31.03.2020 in Exploratory
J.J. Abrams: A Famous Director and His Infamous Lens Flares

Throughout the cinema history, film directors have been developing and establishing their personal styles that would distinguish them from one another. In fact, quite often the viewers can guess the director by his or her films, so evident their ‘auteur’ signatures are. The signatures can vary from director to director, yet they tend to persist throughout all films of one and the same director. The paper aims to determine whether the auteur theory applies to modern film art, with the hypothesis being tested on film director J.J. Abrams. Arguably, J.J. Abrams is a modern auteur whose most recognized calling card is the eloquent use of the cinematographic technique of lens flare.

A good definition of lens flare can be found in a study by Hullin at al. “Lens flare is caused by light passing through a photographic lens system in an unintended way”. Perhaps the key word here is ‘unintended.’ Indeed, lens flare is often regarded as something originally unintended and unwanted that most people who work with cameras – photographers and filmmakers – try to avoid. “In traditional photography and cinematography, lens flare is considered a degrading artifact and therefore undesired”. However, in rare though noteworthy cases, lens flare is used as a deliberate visual technique. One of the bright realms to illustrate the case is cinematography. In film production, “…flare-like effects are often used deliberately to suggest the presence of very bright light sources, hence increasing the perceived realism”. Yet some may say that, on the contrary, lens flare ruins the atmosphere of reality reminding the viewers that it is a film made by cameras because only on camera light behaves in this manner. Either way, the technique has won the hearts of many viewers and some – though not all – film directors. Thus, while most filmmakers try to avoid or correct lens flares in production and post-production of their works as an unintended effect, J.J. Abrams tends to differ. 


Some people – average viewers as well as respectable film critics – call the lens flare Abrams’ trick, obsession, or [bad] habit since the film director tends to use it freely and persistently throughout many if not all his films. In particular, Star Trek (2009) contains evidence of extensive and frequent lens flare use. Perhaps one of the brightest examples is the scene of Jim’s birth. The light is as much accentual for the scene as it is overwhelming. On the one hand, the light that floods the lifeboat cabin is justified as the symbol of birth, i.e. the child sees the light as he comes to this world. On the other hand, at times, the light is all the viewer can see – it literally blinds the viewer and blurs the shot to such an extent that one can barely distinguish the silhouette of a mother holding a newborn child. The list of examples goes on. An attempt to count the total number of times the lens flare appears on the screen resulted in an estimated 720 flares per movie. They are present in literally every scene where there is a source of light, be it the ‘natural’ light from a star, or artificial lighting at Enterprise’s captain’s bridge. Indeed, lens flare is Abrams’ widely recognizable and overall loved calling card. In general, visual storytelling can be labeled J.J. Abrams’ trademark, and his application of lens flare technique – the director’s thumbprint. His use of artificial light and utilization of lens flare for aesthetic and emotion-setting purposes is unprecedented and extremely eloquent. In fact, there is enough reason to state that J.J. Abrams’ use of the lens flare is the manifestation of his auteur oeuvre. 

Auteur theory was popular in the 1960s an appeared in the works of film theorists and scholars, such as Andrew Sarris, yet the interest towards the auteur theory has been recently revived. “Auteurism originally […] identified the creative imprint of (American) directors whose artistic impulses survived the homogenizing influence of the studio system”. In light of the modern tendency for films to be associated with directors and not the film studios, the theory has gained a new meaning. Nowadays, the theory and the concept ‘auteur’, in particular, are used to denote a film director’s distinctive, unique, or memorable style. “Auteur theory […] stresses directorial productivity and expressivity (e.g., stylistic flair, thematic consistency)”. Further in the article, one may find another, even more eloquent explanation for the same concept. “Auteur theory is a theory that designates the director as the author of a film, the one who gives it a distinctive character and distinguishes the director…”. In other words, auteur theory shifts attention solely to director as the ultimate author of the movie. In more trivial or conventional terms, the adjective ‘auteur’ is what a filmmaker is known, remembered, and liked for. Hence, the theory of authorship implies that there exist particular, distinctive traits that single out a certain director among all others. This trait becomes indivisibly associated with the director’s name and sought or at least anticipated in all his creations. Director J.J. Abrams definitely fits this new theory’s interpretation and value system.

