Millimeter Magazine recently posted a really nice article about the making of "Star Trek," with an emphasis on the cinematography, visual effects design, and the digital intermediate color timing process. As part of a discussion about the photographic style of the film, director J.J. Abrams, cinematographer Dan Mindel and visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett talked about the use of lens flares in the film. As a sequence supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic, one of my duties on "Star Trek" was to create synthetic lens flare aberrations for our visual effects shots that matched stylistically and technically with the first unit photography.
We used flares in "Star Trek" as a storytelling device in a way that has never been done before. The great thing is that J.J., Roger and I were on the same visual wavelength in terms of how, when and why to create the flaring aberrations in the film. The flares give the film a unique flavor of spontaneity and intensity, paradoxically giving the film a documentary-style grittiness, as well as a fanciful, otherworldly, abstract quality. I'll let them explain:[The] technique was the strategic plan to build camera lens flares into the photography. For a sci-fi space film—or any film these days—that aesthetic is extremely rare, since filmmakers usually battle to remove flares from their photography, rather than insert them. Abrams’ and Mindel’s obsession with lens flares, however, was part of a strategic vision for the photography. The technique is so prevalent that Abrams jokes he may have designed “a future in which you’ll have to wear shades.”
“I can’t explain it with intellectual reasoning—I can just say it was important to me,” Abrams says. “Even though some people may think we went over the top with flares, I just loved that they made it feel like there was always something spectacular going on off-camera, as well as what was happening on-camera. It reminded me of the feeling I would get watching NASA footage. It might be a distraction to some people, and I apologize to them, but I loved that feeling that this was a more natural future, rather than a [stereotypical sci-fi] shiny future.”
Mindel says the approach required an attitude adjustment on the part of the camera crew. “We have been spending the last 20 to 30 years trying to take flares out,” he says. “Here, we loved the way the anamorphic lenses flare naturally, and we were told to let them happen and we even put them in when they weren’t there. Other space movies have that non-believable aspect of being photographically sterile, and they rarely allow the idiosyncratic nature of light and movement into the arena, which gives you a kind of homogenized movie. We were eager to make sure that did not happen here. We felt a degree of believability comes with the idiosyncrasies that we allowed onto the film—those aberrations on the lenses, flaring, and even a little misframing or accidents. Often, it’s accidents that go on to make up the great pieces of movie art. We felt that by allowing flares in, we would get an organic infringement into the sterile frame—adding a bit of imperfection, a degree of reality.“We developed an interesting, low-tech technique for it. We had two guys with flashlights flaring the lens constantly. There is a real expertise to it. The hardest thing about the technique was how to keep the lamp operators out of frame since they had to play very close to the lens. The trickery comes from knowing how to flare the lens and hide behind the flare."
But the flaring technique hardly stopped once the production left the set. Mindel’s camera work served as the inspiration for the creation of artificial lens flares for many bits of hundreds of visual-effects shots. These flares were created using a proprietary system developed at ILM to match the specific aberrations of Mindel’s anamorphic lenses.
ILM Sequence Supervisor Todd Vaziri was responsible for developing the artificial lens-flare software system, which the company dubbed SunSpot. The system essentially combines off-the-shelf software, certain proprietary ILM tools, photographed elements, and several custom paint elements to painstakingly match the flares captured on the negative.
“The technique gives compositors instant, highly realistic anamorphic lens flares for our all-CG shots that are indistinguishable from real, practical flares shots by the first unit,” Guyett says. “We used it to create flares for a variety of purposes such as spotlights on the exterior of the Enterprise, lights on synthetic set extensions, the Vulcan sun, and a dwarf star featured in the film’s prologue.”
The article is available online here
(free registration may be required), and in its April 2009 print edition.