“…there are times when I’m working on a shot, I think, ‘Oh this would be really cool… with a lens flare.'”
–J.J. Abrams, interview with The Crave (2013)
Many filmmakers, most famously J.J. Abrams, have made lens flares a consistent element of their visual style–and come under fire for it. A lens flare is simply a glare or haze (also called halation) produced when “unwanted” light floods into the lens and hits the film or digital sensor. This happens usually as a result of the positioning of the lens axis in relation to the sun (or some other “hard” light source). If the lens is pointed in the source’s general direction (fig.1), it will pick up visual “artifacts” that blur or stream across the image.
In films like Star Trek (2009), Abrams decided to shoot into light, or avoid the kinds of lens hoods that prevent this “stray” light from entering the camera.
Perhaps not surprisingly–since bold visual choices tend to irritate many viewers–Abrams’ use of flares has been for the most part been met with confusion and even ridicule. What is surprising is that this aspect of his visual style has caused such an uproar that the director decided to admit that his affinity for flares had become something of a stylistic “addiction” (his term). He even issued a now-famous apology for his abuse of the device, and, just prior to the release of Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), he even publicized the fact that he personally requested that the CGI firm Industrial Lights and Magic remove many of the flares his cinematographer created during the production.
While undoubtedly a unique development–it’s rare to see a negative reaction to an element of a filmmaker’s style result in a such a public disavowal of said element by the filmmaker himself–I think that Abrams might have stood up for flares by taking the time to motivate them in his films and to explain them in his interviews. If you make such an important–and unique–dimension of your style seem like a “cool” but ultimately purposeless add-on, then that’s how it’ll be perceived.
How, then, might a lens flare be motivated by–that is, serve a legitimate function–in a movie? Let’s look to another film, also much maligned for its “flair for the flare,” Total Recall (2012), by Len Wiseman.
Lens Flares: Three Motivations
The first theory that comes to mind is that the film uses lens flares and halation simply because they suit its setting: Total Recall takes place in a dystopic future where technology dominates human life, so flares seem to make sense. Flares give the film a sleek, futuristic feel. This would appear to explain some of the flares–for instance when Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) paces through his dimly lit apartment, and a conspicuous blue flare reaches out (from his wall-mounted TV) and slices the image along the horizontal axis.
But is this hypothesis sufficient to account for every elegant streak, colorful water-drop-like effect and opaque veiling flare (that reduces overall contrast in the image)? Certainly not. This explanation therefore feels too sweeping, too coarse.
Instead, let’s look at specific scenes in the film, and try to match the presence of flares–and specific forms of flare–with what’s transpiring narratively and thematically.
The first, and most general, motivation for Total Recall‘s lens flares is what I’ll call narrative atmospherics. This is similar to the idea that flares function to communicate the film’s futuristic setting, but at the same time it’s a little more nuanced. Let’s be honest. Lens flares appear in virtually every scene in the film. But this doesn’t mean that flares float about the movie aimlessly. They grip onto certain characters and settings.
For the most part, the film’s flares are not motivated by an offscreen sun. The narrative world the filmmakers create is smog-filled, and much of the film is set at night, in crammed and confined concrete spaces that glisten from the rainfall. What we have here is a storyworld defined by harsh contrasts, where “sourcy” artificial lights intrude on characters’ lives. In other words, on some level these flares seem to insinuate themselves into relatively intimate spaces and moments–the light of the outside world limits the characters’ privacy. When Quaid and his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), share a morning kiss at the beginning of the film, a faint blue ribbon glows at the bottom of the frame (fig. 4). And once Quaid decides to go to Rekall, a somewhat disreputable memory implant clinic in a seedy part of town, a thin flare rips across the screen (presumably from a light source beaming into Rekall’s shadowy offices through an offscreen window) (fig. 5).
But things develop and change. After Quaid kills ten police officers and flees Rekall, he finds himself on the run, and flares–now denser and more elaborate, a hot spot combined with criss-crossing vectors of color that render the action and the character’s facial expressions somewhat difficult to see–become associated with moments when Quaid is desperate to escape the eye of the law (fig. 6).
The second motivation for the film’s flares builds on this last example: perceptual occlusion. As the film’s action intensifies, Quaid’s predicament becomes more precarious. More and more questions are raised about his past, and he finds that he has fewer and fewer people to trust, including his wife.
As Lori unexpectedly pulls a gun on him and begins to fire, Quaid quickly finds shelter in the kitchen of their crammed apartment. We cut to a shot that’s almost totally opaque (fig. 7); the wife’s hand and the pistol are at the center of the frame (pointing offscreen left), she remains partially silhouetted on the right, and the center of the image is concealed by a thick, broken band of white, sepia and pale blue. Like the wife, the viewer can’t quite make out where Quaid has hidden, so lens flaring here serves to occlude vision and thereby (for a fleeting moment) restrict the viewer’s level of understanding of onscreen events and the overall spatial configurations of the scene. The filmmaker has, to put it differently, created the opportunity for unexpected turns in the narrative action.
Finally, flares are motivated thematically. In rare moments, the film’s cinematographer, Paul Cameron, will use striking displays of reflected and patterned light to suggest a concept or idea. In the first scene of the film–an elaborate action set piece–Quaid also finds himself on the run. He awakens in a hospital room, dizzy and disoriented. A mysterious women, later revealed as Melina (Jessica Biel), rescues him and they attempt to flee. Hoards of heavily armored policemen and law enforcement droids are in pursuit. Cameron illuminates the scene with a spectrum of flare styles and blindingly white strobe lights that periodically blow out the image. As they attempt to escape through a window, the women slips. Quaid reaches for her hand but is blasted in the back with a high-tech taser that wraps its victim in a charged, LED-style rope light. We cut to a close shot of Quaid, and one of the most elaborately designed flare shots this writer has ever seen (fig. 8).
Lighting like this draws immediate attention to itself. But it’s not merely decorative or ornamental; and nor can its meaning be reduced to “the futuristic.” Consider the scene as a whole and its role in the narrative. Wiseman’s lighting throughout the scene–especially the striking patterns of recurring strobe effects–work with this intricate design of thread-like horizontal flares to play up the imaginative quality of the experience itself. There is something conspicuously controlled, even artificial, about this visual experience—something is off-kilter, idealized. And the viewer is made to feel it. As we learn but a moment later, Quaid experienced all of this in an elaborate dream.
Whether or not flares are cool is a matter I’ll leave to others to debate. What is really important is the question of how they can help tell a story.