Love, loss and sacrifice: telling the story of Cynthia Lennon with Sumire Prime lenses

Cinematographer Tania Freimuth explains how Canon's Sumire Prime lenses helped to bring John Lennon's first wife, Cynthia, out from under his shadow.
A Canon EOS C500 Mark II with a Canon CN-E50mm T1.3 FP X Sumire Prime lens.

As work on Cyn developed and shifted during the challenging filming environment of 2020, cinematographer Tania Freimuth found herself carefully weighing up her kit selection. To best suit her changing creative, she chose the Canon EOS C500 Mark II and Canon Sumire Prime series lenses. © Dave Stevenson

As Beatlemania took off around the world, there was a woman standing on the sidelines. Cynthia Powell was John Lennon's first wife, a young woman from The Wirral, England, who fell in love with a musician, before a new kind of fame hit them both. While John's relationship with Yoko Ono is well documented, the love, loss and sacrifice of his first marriage is less well known.

Biographical drama Cyn seeks to change this. Based on her autobiography, rather tellingly called John, the short film subverts the traditional male-dominated narrative to tell Cynthia's story through her own eyes. In 1950s Liverpool, we see the heady early days of her romance, her marriage and the arrival of son Julian, and the subsequent unravelling of Cynthia and John's relationship against the backdrop of the band's stratospheric success.

For cinematographer Tania Freimuth, the project offered the chance to work with director/writer Ben Desmond again – the pair had previously collaborated on the 2017 Second World War film Pitfall – and to give Cynthia her well-deserved voice in rock and roll history.

After graduating from film school in Manchester with some prize money, Tania invested in shooting music videos for MTV, most notably the 1991 hit Can You Dig It? by The Mock Turtles. Working her way up from a loader, she spent a number of years plying her trade in commercials, before getting her break in film drama. Now shooting indie features, Tania, who is a member of BAFTA, often finds herself drawn to female-centred narratives.

In Cyn, it was important to put forward Cynthia's side of events. "Understandably, everyone knows John," says Tania. "Women often stand in the shadows, I suppose. That's slowly changing, but there's still our unconscious bias and how society works to deal with that. So it's a story of our time, as much as a story of that time."

Here, Tania shares how Canon Sumire Prime series lenses and the Canon EOS C500 Mark II helped her to bring Cyn to the screen.

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A blonde-haired woman looking pensively downwards.

Actress Eloise Smyth took on the role of Cynthia Lennon for the short film Cyn, which is based on Cynthia's autobiography, John. "She's quite hidden within the book. Even though it's her story, she still does that typically female thing of putting the man forward, so I felt like director/writer Ben Desmond was making a bold move in wanting to tell her story," says Tania. © Tania Freimuth

A small crew films actors Eloise Smyth and Bill Milner lying on a bed during filming of the Cynthia Lennon biopic Cyn.

Covid-19 restrictions forced the crew to abandon their plans to film on location in Liverpool and rethink how they would convey the unfolding change in tone in a studio location. © George O'Reilly

A blank canvas

Faced with a wealth of material and an engaging subject matter, the first task was to choose which parts of the story to tell. "In short form, it was quite tricky to give the film an even feel – without too much of the relationship's drama," says Tania. "It's cherry picking the moments that capture the journey. There were some turbulent times in there and there were some joyous times too."

As the film went into production, the team were faced with the challenges of Covid-19, which meant shooting on location in Liverpool was out of the question. "Suddenly I was presented with a blank canvas, a white studio," says Tania. "That was new for me, as I usually shoot on location."

The white studio setting also forced Tania to rethink the way she would film Cyn. She had originally planned to shoot anamorphic, which was why she had opted for the full-frame Canon EOS C500 Mark II, but as the change to the timeframe made this less practical, she started considering other lens options. "I knew I wanted to shoot full-frame, so I looked at the Sumire Primes, which I've had a bit of experience with," she says. "In conjunction with the full-frame format, they helped me tie in what I wanted to do with the lighting, colour and mood."

A seated blonde woman holding a notebook and pencil.

Canon's Sumire Primes are designed to give a softer, more cinematic look but with the same unified warm colour tone as Canon's other Cinema EOS lenses and a slightly warmer rendition that flatters skin tones. "The quality is very soft," says Tania. "If you were close to the skin, you'd still be able to see pores and wrinkles, but it's really gentle." © Tania Freimuth

A Canon CN-E50mm T1.3 FP X Sumire Prime lens.

