward for backers?  

I figured out a way to make multiple sets on a small scale, so I’m offering them at the $35 level, and they’ll fit on any Canon DSLR. It’s an incredibly affordable, fun, lens for any DP, photographer or film student to have in their kit. I’ve seen how tech and invention Kickstarter campaigns regularly outpace film campaigns, so I think this is a unique way of using one to support the other. I’m giving my backers a new lens to help them make their movie, while they help me make mine. Oh, and if someone DOES want to shoot a whole feature on the MirvishScope, let me know when you submit it to Slamdance!

Check out this video explaining the MirvishScope Lens System:

READ MORE: Attention, Filmmakers: 5 Budget-Friendly 50mm Lenses for the Cinema Look

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