AC profiles Panavision's depth-defying Frazier Lens system and its inventor.

Christopher Probst

Award-winning documentary cinematographer Jim Frazier, ACS began shooting 16mm wildlife films in the jungles and outback of Australia, where his fascination with the macro and microscopic worlds of tiny critters and scurrying insects posed a seemingly endless array of technical hurdles. It was the late 1960s, and many of the cinematographic tools Frazier required to achieve the views he envisioned were either scarce or nonexistent. In fact, the most significant technical breakthrough Frazier made at the time was to obtain a zoom lens, which had just become readily available to working cinematographers.

"When I started shooting wildlife documentaries for the BBC," relates Frazier, "I didn't realize that I had immersed myself in a field that was so difficult. Not only was macro and micro photography a difficult area of cinematography, but my subjects were often completely unpredictable, which made it difficult to even keep them in focus! The photographic techniques used on those films often required a lot of special optical equipment, so I spent a lot of time devising equipment and unique apparatus."

A Closer Look

As with most macro-photography techniques, Frazier was battling the extremely magnified factors that one encounters while making such a close inspection of minute organisms — including vibrations created by his own breath buffeting his subjects. Up until the recent developments of such tools as periscopes, boroscopes, probe, and pitching lenses, there were only two basic approaches to obtaining close-up, macro views of small subjects, and Frazier utilized these interchangeably, depending on the shooting situation and the subject. The first technique involved using wide-angle lenses close to his subjects and stopping down near f22 to maximize his depth of field. This technique was cumbersome, however. Lighting the subject to the high intensity required by the f-stop sometimes became nearly impossible due to the close proximity of the camera. Also, focusing on subjects a few inches from the lens resulted in gross distortion of perspective.

Frazier's other option involved utilizing extremely long lenses, such as a 600mm, upon which he would stack several diopters in order to focus on his subjects. This technique allowed Frazier more room for his lights, but even with stops of f16 or f22, the depth of field was a mere fraction of an inch. After much practice, however, Frazier became keenly adept at quickly racking focus when an insect or some jittery arachnid wouldn't cooperate by hitting its marks. In this manner, the director of photography produced some startling, award-winning imagery. Nevertheless, he still longed for a device that would aid — and not hinder — his vision of what the macro world should look like: a highly magnified inspection of an object with no linear distortion and abundant depth of field. Determined to make this visionary concept a reality, he began building his own experimental optical systems.

An Education in Optics

"I have found myself lying on the ground for most of my career," Frazier notes with a laugh, in reference to his constant low-angle, grass-roots (pun intended) methods. "I was always looking for unusual angles. But in filming those low angles, I wanted to move the camera away from my subjects. I wasn't content to look down at their world; I really wanted to see that world from their point of view. Toward that end, my first foray into optics literally involved gluing a mirror onto the end of a stick that was taped to a lens. Of course, the problem with that technique was that the insect would then go one way, and I'd pan the other!

"To me, optics were absolutely essential to get me where I wanted to go," he continues. "I literally pulled hundreds of lenses to pieces to get the elements out, and began playing with different combinations. My initial system of lens design consisted of a board with some modeling clay on it that I would stick the various lenses in while looking through with a viewfinder. I spent many months and countless thousands of hours knee-deep in optics.

"By trial and error, I eventually came upon the system of optics that ultimately produced the Frazier lens. I'll never forget it the moment I came upon that [optical configuration]. I was doing what I normally did — swapping optics around — and then I suddenly saw what I was looking for. That was it! I literally did somersaults and had to look again. At that point, I knew that I was close to what I had envisioned."

Early Prototypes

Frazier built a prototype of his optical system for his 16mm camera and astonished viewers worldwide with the resulting footage. However, when a colleague urged him to build a 35mm version of the system for commercial work, the inventor had to start from scratch, scaling up all of the optical elements to accommodate the larger format. "I had to find much larger and higher-quality optics for the 35mm version," Frazier recounts. "I actually pulled some very expensive lenses to bits to get the optics I needed. The original 35mm prototype was just a right-angled model with one swivel, for which I got a fairly high-quality amici prism — used to bend an image around a corner while keeping the correct camera geometry in the viewfinder — in place of a mirror."

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© 1999 ASC