Hey J.J. Abrams, What's With the Lens Flares in Star Trek?
Once everyone finally gets to see Star Trek next weekend, one complaint that I'm sure we'll be hearing a lot of will be in regards to the excessive use of lens flares. Director J.J. Abrams and his cinematographer Daniel Mindel use them a lot, we're talking about in almost every scene, and multiple times in every scene. We did quote Mindel at one point, who explained that at least on the Bridge of the USS Enterprise, he used those flares to give a "very realistic feel to an otherwise static scene." But as for Abrams and why he wanted to use so many - well, we'll let the filmmaker tell you himself, or at least via a press conference last week.
Before we go any further, let's take a look at the definition of lens flare: Light scattered in lens systems through generally unwanted image formation mechanisms, such as internal reflection and scattering from material inhomogeneities in the lens. Essentially, a lens flare is a (usually) curved or circular image of light superimposed on the frame created by the lenses of the camera (see an example here).
So why would anyone actually want lens flares in their movie? "I wanted a visual system that felt unique," Abrams says (via io9). "I know there are certain shots where even I watch and think, 'Oh that's ridiculous, that was too many.' But I love the idea that the future was so bright it couldn't be contained in the frame." Interesting thought so far, and I like where he's going with this, as I trust that most of Abrams' decisions are for a good reason. But that's only just the start, as Abrams explains. "The flares weren't just happening from on-camera light sources, they were happening off camera, and that was really the key to it," he says.
"I want [to create] the sense that, just off camera, something spectacular is happening. There was always a sense of something, and also there is a really cool organic layer that's a quality of it. They [lens flares] were all done live, they weren't added later. There are something about those flares, especially in a movie that can potentially be very sterile and CG and overly controlled. There is something incredibly unpredictable and gorgeous about them. It is a really fun thing. Our DP would be off camera with this incredibly powerful flashlight aiming it at the lens. It became an art because different lenses required angles, and different proximity to the lens. Sometimes, when we were outside we'd use mirrors."
Abrams goes on to say that the lens flares were "like another actor in the scene," which is a bit crazy. "It was this ridiculous, added level of pain in the ass," he says. "[The flares] to me, were a fun additional touch that I think, while overdone, in some places, it feels like the future is that bright." Essentially, they served a dual purpose of representing how bright the future really would be, at least in the Star Trek universe, which is certainly viable (considering how easy it is to create energy at that point). And they also were a way of adding some realism to scenes in order to prevent the audience from thinking it was shot on a static set.
I'm just amazed that Abrams had a legitimate answer for this that actually made some sense, too. While I know there will be some complaints, I never really had a major issue with the flares, except in a few scenes where I temporarily felt like I was being blinded by some off-screen light. But maybe that was exactly what he wanted in that scene, plus it added some sort of vibrancy to the moment, beyond the acting. Satisfied?