Oskar BARNACK who joined Ernst Leitz GmbH in 1911 is a key person when you talk about Leica. He made a small still camera, being able to bring anywhere and doubling the frame size of a movie camera as a still image. The camera, called “UL-LEICA” later on, became the origin of Leica camera. In Wetzler, there is a place that this camera captured for the first time. It’s actually a very famous place for Leica fans.
You can say that still camera’s history started from that time. After that, Leica changed such as collaborating with Minolta, a Japanese manufacturer of cameras, and Wild, a Switzerland’s optical company.
As a camera manufacturer, Leica AG was in Solms since 1988, but in 2014 on the anniversary of 100 years, it moved and built its new headquarter in Wetzler; at Leica camera’s birthplace. It opened as Leitz Park. And in June of 2018, the opening ceremony of Leitz Park 3 was held.
In this stream, CW SONDEROPTIC, designer and manufacturer of Leica cinema lenses and sister company of Leica, renamed its company name to a nostalgic one “Ernest Leitz Wetzlar GmbH,” and a new brand name known as “Leitz Cine.”
At IBC of this September, Leitz Cine announced two new lineups; “Leitz Primes” and “Leitz Zooms,” which would be released by 2020. At its founding, Ernst Leitz GmbH started with a movie camera for the cinema industry now going back to its roots, so Leitz Cine will continue its journey in the cinema industry.
This time, HOTSHOT visited the new building and had an interview with Gerhard BAIER, a Managing Director, about the reasons of rename, current cinema lens making and their future.
Ernst Leitz Wetzlar GmbH
Why Changed the Name?
10 years, this company was called CW SONDEROPTIC GmbH. People had been wondering what CW SONDEROPTIC GmbH was. But it is was quite simple. We had been making cine products. “C” is from cine. “W” stands for the town we are in, Wetzlar. SONDEROPTIC means a special project. In German, special is sonder, and the project had to do with lenses; optics. So, that’s where the original name of CW SONDEROPTIC came from. 10 years, we had been using the name and became successful in this industry. CW SONDEROPTIC GmbH had been making Leica’s cine products. Using all expertise of Leica; how to treat/make lenses, we passed the knowledge from traditional still photography world into motion picture world. That was the special project.
When you look around our new bulding, you can see Leitz Park, Leitz hotel, and so on. At one point, we looked around and thought, “what was the origin of Leica?” We found it was the Ernest Leitz GmbH in Wetzlar. Leica is was just a product of Leitz company. Leica means Leitz’s camera. So, it’s the product of Leitz company. The idea we should get back to the original name was born because Leitz was the brand name for lenses. Making cine lenses since the 80s, we carried the name “Ernst Leitz Wetzler” or “Ernst Leitz Canada.” Plus, when we looked into the history of Leitz company, we found Leica’s still camera started with motion picture. The engineers at that time tried to make a small portable measurement tool, so by that, they got experience to expose cine film. The output of this tool was used in the first Leica camera. But it was done by Leitz company. So everything connects to the history. After 10 years of CW SONDEROPTIC, it’s a good idea to go with this tradition, and rename our company to Ernst Leitz Wetzlar GmbH. It’s really going back to our roots of our traditional Leitz company.
We just changed our name. Although we got a new building and moved our production department from across the street, everything stays in the same. We started with SUMMILUX-C as our first product, and had been doing one product line. Then, we added the second product, SUMMICRON-C.
SUMMILUX-C is T1.4 and SUMMICRON-C is T2. We added the third product, Thalia. So we had 3 product lenses in the same space. Because it’s getting tighter, we needed more space. The reason why we looked for another space around in Wetzler, everything about Leica and Lietz was concentrated in the place. Leica park was going to be opened, and there were Leica’s hotel and the museum. Thus, our owner, Andreas KAUFMANN decided, “If you don’t want to leave, let’s build our own production building here.” That was fabulous because we could make our production more efficiently. After 10 years as CW SONDEROPTIC, we were able to have the new building as Ernst Leitz Wetzler GmbH. That’s the status for our future.
