"TÁR" - a masterclass in lens customization

Director Todd Field and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister BSC collaborate with ARRI Rental's Christoph Hoffsten to customize ARRI Signature Primes for the Oscar-nominated film, "TÁR".

Mar. 7, 2023
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After a 16-year feature film hiatus, director Todd Field's new movie "TÁR" has received overwhelming critical acclaim. Among its many plaudits are the Golden Frog at Camerimage, AFI Movie of the Year, and six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. The film follows Lydia Tár, chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, as she prepares for a major live recording of Mahler's Fifth Symphony while trying to contain the fall-out from a personal catastrophe of her own making. 

Committed to shooting the film in Berlin, and working solely with a German crew, Field began his search for a cinematographer. After watching season one of the AMC series "The Terror," he was struck by what he calls DP Florian Hoffmeister's "exquisite ability to create believable light on a face under any condition, despite shooting on a stage. Florian had to convey the sense of all these different times of day, above and below deck on the ship, and you never doubt it for a second. That's a very fine art and not to be overstated."


Director Todd Field

Hoffmeister, who as a film school graduate had been bowled over by Field's feature debut "In the Bedroom", received an email about "TÁR" from the director, then a phone call, then a script. It was more than enough to convince him. Nine weeks later they were in preproduction.

In June 2021, Field shot plates in New York and took the opportunity to test various cameras and lenses. Unfortunately, Hoffmeister couldn't fly out in time. "It was a pity because I like to take these first steps myself," he says. "But Todd arranged a grading session, and I dialed in remotely. At that point we hadn't really started working together, so I didn't want to interfere immediately; I wanted to gauge what I saw. There was one particular shot that really stood out, though. It was a closeup. I told Todd that I loved it, and he said he did too." 

"I remember it very well," says Field. "We probably watched three hours of different T-stops, different lighting situations, and all these different lenses and formats. And then there was this one shot where all of a sudden you thought - that's it. Something happened in that shot that both he and I responded to, it was as simple as that."


DP Florian Hoffmeister BSC (center) with 1st AC Alexis Kostudis

The shot had been captured with a vintage Zeiss lens. "It was clear," says Hoffmeister, "that we wouldn't be able to shoot with this exact glass. It was too obscure, and it wasn't a full set. But we had this resonance with an image, and it gave us a sense of direction. I really enjoy testing; I think it's actually one of my core activities in prep. And not necessarily testing something because you've never done it before, but testing as a means to establish a creative space in which you can communicate with a director."

Further testing was required, and Hoffmeister headed to ARRI Rental's Berlin facility to assess lens and camera options. He recalls, "There were some lenses from other manufacturers that I really loved, where Todd said, 'Oh yeah, they're beautiful, too beautiful, they scream movie with a capital M.' Together with my memory of the shot we both loved from New York, Todd's feedback was adding pieces to the puzzle and giving me confidence in what to aim for. I met with Christoph Hoffsten at ARRI Rental and shared my thoughts with him."


Lens specialist Christoph Hoffsten (right) with director Todd Field at ARRI Rental Berlin

Christoph Hoffsten is Head of the Camera Department at ARRI Rental Berlin and a senior lens designer within ARRI Rental's global lens development team. He regularly collaborates with cinematographers to detune and customize lenses for specific projects, for example with Greig Fraser ASC ("The Batman"), and Nik Summerer ("1899"). Hoffsten suggested that he and Hoffmeister work together to hone a unique look, or even several looks, by customizing ARRI Signature Prime lenses.

"From that moment on, the process became in essence about the relationship with Christoph," says Hoffmeister. "I had seen a projection of the Signature Primes and they felt made for digital cinematography, with a very cinematic, beautiful look. We decided to use the Signatures as our baseline workhorse, and develop something that would push them towards the feel of that piece of glass from New York."

ARRI Signature Primes feature a rear magnetic filter holder that allows filters, custom optics, fabrics, wires--almost anything--to be positioned between the rear lens element and the sensor, altering the image in unlimited ways. This provided a platform for Hoffsten's customization, which consisted of image-altering optics that could be used with or without bespoke coatings. Early on, Hoffsten presented heavily detuned Signature Primes, but these were too extreme in their look for the filmmakers. "Todd spoke to me a lot about visual restraint," says Hoffmeister. "Often, within the visual language of a film, you're tempted to push the underlying theme. But he was adamant that we should hold back and let things develop."


Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár

Hoffsten and Hoffmeister continued to experiment, searching for a subtle approach. "We started to narrow it down," says the cinematographer. "I really like to involve people that know more than I do, and Christoph knows more about lenses than I ever will. We would project tests, talk about what we loved, go back to the workbench, then project some more. It was an intimate process--a creative conversation not just about technical things, but about our emotional reactions. When you start manipulating these lens systems, you very quickly become aware of the presence of glass, of aberrations. We wanted to create lenses that were cinematic, but at the same time very detached; a look that wasn't clean, but also didn't attract attention to itself."

Field recalls, "Christoph, Florian, and I sat together at ARRI screening room with Traudl Nicholson projecting the images and taking copious notes. We had several versions of what Christoph had created, and several combinations of these different optical elements. The first thing was to try and name them all, so they'd be practical to work with once we were shooting."


Todd Field (center) and Christoph Hoffsten assessing focus attributes on a lens chart

LowRes and LowCon were the names given to the two types of custom-built rear optical elements. LowRes displayed slightly under-corrected field curvature and corner resolution, as well as inward-pulling bokeh that deconstructed the image depth. LowCon displayed subtle, over-corrected spherical aberration and very slight veiling glare, reducing contrast in fine detail. The two custom lens coatings applied to some of the optical elements were named Halo and Diet (or Half) Halo, each diffusing light without affecting resolution. All of the customization combinations retained the color performance of the Signatures, and were so subtle in their effect that they were only truly noticeable on a big screen.

Having arrived at what they were aiming for, the team now faced the challenge of scaling up the solution for a major feature film shoot. "A lot of this work was done by hand at ARRI Rental by people making individual changes to unique pieces of glass," says Hoffmeister. "But of course, we had to have multiple sets, because we were shooting with multiple cameras. That's the interesting bit, where the craftsmanship of somebody like Christoph really shines. We found something together, and then he applied it in a way that let us shoot with several lens sets for 54 days without it falling apart halfway through."


The specially created rear optical elements on Christoph Hoffsten's workbench 

When it came to actually using the customized lenses on set, Field was wary of taking an overtly thematic approach. "It's the old thing about the pretense of coming up with an approach," he says. "The first level is to impress yourself, and then try to hide that; then try to impress other people, and then try to hide that; and by the third level hopefully you've gotten somewhere. When we started out, we talked about all kinds of conceits, mapping Lydia's decline visually by going from 35 mm to 16 mm--typical film school stuff. And then you do your tests and realize that's just stupid and overly considered. But it's important to have those conversations because it gets you excited, and if you're a gearhead it gets you experimenting."

Choosing between the different optics, which could be swapped around on the lenses with relative ease, depended mainly on the location and lighting of each shot. "It's about how the glass responds to light," says Hoffmeister. "In situations when I went really dark, we sometimes needed a bit more bite. And in other situations when the characters were in front of bright windows, it might be more interesting to have a stronger sense of a flare, or an uncoated feel, for intimacy and immediacy."

Hoffmeister's lighting of Lydia Tár was often guided by a distinction he made between moments of "appearance," when she presented herself as a public figure, and moments of "being," when she was alone. "I would go for a more dramatic and exposed form of lighting in moments of appearance," he says. "Then I would be really subtle and fragile in moments of being. And the way I used the lenses followed that a bit, enhancing those occasions when she's very observed, and other occasions when she's by herself and you can feel her anxiety or excitement."


DP Florian Hoffmeister approached scenes where Lydia Tár is alone and "being" differently from public moments of "appearance" 

Field notes that deciding between the custom optics shot-by-shot was fairly straightforward, due to how aligned he and Hoffmeister were after the testing process. "We already had a working relationship," he says. "It's a smart thing to get into the camera house together and develop a language you both understand. It allowed us to make quick decisions about tiny adjustments, mainly having to do with how the light was falling."

During the final grade, Hoffmeister called Hoffsten to say how worthwhile all the hard work had been. "Because, it was a tortuous process," he says. "Tuning and detuning by hand is a lot of work, and it meant our 1st AC Alexis Kostudis had to program his remote focus with hand-calibrated scales, which is a real effort. It took a lot of hours to get this right, but we did, and it was a joy every day on set. I doubt there was a single shot where I didn't think of Christoph."

For Field, the lens customization service offered by ARRI Rental embodies the whole history of the ARRI brand. "Stanley Kubrick and I spent a lot of time talking about the importance of ARRI's legacy and how it's sort of the seed for all modern filmmaking," he says. "If you've grown up as a young person wanting to be involved in motion pictures, the idea that you're actually sitting at ARRI and they're passionately trying to find a way to get what you want on screen -- what an absolute dream, and unbelievable privilege. You have to pinch yourself and ask, 'How are we sitting here with someone as talented as Christoph?' You want to bolt outside afterwards and wash his car for him!"


Collaborators Christoph Hoffsten and Todd Field