Blinded by the Light: Why J.J. Abrams' Lens Flare Is Not a Big Deal

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Earlier this year, it was be announced J.J. Abrams would be directing the latest unnecessary "Star Wars" film, turning Twitter into an unremitting, multi-day torrent of grousing about how overwhelming lens flare would render the film unwatchable (as opposed to presumably the extremely watchable and necessary new installment "Star Wars" film that would otherwise result). The cinematically-focused internet can't agree on hardly anything, but across the board there was consensus that Abrams relies on this tic too much and should simply knock it off, because it's the most distracting gimmick imaginable. As far as mass audience outcries go, this one is pretty misguided and deserves a more sympathetic evaluation.

Abrams' interest in lens flare can be firmly dated to to his first film directorial effort, 2006's

"Mission: Impossible III." "I brought these lenses to 'Mission Impossible III' that I loved for their idiosyncratic behavior," cinematographer Dan Mindel explained this year. "During the shoot, I think he saw the flares happening and decided he wanted to go with them." There aren't that many in that film, though someone evidently thought it worth their time to make a .gif out of one example. But instances escalated in "Star Trek" and "Super 8," and by all accounts the flare figures equally heavily in "Star Trek: Into Darkness" (which somehow hasn't prompted a raft of "Star Trek: Into Lens Flare" headlines ... yet). For Abrams, the device has three selling points, as he explained in 2009.

The most compelling reason was to add an "organic layer" to a movie "that can potentially be very sterile and CG and overly controlled." (Abrams went on to claim all the flares were done live on-set rather than in post, and I'm willing to take his word for it.) A second, silly but plausible idea was to express the sentiment "that the future was so bright it couldn't be contained in the frame." (For those who remember Timbuk 3's lone '80s hit "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" — implying that the future was shiny because of the glare of atomic bombs exploding — this may not seem like the sharpest thinking.) Finally, Abrams expressed the desire to create "a visual system that was unique."

This last reason is pretty silly. Abrams is hardly the first filmmaker to use lens flare to an overwhelming extent, and one of the people he owes a stylistic debt to became clear in his Spielberg tribute "Super 8," which ripped the pop master off throughout its extensive pastiche. Flare is a standard Spielberg move to increase the magic and majesty of it all (that and the trademark"Spielberg face" — identified and named by Kevin B. Lee in this video — in which the camera dollies into someone's awestruck upturned face), a useful effect for a filmmaker trafficking in big-budget sci-fi spectacle.


Prior to Abrams, the most aggressive recent flare deployment in American film was serially committed by P.T. Anderson, who amplified the already plentiful element in "Magnolia" to its beyond-logical extreme in "Punch-Drunk Love." The difference between the two is that Anderson's using flare "expressively" (to connote rapturous inner states, moments of epiphany, etc.), while Abrams just uses it because he thinks it's cool without any real connection to the scene at hand. The other difference is that Anderson, apparently wary of turning a signature into a self-parodying tic, has knocked it off; there were far fewer in "There Will Be Blood" and almost none in "The Master." Abrams gives no indication of stopping this habit anytime soon, especially since he's going to keep shooting movies in space, where zero gravity would swallow color but he doesn't really care.

I'll concede that Abrams' use of color is silly and arbitrary, but can't understand why that should be such a maddening distraction. As far as over-busy summer blockbusters go, Abrams is fairly restrained in his, avoiding piling up too many tacky CGI monsters or weightless battles. If he wants to entertain himself visually while getting from one story beat to another in an ongoing quest to prove traditional screenwriting rules can work better than ever, more power to him. There are far bigger distractions and demerits to freak out over, and at least he's interested in playing directly with the lens and working visual things out on the set rather than vomiting colors over everything in post-production.