New Building and Structure
Having the new building means we have a chance to add something we don’t have before. Rather than buying new machines, we have the possibility to assign more designers. So we started to build a building for our design team. That’s definitely our change. Plus, we began our own distribution system. Though we’re still working with other distributers, since we started working directly to end-users, we needed people. For sales, sales administration, accounting, and purchase department, we needed more space, too. So the change of our company’s structure is that the space of our design team became more functionally, extended our sales team, implemented purchase team, and widened the space for accounting. However, in principle, this is not change, but growth. It’s a big advantage of having the new building that can get all departments in one place. We are very happy about it.
Relationship with Leica and Other Group Companies
I’m sure you realize that a lot of companies work physically close to us by just like walking distance. Across the street, there is a mechanical shop called, Weller. A lot of mechanics work over there. This is perfect for us since we make mechanical design mostly at our house and deliver them to Weller, and Weller make a part for us. Also, we work close to Leica in Portugal. Leica has factories here in Wetzler and Portugal, which is slightly bigger than Wetzler but makes the same quality. They have the same capacities and resources.
Furthermore, there is Bio Optic next to us. They sometimes make a tour for us. It’s very important for us to have the group of Leica companies in one place as much as we can. We have a good communication circle and share the methods and technology that Leica is cultivating for 100 years.
Why is our lens so special? This is because we use the experience of Leica’s lens making from the beginning. Behind the process, there is a very intensive communication. We always work closely together as a group of companies.
Leitz Cine Product in Movie Industry
We try to do what Leica achieved in the photography business in the motion pictures’ business, too. The name of Leica is a strong brand in photography. Everybody has an idea of what a Leica’s photo is. Why? The way of understanding the Leica’s image goes back to the beginning; microscopes. The people at that age had already the ideas of what people wanted to see and how the images could be presented in reality. Leica well understood where the focus was and wasn’t. Looking back to our human’s history, many essential photos were taken by the Leica lenses. Taking those ideas that were successful in photography world, we thought how we could translate and pass them into the motion pictures world. This was an interesting process because everything was changed; from one still frame to constantly moving frames. This was the cinema project. We thought, “take all experiences we got from Leica’s still photography,” looked into the motion picture market, found what was there, took the best things, and put/combined our experience from the still photography into SUMMILUX-C. Adapted with the philosophy of still to the motion pictures’ world in order to fulfill the needs, we made people happy.
I can say SUMMILUX-C is a very successful product. We used the same idea for our second one, SUMMICRON-C. SUMMILUX-C is on the top in the world of the T1.4 lenses. So we questioned ourselves if we could be on the top in the middle range lenses with T2 like T1.4. But SUMMICRON-C became the one. It also came into the Leica’s inheritance. Now, we face the lager format. 65mm camera is the top of the tops, and every cinematographer wants to shoot in 65mm. In the analogue time, there was a limit by financials, but in the digital time, the game changed. Along with what the 65mm war got aggressive, we thought about what we should do, and found that we should make a product for the larger images/sensors. Actually we already tested S lenses for super35mm. S lenses are the peak of the Leica’s products and the larger format of M and L lenses. I really loved the pictures of S lens. They gave me the richness of color tone that other lenses can’t give. So I tested with the S lens many times in order to make a new one. We replaced, added, and modified the image circle… Finally Thalia lens was formed last year. It’s one of the most interesting lenses because it gave you a lot of rooms to play. Also, it gave you more artistic and creative approach. These factors are the reasons to make the top lenses. Our good portfolio and program fulfill the needs of cinematographers. I also shoot, and find there are no lenses like Thalia that fulfill every desire and requirement you have.
Secret of Our Quality
In many interviews, I got the same question: why is our lens so special? The answer is not only one. First of all, we have a history of lens making for 100 years. Starting with the microscopes, we understand the images. We know how to capture the reality and to make it fiction. Secondly, we know how to treat the lens. It means we know how to manufacture. With 100 percent accuracy, we mount a lens and make a perfect one. During the adjustment process, normally there are a front group, an iris compartment and a reel group. In the front group first, we make sure it’s perfectly centered, and then, we check the iris compartment and the reel group. In the reel group, we check the edge painting on the mount part. It can’t be done by machines. It’s only done by people. Our people know the right timing and the right thickness of the painting. It actually affects to reflectance. It may bounce around inside of the lens and be absorbed, or partially reflected. If you want to have the reflection, a little flare happens because the light source is in the image. All these kinds of experience make Leica and Leitz lenses unique. We have been learning for over 100 years, and still exploring. In addition, we look at the images to find where the emotional part is. Including edge painting, we wonder how our technology connects with the emotional parts of the images. It goes well at all points.
