Magic Lantern and Anamorphic Shooting

What is Magic Lantern?

Magic Lantern is a software enhancement that offers additional functionality to most of the Canon DSLR cameras. Many of the additional features are extremely beneficial to anamorphic shooters. Magic Lantern software is free for anyone and can be downloaded at Magic Lantern’s official website.

Magic Lantern is not a “hack”, or a modified stock firmware. It is an independent program that runs alongside Canon’s own software. Each time you start your camera, Magic Lantern is loaded from your memory card. The only modification to the camera enables the ability to run software from the memory card.

Anamorphic Lens on Magic Lantern

Canon 5D Mark II with Magic Lantern, 135mm f/4 USSR Prime Lens and our custom single focus anamorphic lens.

The History of Magic Lantern

From our early experience Magic Lantern was pretty much a sort of hack, even though it’s more more appropriate to call it add-on software that can run on most Canon cameras.

Magic Lantern itself is extremely powerful for enabling zebras, focus peaking, custom crop marks, and many other tweaks that otherwise are non-existent in the stock Canon firmware. A group of programmers started to study Canon’s code around 2009 and they quickly achieved some improvements over the original firmware.

We used it in our Canon 5D Mark II since 2011 on commercials, music videos, and corporate productions and had zero major bugs. Most minor issues are solved by rebooting the camera, and have mostly been eliminated in the latest builds.

In 2013, the Magic Lantern team unlocked the ability to capture the full 14-bit raw output of the sensor, improving the image incredibly over the original h.264 codec. You can see some comparisons with the video below and these recording capabilities have made us hold onto our 2008 5D Mark II even today. The power Magic Lantern unlocks in your camera cannot be understated.

The Magic Lantern movie settings menu

Why does this matter for anamorphic shooting?

One of the major benefits for shooting anamorphic lenses with Magic Lantern is the capability of setting a custom recording window from the camera sensor. Magic Lantern Raw allows the operator to set a capture window aspect ratio, for example, of 4:3. Using a 2x anamorphic lens with a 4:3 capture will result in a very aesthetically pleasing resolution of 2.66:1 instead of the super-stretched 3.55:1 when unstretched in post production.

anamorphic
4:3 resulting in a 2.66:1 final image

Shooting with a shorter aspect ratio also prevents wasting footage from the sensor that would either be immediately cropped in post or just unused by the camera. To change your aspect ratio on on Magic Lantern, simply head into the movie tab on the Magic Lantern menu, then raw video, and change the aspect ratio to your desired ratio. If you’re looking to test out how aspect ratio can affect what lenses you can use for anamorphic, head on over to our anamorphic lens calculator to test. Select the Canon’s sensor size and your aspect ratio to test.

Some lenses like the Isco Micro anamorphic lens perform well with full frame cameras and Magic Lantern helps by shooting in 4:3 mode.

You can even experiment with unusual but very useful ratios for anamorphic like 5:4 or even 1:1. After setting your aspect ratio- let’s say 4:3- then go into the resolution tab and adjust the size according to your preference. For 4:3 we would recommend 1600 x 1200. So that can see your capture window and you know what you’re framing, be sure to set your Global Draw to allow on playback as the default is off.

While shooting raw Global Draw guidelines show you the capture area of what’s being recorded. If you want more information on how shoot raw there’s plenty of tutorials and demos available on YouTube. For the few Canon cameras that cannot handle raw recording, it’s still useful for a custom anamorphic crop box. These are overlays placed on top of the image that allow you to view a different frame format than the one that’s actually being shot and place your subjects based on how you plan to crop in the edit.

This can be very useful for projects where principal photography is shot with 2x anamorphic lenses intended for a 3.55:1 aspect ratio in the edit. If additional pickups can only be shot with spherical lenses, adding a 3.55:1 crop file in the viewer easily allowing you to frame your subjects to be consistent in the edit.

Other benefits

One of the main concerns while shooting anamorphic is how to review the proper aspect ratio on set and not the squeezed image as it’s being shot. Magic Lantern eliminates the need for a specific piece of gear devoted to fixing the anamorphic stretch such as special EVF or an external monitor.

In the display tab, the anamorphic submenu offers the most common stretches to apply to the live view. When selecting one of the values, this stretch is applied to the display and footage can be shot and monitored in the right proportion while shooting. The only flaw is that it doesn’t work when reviewing your clips in play mode as play mode is more complex, but this anamorphic feature works great for recording for handing the camera as a solo operator.

Conclusion

For anyone with a Canon, we highly recommend testing Magic Lantern. The procedure does not damage the camera in any way and since it is applied individually to memory cards, switching between the original firmware and Magic Lantern is as simple as swapping cards. If you’re shooting anamorphic, Magic Lantern is a must install as the custom aspect ratio is only offered in a few high end cameras and an extremely powerful tool for creating a unique frame.

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