SIGMA’s foray into cinema

‘IBC 2016’ was the location where SIGMA announced its newest line of lenses, the ‘SIGMA CINE LENS’. In addition to discussing interchangeable photographic lenses and digital cameras, we interviewed the CEO of SIGMA Kazuto Yamaki about what made the company embark on new ground in the development and manufacturing of motion picture lenses. We will also share a conversation with Jon Fauer, the editor of the American specialist video production journal Film and Digital Times.

text : SEIN Editorial Division photo : Hiroshi Iwasaki / Shunsuke Suzuki

The Announcement of the CINE LENS

SIGMA timed the announcement of its new line of cinema lenses, the ‘SIGMA CINE LENS’, in conjunction with the broadcasting general trade show; ‘IBC’ ( International Broadcasting Convention) held in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on the 7th September 2016. We had heard of stories for some time that SIGMA lenses had become a favorite among many users who customized their interchangeable photographic lens (‘still lens’), alternatively using them in film production shoots. We gained a reputation for our ‘motion picture lenses’ from professional users around the world, particularity through the outstanding optical performance of the Art line. Its innovative image quality that SIGMA pioneered shone through in a world of remarkable high-resolution digital photography and performance-centered lenses.

When the 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM | Art, the world’s first F1.8 zoom lens, was announced in 2013, it was only in the United States that indicated very high sales. After investigating as to the reason why, it was the feedback of the people working in motion pictures who told us the lens was “amazing” and had used it regularly for their work. We had not originally intended for this lens to be used for the purpose of motion pictures and we remember being taken back by this revelation at the time. CEO of SIGMA Kazuto Yamaki, who took the lead in this project, recalls to us about what prompted bringing SIGMA to “cinema”

The Turning Point of Digital Video Production

“The mere mention of movie-making equipment from the past would bring to mind equipment made according to enormous Hollywood budgets, a very special world beyond our reach. As well as there being a small number of manufacturers and choice available, they were incredibly expensive. It was with the advent of shared video content services like Youtube thriving over the past 10 years that the game has greatly changed. Content like web promotion and video clips for music and videos have become the norm. And at the same time, there has been an increase in individual and small-scale productions, that is to say the stage of the so-called independent producers has become bigger”. “One of the factors that has lead this change is the evolution of filming functions on SLR cameras, and the rise of small yet high-performing digital cinema cameras. The price of one camera in Hollywood was on a par with a high-end imported car. In other words, in a world where it was common knowledge that movie cameras would cost more than $100,000, it could be said that a rather drastic change in price has occurred.

Innovative Technology

It was the introduction of innovative cameras, with outstanding high-quality imaging, that has changed the situation. The cameras are also at a much more reasonable price than what is expected from a camera with a seamless balance of data handling and compactness. In the movie making industry, equipment is judged on the basic premise that “price of equipment equates to performance”. Without an ample budget, there was the problem of not being able to get hold of good quality equipment. With these digital cinema cameras becoming more prevalent, the doors have opened where even with a small scale budget, a movie with high-performance equipment and high-production values can be made. “This technological innovation in cameras designed for cinema would bring a positive influence on both the market and overall artistic expression. We felt that with the rapid progress made on the one hand, the lenses were not keeping up with the evolution of cameras. Around the same time, we were asked by those in the industry around the world as to why SIGMA did not make interchangeable lenses for cinema (‘CINE LENS’). In a world where a single lens can cost anywhere between a few thousand dollars to a few ten thousand dollars, performance dictates price where even renting something for only the occasions it was needed would multiply and pile up the costs. We sensed the load being borne on the financial side of video production was a pressing issue to address.”

Made The SIGMA Way

In the movie equipment world that relies on the high-end users that Hollywood represents, what lay behind the lack of rapid progress in interchangeable lenses that had not been the case for camera bodies, is said to be the specialized nature and size of the market as well as the difficulty in developing and manufacturing lenses. “I believe the size of the market was the main reason. The movie equipment world is pretty much a world only inhabited by professionals. They cater to a smaller number of users, and as products are renewed infrequently, there is a stark choice between prioritizing performance by ignoring price, or to prioritize price and compromise image quality and functionality. Without a mass-production system that makes use of the latest technology, great performance and compactness at the best quality and cost would be impossible. As a result, in a place where there are heavy constraints on resources such as the budget, we were able to do the next best thing and employ a variety of systems from the options we had available. We reckon it is with these fundamental measures we had in place to solve these issues is what brought about these pressing requests to create our own CINE LENS”.