Every company has its own secrets. But I can say here what important for us is most of process is not done by machines, but by people. Even in cleaning of the lenses. It may sound simple, but it’s really difficult. If you asked my wife whether I’m good at cleaning windows, she would say “no.” Likewise, my employees would never ask me to do (laugh). Why are we unique? This is because we do by people who trained for a long time and learned so hard. Of course we use machines, but in every single step, there are somebody behind to look at the process.
Being the Eyes for the Cameras
Making a cinema camera isn’t easy. It’s a real challenging task. Rather than that, there are already good ones in the market. The funny thing is when the little measurement tool, which became the Leica still camera later on was made, we already designed a motion pictures camera in 1909. But it’s in the past. Nowadays, it’s really hard to make. Plus, many companies can do way better than we can. Thus, we focus on delivering “the right eyes” to the camera. Because the camera’s technology is more and more developing, you need to know the sensor, capturing devices and so on, but all is noting without “the eyes.” I think we are doing well as being “the eyes” of the cameras. It’s the best that we should stay like who we are now. Sometimes, we work together with camera manufacturers, providing combination products that we showed at CineGear or IBC. Depending on cameras, we take a different lens and there are some products that are based on our lens. But as I said before we stay focused on being the eyes of the cameras.
Plan for the Market of the Full Size Format
If you visited us at IBC this year, you must have been surprised. We showed what we are going to do next. We showed our clients our roadmap. There is a change now in the market from super 35 to full format. I’m not quite sure if this change is so fast, but I think there is a good reason for the larger images. Once I see pictures made by the larger format, it feels like I’m a part of the scenery. For me, Super 35 is a quite excellent format, so it would continue to be used. But if I have an option to have wider images, I may choose larger format. Our products of SUMMILUX-C and SUMMICRON-C dedicate to Super 35, but when thinking about the larger format, we wondered, “what might people expect us to do?”
The first thing was to elevate SUMMILUX-C. We thought of what lens was needed changing from Super 35 to the larger format, and the designs at the same time. This year of IBC, we announced to make the new Leitz Prime lenses and Zoom lenses. On larger format or Vista Vision, we had to do something. The design of the zooms at first totally different from what we see right now. We changed a lot. Now, I think they hit the full format market.
At any exhibitions, there are a lot of companies now making full format cameras and lenses. It also has a big price range. For me, this market seems not to be really structured right now. Super 35 was pretty clear. We had premiere products, middle range products and entry-level products. But the full format market is not a triangle but a kind of circle. Everybody pops in and thinks their position. But, there is room on the top. Delivering/passing all information you capture to a sensor, to capturing devices, and to the camera. The most important thing is to get the data. Get information. Whatever you want to do with information later in post, or throw information away, is fine. But if you cannot capture information in the first place, you cannot restore in post, that’s the problem. So what we do in this full format or Vista Vision market is to go to that point on top.
We always try to think of cinematographers’ perspective. What do they need? What do they want to do with a lens? What a kind of manipulations do they need to their images? Honestly, how they make a scene depends on their skills. The lens’ character also mostly depends on their lighting, framing, and knowledge. We provide the tools, but all they make depends on themselves.
About the price of our lens, some people might be surprised, but think about what the lens does to you. Directly, it helps your job because whatever you are in any lighting or framing, it can capture and pass information to the capturing device. So, put the money issue to your next (laugh).
Comment for the Japanese Users
I know historically Japan likes Leica. I had a couple of talks with cinematographers from Japan. There are lots of traditional framings reflected to the Japanese history and it’s very interesting. I think our products help them to make creative images. I’m happy whenever cinematographers in Japan inspire me, so we hope we can do likewise with our products.