The role of a director as auteur should not be underestimated. “Behind every movie lies a director with a vision”. J.J. Abrams’ vision consists in many things, such as the love of the sci-fi genre, futuristic technology, conspiracy, and mysteries. However, first and foremost, his vision condenses in the manipulations with natural and artificial light. One may argue that Abrams views and sees all the film scenes through the lens of a lens flare (pun unintended). “An auteur transforms the film into something personal, ‘an expression of his own personality’”. Indeed, it is not a secret that Abrams loves the lens flare and, hence, renders his love in his films to share it with the viewers. In other words, his personal belief that this or that scene would look great if enhanced by a lens flare results in the ultimate expression of his personal vision in film. Lens flare only helps render the vision from the director’s mind to the realm of something material other people can assess – the movie. Marked by this technique, all Abrams’ movies, including Star Trek and Star Wars VII, become de facto and instantly recognizable. “The director gives the motion picture ‘any distinctive quality it may have’”. Undoubtedly, in case with J.J. Abrams, the distinctive quality of his films rests, inter alia, in the omnipresence of the lens flare technique that some critics call excessive. In fact, Abrams himself has recently admitted his ‘addiction’ to the technique.

It may be unprecedented that a film director admits his auteur style to be a flaw that needs fixing. Hardly any director, especially a renowned one, did it before. In one of the interviews, J.J. Abrams has to explain and justify his use of the favorite technique. Inter alia, Abrams says he decided to apply the lens flare in his Star Trek movie because of the idea that “the future was so bright”. “We all make mistakes. Mine was with light,” Abrams says. Although such an explanation is intended as a joke, it still looks like a pained effort at self-defense, self-justification, and self-redemption. The director also mentions the breaking point that made him admit his ‘problem’. He talks about the time when his wife was reviewing one of the Star Trek scenes – ironically, one of the crucial and emotional scenes – and could not distinguish that was going on because the flare was extremely strong and literally subdued all the characters in that scene. Thus, after being publically and personally criticized, Abrams promised the viewers that he would rethink his inclination towards lens flare. He even made an effort to reduce its use in his new works, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) being one of them. From the first minutes, it becomes clear that J. J. Abrams fulfilled his promise. As one can see, there is a noticeable difference between Star Trek and Star Wars VII. In the latter, the lens flare effect appears less frequently. Even though some scrupulous fans still count hundreds of them, their nature is different. The flares are less powerful, i.e. less noticeable and, assumedly, less obstructive as they appear only when necessary and for a short moment of time. Thus, regardless of the flare count accuracy, the lens flares in Star Wars do not dominate the shots and scenes, as it was with Star Trek. However, it is not clear if Abrams’ promise to renounce lens flare is beneficiary for any of the parties involved, i.e. the director himself and the viewers. 

Lens flare has many purposes, especially in Abrams’ movies. From the viewers’ standpoint, the blinding flare makes the mind lack some pieces of the picture, which is good for sci-fi films like Star Trek or Star Wars. After all, when something is obscured from sight with the help of either darkness (like in horror films), or light (as in Abrams’ movies), it becomes more interesting. From the standpoint of directing, it theatrically blurs and blazes the shot, thus, artificially yet efficiently creating the atmosphere of mystery and/or the futuristic sense. In other words, the lens flare serves to support and further emphasize the other features that distinguish Abrams’ directing style, namely his passion for sci-fi, futuristic setting, and mysterious suspense. Hence, if the effect of the lens flare in Abrams’ movies becomes less prominent, there is a risk it will diminish his authorship making it less prominent, as well. J.J. Abrams finds inspiration and creative realization in the lens flare cinematographic tool. In many instances, Abrams equals the lens flare. Respectively, it is discriminative to say there is too much lens flare in Star Trek or Star Wars VII because that would mean ‘there is too much J.J. Abrams’ in those movies. After all, no one says there is too much Hitchcock in Psycho or Vertigo, or there is ‘too much’ Uma Thurman in Tarantino’s movies. 

Evidently, film director J.J. Abrams is a modern auteur whose distinctive style is visual storytelling based on the frequent application of the lens flare tool, as exemplified by the movie Star Trek. While many viewers enjoy the lens flare and perceive it as Abrams’ thumbprint, others criticize it and call it addiction. Most strikingly, Abrams has recently accepted the criticism and promised to change his approach. The first testimony of the kept promise is evident in one of the most recent Abrams’ creations, the movie Star Wars VII. However, the implications of the director’s decision to alter his habits and techniques are ambiguous. After all, they can mean the alteration of Abrams’ directing style, be it for better or worse. If deprived of lens flare partially or completely, J.J. Abrams may as well stop being ‘the’ Abrams many viewers know, love, and recognize.

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