How DP Ben Davis and Panavision’s Dan Sasaki Picked the Right Lenses for ‘Captain Marvel’

Dan Sasaki Panavision
Peter Stougaard

Cinematographers coordinate their efforts with a platoon of visual artists and other artisans, from colorists to computer scientists, from digital imaging technicians to glassmakers. On “Captain Marvel,” Ben Davis worked closely with Dan Sasaki (pictured above), VP of optics at Panavision, to find exactly the right optical solutions for the look he imagined.

Their collaboration illustrates how artistic aspirations drive technical innovation, as well as the importance that lensing has taken on in the world of digital sensors, where film emulsion’s effects on the image through variations in exposure and development have given way to subtleties in optics and coatings.

Sasaki, a second-generation Panavision employee, literally grew up on film sets. “I love it when a cinematographer comes to me with a particular vision in mind,” he says. “We experiment with the various factors that contribute to the properties of a particular lens until we find the right look.”

In the case of “Captain Marvel,” Davis and Sasaki started with a set of Panavision Sphero 65 lenses. For scenes taking place in an older time period, Davis tried finding post-production techniques that delivered a more vintage look, but he found that the imagery merely looked softened, whereas he wanted something more akin to old Cooke Panchro or Canon K-35 lenses, designed and built decades ago. Neither of those lens types would cover the bigger image area of Davis’ large-format camera, and they lacked the mechanics and control conveniences of today’s lenses.

After a few iterations involving coatings and placement of elements, Davis liked what he saw. But here’s where the science of optics encounters the psychology of perception. “It’s very easy to detect the nuances between two lenses if I have a side-by-side comparison,” says Sasaki. “But when you’re watching a movie, very rarely do you see a split screen, or a resolution chart. If you’re paying attention to the story, you are not going to notice small differences. Ben wanted a difference that was more profound. We ended up with a set of spherical lenses that behave like anamorphic lenses. We also added other features such as susceptibility to light that created big rainbow flares and lifted contrast.”

Some actual K-35 elements were used in one of the first lenses, with the same effect eventually produced using proprietary Panavision glass. Adjustments continued after the initial tests. “If it weren’t for Ben’s shepherding, the project wouldn’t have come out as cool as it did,” says Sasaki. “Ultimately, it resulted in the introduction of the Panavision 65 Vintage series, which yield better speed and closer focus, along with those vintage properties.

“Just softening the image across the board isn’t going to cut it these days. With the resolution of the cameras and the screens that audiences see, along with the amount of content, cinematographers are asking for even greater variation. That trend goes against the relatively similar look of various digital sensors. It’s like the difference between a red wine and a white wine, compared to the difference between wine and whiskey.”