Art Line Performance into Cinema.

In a world that places demands on the quality of a single frame, SIGMA had gone ahead and delivered the high-performance Art line series of lenses for high-resolution photography. So for SIGMA, who had established the developmental know-how and mass-production technology to achieve this, there was no technological hurdle to overcome to develop the CINE LENS. As Yamaki explains, “Of course, we could develop a dedicated cinema lens, but the market was so small that to start from zero would not be effective for mass-production. However in regard to the development of the optics, the most important and difficult component with the biggest impact on cost, we copied the existing high-performance Art lens we had available. By configuring the mechanical structure toward cinema, we were confident we could make a landmark lens that combined the high standard of Art with compactness at the minimum of cost”.

“100% retain, 100% new.”

“The reality is we do the same as other manufacturers by ‘rehousing’ to modify the mechanisms without touching the optics (mirror structure). However in our case, as we are developing the mechanical components from scratch, the dimensions set out for ‘improvement’ are completely different. That is why we are promoting that these lenses are ‘100% retain (making complete use of the optics) and 100% new (develop a new mechanical structure).’ As you are probably aware, we manufacture our products all in-house at our Aizu factory in Fukushima, Japan, from development all the way to mass-production. As we have continued to manufacture with a high-mix/low-volume vertical production line, we balance the more subtle details between the accurate precision we seek and efficient production. In other words, to create high-performing yet reasonable products that shakes up the current market. Rather than accepting the situation that high-performance can only be achieved from bulky, heavy and expensive equipment, we should be able to redefine value and categorization with lightweight and compact products that provide an unimaginable performance for its price.”

The “Paradigm Shift” In Image Production.

For Jon Fauer, editor of the world renowned specialist journal for film production and techniques ‘FILM AND DIGITAL TIMES‘, In the image production world, upon SIGMA jumping into the CINE LENS project, he commented as follows. “It is a line of lenses which provides natural smooth skin tones, beautiful bokeh, overwhelming brightness, and outstanding image quality. What surprises me is that they have a lineup of five full frame fixed T1.5 and one full framed zoom T2.2 as their initial set and the build quality and optics are both impressive. The resolution, image quality, performance and quality of the lens itself, all well matched at a high level, this new lens line of SIGMA should be the new standard of value.

He also mentioned about the development and production at the Aizu factory in the article. “What makes this possible is the high level of production at the Aizu factory. If you ever visit Aizu, it is clear the climate and the mind set of this area is something special. Suffering through many hardships from the Civil war, left behind development of economic and industry, the people of Aizu were persistent but noble, diligent,hard-working. This spirit of the Aizu workers, equipment with latest technology, and flexible vertical integration production system guarantees our good quality and volume of production.

“The Best Performance for a Worthwhile Price”

From the beginning there is a reason why we chose the path to only modify the optical structure of these highly specialized cinema lenses instead of developing from scratch. “Of course, it isn’t difficult to develop specialized high-end lenses. However, to seriously find the solution to ‘the issues’ from a film production perspective and not from one bounded by conditions such as cost, our concept of getting the best performance for a worthwhile price played a significant role. In addition there was the need for outstanding optical performance alongside compactness and to release a line-up sufficient for serious shooting. We also wanted to maximize the freedom and creative possibilities of video production while using the minimum of equipment at the minimum investment. Our starting point was to create an innovative lens system that encompassed all these proposals”.

To Find the Solutions

Having one’s own manufacturing technology and mass-production setup means determination and preparedness is necessary when starting a new venture. We asked Yamaki what the deciding factor was to go outside SIGMA’s comfort zone and dare to enter the small motion picture field market. “This is the same for any of our products, but anytime we take the step into a new product or line of work, we ask ourselves how we can help alleviate a customer’s concerns. It’s important to see what we as a company can do to help. Even when we began our SIGMA GLOBAL VISION in 2012 or and began developing the new product lines, it was at our heart of our thinking, we determine the feasibility of ideas that had yet to be realized that may or may not have been desired. This is the reason for our existence and it doesn’t matter whether that is for still photography or for cinematic filming”.

Kazuto Yamaki


Born in Tokyo in 1968. After Sophia University Graduate School joined SIGMA in 1993. Became Corporate Planning Director in 2000, Executive Vice President in 2003 and Corporation President in 2005. Assumed Corporation Executive Officer position in 2012.

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