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Updated! Lens Flare, Indexicality, and J.J. Abrams

Star Trek

~Updated~ May 20, 2013

Before probing JJ Abrams’s indexical use of Lens Flare in 2009′s Star Trek and 2011′s Super8 in my January 2012 piece (below), I want to provide a few updated observations about the technique’s use in Abrams’s most recent film.

Over its opening weekend of May 17, 2013, I watched Abrams’s newest lens flare experiment Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013). A number of people have remarked on twitter that in this newest film, Abrams has significantly cut down on his use of lens flare. I don’t think this is right. Instead, I want to suggest that Abrams employs the lens flare throughout Into Darkness but its use is smarter, varied, and at times even cheekily mocks or nods to his own overabundant use of the technique.

First, the lens flare here potentially pokes fun at itself while it is dually re-imagined as a vital dramatic element. One scene in particular uses the lens flare to directly correspond to and absorb an intensely dramatic moment. The new shipmate, Carol (Alice Eve), pleas desperately to her father Marcus (Peter Weller) to save the U.S.S. Enterprise from destruction (I won’t say more than this). As Carol’s urges escalate, so does the blue lens flare increase in intensity and size before almost completely overtaking the screen; we no longer see Carol’s body or face only the bright blue flare and its surrounding white halo. The lens flare becomes both comical and absurd (to those in the know or sick of the device), yet it also powerfully takes on the overabundance of dramatic emotion.It absorbs and expands the melodrama of the scene. No longer is the lens flare pure style or production design, the lens flare becomes a dynamic narrative and emotional presence of its own.

Second, Abrams explores a more dynamic range of lens flare types throughout Into Darkness. I’ve only seen the film once, but on initial viewing I was surprised by the varied sizes, shapes, and colors of lens flares throughout. We have spheres, squares, and even scratches. These are not simply the enormous slashes of light, but develop as separate flare entities. Something I’d like to think through further (and will need to see the film more in theaters or on DVD) is the film’s use of something like a digital flare (I’m aware that this doesn’t quite make sense). What I mean by this is that I sensed a flare (square or roundish in shape) that seemed almost pixelated, a stamp on strange edges of the screen. I don’t know what causes this particular “lens flare” or what we should make of it in relation to the other more indexical light straps.

Finally, Perhaps one reason why people are suggesting that Abrams lens flares in Into Darkness are either reduced or not as noticeable might have to do with Into Darkness’s 3D release. The 2009 Star Trek was not released in 3D and thus the lens flares were flattened within the screen. One of my colleagues, Ryan Pierson, noted after the screening that perhaps the 3D perceptually changes the way in which we engage the lens flare (either as a more enjoyable dynamic element within the world) or at least less noticeable in blocking out character dialogue or dramatic action.

For a more in depth look of Abrams indexical use of the lens flare in his previous films, continue below….

~ January 31, 2012 ~

I will first start off by saying that I was and still am a big fan of J.J. Abrams 2009 Summer Blockbuster Star Trek (easily on my top 5 for that the year) and that I thoroughly enjoyed the sentimentality and Spielbergian homages in 2011’s Super 8 (it is a true kid on a bike adventure film if ever there was one). Last week I re-watched the Blu-ray release of Super 8 and couldn’t help but notice not only the 2nd act of Abrams’ famous lens flares, but also their insistence on being seen without hesitation throughout the film. In this post I want to casually explore Abrams’ use of lens flares in the two films, in particular why the flares seem ‘natural’ in Star Trek and so intrusive in Super 8. I also want to explore the lens flare’s relationship to the indexical and cinephilia in both films.

We have to trouble the technical terminology of lens flare when discussing Abrams for the very fact that many of the lens flares in the films are not actually material production incurred markers. According to Kris Malkiewicz’s camera manual Cinematography, a lens flare is “spots and streaks on film caused by strong directional light reflected off the lens components or filters.”[1] The lens flare by definition is an imperfection in the pro-filmic environment whereby the light coming across the lens from an angled or direct light source, refracts off the curve of the lens creating a flare of light or spotting. In particular, anamorphic lenses lend themselves to capturing blue, horizontal lens flares. Certainly Abrams’ use of flares is not unique; films have embraced lens flares as a way to connote both realism (Easy Rider) and to highlight emotional moments (think the last scene of 2005’s Pride and Prejudice where a lens flare from a setting sun emphasizes the kiss between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, creating a hazy, soft glow around the characters).

