How Did Lens Flares Become So Popular? (J.J. Abrams Didn't Have Anything to Do with It)

If you've watched anything by J.J Abrams surely you are well aware of what a lens flare is.

In fact, the director's love affair with these camera anomalies could make one think that flares were born into a place of great respect and honor among filmmakers — the first one twinkling in the eye of a camera operator as they realized that the world of cinematography would never be the same again. But that's not the case — they were thought of as mistakes. Vox guides us through the history of lens flares, from their humble beginnings to their (ahem) bright future.

Now that lens flares are more ubiquitous in today's films than a wilhelm scream, it's a little difficult to appreciate what they offer in terms of storytelling and style. And even if you're totally sick of seeing them, it is interesting to know that they were kind of a way for indie filmmakers to give a little "f*** you" to the Hollywood studio environment — like, "Your studio walls can't cage me! I'm going outside and not coming in until I smell like freshly cut grass and this entire roll of film is full of lens flares!" (Thanks, Dennis Hopper!)     

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It's definitely interesting how 'mistakes' have become such an essential part to developing cinematic techniques. It's like jump cuts, hand held cinematography, etc. Breaking the norm helps elevate the visual experience because it can pose new emotional challenges to audiences such as what Hall described. That's why I still love what Godard did with Breathless in 1960.

Although, a lens flare without visual context makes it appear shallow and attempting to be provocative purely for spectacle. Abrams is relatively hit and miss with the effect. Sometimes (very rarely however) it almost appears like a self-indulgent stylistic choice rather than an informed decision that enhances the experience.

April 1, 2016 at 3:40AM

Ryan Hollinger
Writer, Director, Editor

As an FX dude, they can often help hide things is the comp as well. And let's face it a lot of people like the look of them, myself included.

April 1, 2016 at 7:29AM

Cory Anderson
VFX Artist

I recently made a test of fake anamorphic lens flare with a simple Cokin filter :

April 2, 2016 at 9:41AM