The Canon CN-E50mm T1.3 FP X was one of three Sumire Prime lenses that Tania chose to work with. She adjusted the lenses' fast apertures to achieve three distinctive looks marking the film's change in tone. © Dave Stevenson

Changing the mood with Sumire Primes

Shooting mostly daytime interiors meant devising a sophisticated lighting plan to create shifts in mood from scene to scene. "I wanted the colour temperature to follow the same emotional journey as the story," explains Tania. "We start out nice and warm and peachy, go to a very neutral territory, which then cools off and becomes harder and a bit bluer. I knew these lenses would help me achieve that in conjunction with the lighting plan that I set up with my gaffer."

These three different looks equate to the three stages of Cynthia and John's relationship – the first days of love, a plateauing and the eventual breakdown. Working mainly with three Sumire Prime lenses – a Canon CN-E35mm T1.5 FP X, CN-E50mm T1.3 FP X and CN-E85mm T1.3 FP X, Tania delicately played with their fast apertures to create three distinct cinematic feels to match the couple's shifting emotions.

"In most cases, the Sumire Primes open up to T1.3 or T1.5, and at that point they become very soft," says Tania. "Depth of field gets much shallower, but on the large format it becomes very bloomy, and the quality of the skin is really gentle. That, coupled with the lighting I was planning to use, gives a very romantic, rosy feel. I shot wide open to get that look for the first stage of the film.

"As you close down the aperture, the lens cut gets sharper and more high contrast. You don't have to close it down far – it starts to crisp up just past T2.8. By the time you get to the exteriors [towards the end of the film] we're using T2.8 to T4 to get that hard realism I was trying for."

To reflect the energy of the early stages of the relationship, the first scenes were shot handheld, before transferring the camera to a tripod in the middle, and then introducing some slider moves. "The sands were shifting," says Tania. "By the end there's a lot more movement – they're never standing still."

Cinematographer Tania Freimuth filming with a Canon EOS C500 Mark II and a Canon CN-E50mm T1.3 FP X Sumire Prime lens.

Tania's work often touches on aspects of her own life. "A director I worked with said, 'You do know that every film you've shot has something to do with your own personal story?' I find that quite interesting, because you get scripts and ideas and you wonder why you make the choices you do." © Dave Stevenson

The EOS C500 Mark II's full-frame field of vision

From the outset, Tania knew she wanted to shoot in full-frame, a format she favours from her days as a photographer. "I did a personal project on 35mm for the first time in a long while photographically and it was a lightbulb moment," she recalls. "I just had a far greater understanding of the framing, my relationship with the lenses and the distance to the subject. It felt comfortable, so I really wanted to explore that again."

The full-frame sensor on the Canon EOS C500 Mark II gave Tania the field, vision and distance that she likes in her images. "You can go bigger and get closer, and to me it just feels more intimate," she says. "As this was a character piece and we were in a small studio, I didn't just want to use wide lenses. I wanted 50mm and up, so I could really work with depth of field. The large format also allowed me to have more area – we had a lovely set and a beautiful cast, and I didn't want the depth of field to get so tight that you didn't see any of it."

Sumire Primes: soft, subtle and beautiful bokeh

The cinematic prime lens family that brings a more organic look to the latest high-resolution digital cameras across the Cinema EOS range.
Cinematographer Tania Freimuth is pictured from behind filming actress Eloise Smyth looking out of a window.

Shooting Cyn in a studio setting rather than on location forced Tania to change her cinematic vision. "The studio was a blank canvas, so we had to figure out the emotional journey in terms of the picture – the lighting, camera and the choice of lenses," says Tania. © Karen Stirgwolt

Cinematographer Tania Freimuth shooting with a Canon EOS C500 Mark II on location for the short film Cyn. © Karen Stirgwolt

Shooting Cyn in Cinema RAW Light enabled Tania to get the widest colour spacing out of the camera. "The Canon EOS C500 Mark II produces beautiful images in 4K and 4:2:2 but I wanted more than 4:2:2, which is why I chose to shoot in Cinema RAW Light," she explains.

The Canon EOS C500 Mark II also allowed Tania to shoot in Cinema RAW Light in Canon Log 2. "This meant I could get the widest colour spacing out of the camera, in the bitrate I felt we needed," she says. "The files aren't as hefty as RAW files, so it was better for managing workflow with people working from home. Shooting in Log 2 gave us the most amount of picture information to work with in the grade."

Through Cyn, the team hopes to have given Cynthia her rightful place in the story of the Beatles. "In some way she's a very ordinary person," says Tania. "I think it must have been a huge challenge to go from a quiet, suburban life to dealing with fame. It was a very new thing in that period of history. It probably took her life off in a direction that she never anticipated."

Lucy Fulford

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