Yet, Abrams’ flares are neither interested in realism nor sensation but rather the indexical and his particular brand of cinephilia. In American Cinematographer, Abrams explains that, “Flares can be purposeful and additive, and at the right time they remind me, in a good way, that I’m watching a movie. It doesn’t take me out of it. I think it draws me in deeper.”[2] Though not everyone shares Abrams’ enthusiasm for his excess of lens flares, the prevalence of the technique in his films is an identifiable Abrams signature. Two spoofs of the effect are worth noting: the viral video “Lens Flare the Movie,” which includes a joke where one character, obscured by a mirage of multiple lens flares, shouts, “I can’t see anything!”; and another viral video, “I made the old Star Trek look like the New Star Trek,” which digitally adds lens flares to previous Star Trek movie and TV show clips to reproduce and mock the sheen of the recent release.

I think lens flares work so well in Star Trek because they are both “motivated” within the mise-en-scène and because they add to the overall glossy and outer earthly tone of the film. Star Trek is set in a world buzzing with light, both in the USS Enterprise but also in the multiple galaxies where they travel. The lens flares are not unthinkable realistically, but also add to the effect that their world is constantly in motion and invaded by technology and spatial lighting from a variety of diegetic sources. While this might be a strange comparison, they remind me slightly of the scene in Wall-E where Wall-E lifts up his robot hand to touch and scatter the stars. The effect produced reminds us not only that we are watching “sci-fi” but particularly that we are watching a film that wants to engage the possibilities of playing with different kinds of light.

Super 8, on the other hand, wants to remind us that 1970s Lillian, Ohio is anything but outer earthly. This is in fact what makes the alien encounter in the film so exciting. When small town America meets military war and intergalactic shipbuilding, the town is literally set ablaze. Lens flares should have no place in the film, especially not in shot/countershot dialogue sequences. Yet there they are, and in greater number and in stronger intensities than in Star Trek. Why should this be the case? There is no ‘motivation’ within the mise-en-scène, and arguably could only be justified as an effect during scenes with the aliens. One justification is in the subplot (arguably main plot) of the film. Super 8 is a film about kids making films. Imperfection is celebrated as the kid director “Charles Kaznyk” (Riley Griffiths) constantly demands greater “production value.” The film created within the film, the kid’s short Super 8 zombie flick is inflected with professional backdrops of train wrecks and military personnel in official costumes while also revealing its amateur qualities, choppy zooms, shaky tilts and pans, dropped ambient sound/dialogue, simple and overtly stated screen lines.

Part of the impulse in the lens flares within Super 8 is not to display the gloss or beauty of the flare (as in Star Trek) but to comment on the place or appreciation of imperfection even in the highest budget Spielbergian Hollywood blockbuster. As Super 8 Director of Photography, Larry Fong, explains in American Cinematographer, there is no rational logic to lens flares within the scenes – none of the given light sources could possibly create such an effect – but rather that the lens flares point to the pro-filmic: “it’s obviously a movie light.” One way to understand the lens flares is through its insistence on the love of moviemaking in both its amateur and professional stages. The lens flare, especially when it is created in both Star Trek and Super 8 not by lighting for the scene, but by additional flashlights placed throughout the set and even as intentionally as perpendicular to the camera lens, suggests something about why Abrams so privileges the device. For one, Abrams through the lens flare desires to remind the audience of cinema’s indexical ‘past’ (even though, strangely, it’s created with CGI in most of the outer spaceship scenes) and also to remind audiences of cinema’s ability to turn technical imperfection into something captivating and beautiful.

While dialogue scenes obscured by up to 3 or 4 blue lens flares are not attractive, the last shot of Super 8 is strangely intriguing for its choices. We expect a denouement after the military and alien invasion of Lillian, Ohio, something to reassure us that the characters have rebuilt and relationships have progressed. However, as the last shot of the town fades to black, the enduring light from the screen is simply a final blue lens flare. This isn’t to say that the most important character or element of Super 8 is in fact a technical effect, but rather that within the image of the lens flare, Abrams embodies a whole history of technical expectations and modes of indexicality. Abrams’ cinephilia reminds the audience that filmic imperfections can excite just as well if not more than a sharp narrative.[3]

 

Footnotes

  1. Kris Malkiewicz and David Muller, ASC. Cinematography. New York: Fireside, 2001. []
  2. Iain Stasukevich, “Monster Out of the Box.” American Cinematographer 92, no. 7 (Jul 2011): 24. []
  3. More on lens flares in Star Trek. []

  • Guvcathe

    Very interesting. Nothing to really add, but enjoyed your take. Thanks.