A Rocker for All Seasons
If you think any lens with a servo on it is strictly
an ENG lens, not one suited for feature film and high-end commercial cinematography, read on.
By Tom Inglesby
With a name like Johnny Derango, you might expect him to be a cowboy actor but he’s actually a DP who has worked on multiple films and commercials. One of those films changed his mind about what a servo lens, a “rocker lens,” can do. Since his introduction to the Fujinon PL 19-90mm Cabrio two years ago, it’s become his go-to lenses for everything.
The film was Bullrider, directed by Bethany Ashton Wolf with actor Josh Lucas. It was a handheld shoot done with three people on an active bull riding ranch. “An F-stop of 2.9 all the way through the zoom range is incredibly fast, so it turned out to be perfect for this type of run-and-gun shoot,” recalls Derango. “The rocker zoom gave me the flexibility I needed for that chaotic situation and little to no crew.”
How did Derango come in contact with the lens? “I was with a good friend of mine, Ryan Beardsley, who owns Lightstone Rentals in Glendale. We were talking about lenses and he brought up the Fujinon Cabrio. He told me it had a rocker zoom on it and when he told me that, I lost all interest because I was looking for a cinema zoom, like an Angenieux. When I heard rocker, I was like, ‘Okay, that’s clearly an ENG-style lens. I’m not interested.’ He convinced me that it wasn’t.”
Then the Bullrider project came up, and Derango needed a lens with some flexibility, something that was clearly a cinema zoom but that could function in “run-n-gun” situations. He remembers, “I was cautious but said, ‘All right, you told me about this. I’ll give it a chance.’ I tried it and I was just blown away with the optics. It’s a beautiful, clean piece of glass. But the fact that I can use it in a run-n-gun shoot made it invaluable to me, because I can use it in every part of my work.”
The lens was very straight forward, like every other rocker that he’d ever used, “Aside from the fact that I think it’s smoother,” he admits. “It’s not ‘stuttery’ at all. The adjustments on it are really fine. Everything about it is pretty much perfect as far as that goes.”
The 19-90mm Cabrio features a detachable servo drive unit, making it suitable for use as a standard PL lens or as an ENG-style lens. It also features flange focal distance adjustment, macro functionality, and is LDS (Lens Data System) and /i metadata compatible. With a 19-90mm focal range and weight of only 6.3 pounds, including servo motors, it has one of the longest focal ranges available in a light weight zoom.
Derango hadn’t used zooms much before this shoot. “I was using mostly primes, and occasionally I would use Angenieuxs. My first feature I shot with a huge Panavision zoom. So my experience was mostly in the prime world, but this opened my eyes to a zoom that can be just as sharp as the primes and makes your life a lot easier. You’re not switching out lenses. You can take one lens and go all day.”
Fast action, in-the-scene shooting requires planning and top quality equipment. Doing a run-n-gun is far different than most features or commercials. Derango explains his technique. “Usually, I’m doing audio, too, using a wireless on the camera. Everything’s got to be as straight-forward and as easy to handle as possible. I built up a hand-held rig, my Easyrig—that thing has been a life saver; my back is going to feel ten times better when I’m 60 years old. I just go in a ‘one-man-band’ sort of configuration. It’s truly fantastic. I don’t know how I would do it any other way.”
He continues, “When I used only primes and do run-n-gun stuff, I was hesitant to use my F3 because I was concerned about getting focus and changing lenses. When the 19-90 came along, I threw it on the F3 and started using that. I was using a Panasonic HPX250 for run-n-gun stuff, just because it was simpler. But now, with the 19-90 on the F3, the F55, or really any camera, I feel comfortable using that instead.”
When you shoot with only primes, you have to be careful in your scene set up; zooms allow more flexibility but even they have limits. Derango recalls, “I did a movie called Waffle Street, with Danny Glover, and I wanted to get the 85-300mm to pair with the 19-90. Budgetary constraints just didn’t allow it and I was a little nervous going in that the 19-90 wasn’t going to be enough. But never once did I go, ‘I’m stuck because I don’t have a longer lens or a wider lens.’ We made it work. Maybe there would have been a time or two when it would have been nicer to have the longer focal length, but there was no time when I felt like I compromised because I didn’t have another lens.”
Every DP will have a favorite lens or set of lenses. Most will, after hours, admit there are a few features they’d like to have in the kit. Derango is no different. “The macro features on the 19-90 are okay, but it’s not the best macro I’ve ever used. It would be absolutely incredible if it were an actual macro lens and not just a back focus adjustment. That’s my only gripe. The focus pulls nice and smooth, the zoom is great. If it were a little faster, f2.2 or something like that, that would be great. But with the cameras being as fast as they are today, I haven’t found myself hurting too bad with that range.”
Anything else? “The thing I see, especially with this Fujinon lens and what Canon did with their 17-120, is that the ranges are getting better. Before, you’d need two or three zooms to have a complete range, and now you’re using one or two zooms and you’re there. They’re making fast zoom lenses with a nice range and I think that’s just going to get better and better. Maybe someday you’ll see a 15-250!”