Film and TV

A brief history of the lens-flare technique -- and the end of film

Daniel Mindel, A.S.C., is part of an ever-shrinking population: cinematographers who have yet to shoot a feature digitally. He acknowledges that he "will be forced" to do it eventually by "the corporate entities that drive our industry," but he believes "there is no need to use an inferior technology at this time."

Hollywood hardly debated that "inferior technology" before studios, filmmakers, and exhibitors began adopting it over a decade ago. The digital transition is now nearly complete, with 35mm screenings already special occasions trumpeted by fans and preservationists. Proponents routinely cite the benefits of digital photography: the freedom to shoot in low light; smaller, more mobile cameras; the elimination of the laboratory process. But what is being lost, and how do those most directly affected by the change—cinematographers—feel about it?

Mindel is best known for his feature collaborations with Tony Scott and more recently with J.J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible III, this decade's Star Treks). In a phone interview, Mindel told me how he developed the most distinctive feature of Abrams's visual signature: the analog-specific phenomenon known as lens flare, in which a too-bright light source creates a visible halo on the lens.

"The training that I had as a camera technician was such that we were taught to stop any flares to protect the integrity of the photography," Mindel explains, echoing wisdom that dates to the silent era. "It always occurred to me that halation is something that we live with on a daily basis. Things halate—car windshields, light bulbs, everything. I wanted to allow that to happen in a way that brought more realism to what I was photographing. J.J. and I were looking at dailies on Mission: Impossible III, where we were getting incredible lens flares. He really loved what was happening, and it was sort of an open invitation to let it happen more."

The flares became a hallmark in Abrams movies. "With Star Trek," Mindel says, "it [became] a tool for me to allow the sterility of the sets to be amplified by distorting the light on the lens."

Lens flare is nothing new; although traditionally considered an error, it can be seen in mainstream Hollywood films from the 1960s onward, particularly those shot by Conrad Hall and Haskell Wexler. As Mindel points out, it is an attempt to lend verisimilitude—to enhance the illusion of reality by allowing a naturalistic visual "flaw" to occur as it would when the right kind of light meets a curved glass surface.

As digital takes prominence, film-like visuals are disappearing, kept alive by filmmakers who insist upon shooting in the medium in which they were trained—the medium upon which the art of cinema was founded. Cinematographers—including those who have shot digitally and like it—are wary of new dangers.

"One of the greatest people I ever worked with, Tony Scott, taught me that magic comes out of the accidents—to never be fearful to try anything," Mindel says. "The beauty of cinematography was that it was an amalgamation of art and science: the science of photography, or the science of postproduction, or the science of photochemical reaction with light."

Each year's new digital cameras are often promoted for their ability to create film-like images, which raises the question: Why switch if only to pursue the look of the original technology? A Photoshop filter allows users to place flare effects in a reasonably accurate way, and CG effects shots in feature films often incorporate digitally created "flare" to mesh with the rest of a film's look (see Star Trek, for example).

Roger Deakins, A.S.C./B.S.C., has shot three films digitally, including last year's James Bond spectacular, Skyfall, for which he received his 10th Oscar nomination. He's best known for his collaborations with the Coen brothers and with Sam Mendes, who directed Skyfall.

"I stayed away from digital for a long time because I'd been in love with film," Deakins tells the Voice. "It was only when digital had something more to offer—not only in terms of the quality of the image, but in terms of what you could do with a digital camera that you couldn't do with film. Now I find myself shooting in lower light conditions than I could shoot film emulsion in."

The celebrated Gordon Willis, who shot the Godfather trilogy, Annie Hall, Manhattan, All the President's Men, and Zelig, sees digital as having a potentially corrosive effect. "In today's moviemaking, you have lost the integrity of the original image. You've lost the integrity of the person who's thought things out and wants a certain thing to be achieved on the screen. Because if you don't have a contract that says no one can change anything, everyone who loves a dial—and they all seem to love dials—gets a hold of it and things turn into magenta, they turn into yellow, they turn into some of the most insane applications of 'creative thinking.' There are people who should know better, who have been making movies for a while, who get into this damn room with those dials and they start doing things they never would have thought of doing. They go, 'Well, we're here. Let's blow up seven bridges.'"

Mindel shares these concerns.

"Until very recently, most cinematographers were left alone to shoot and manipulate because people were afraid to engage in any technical conversations—because they really didn't understand the process," he says. "What has happened with the advent of Photoshop and iPads is that a lot of people know a little. Therefore they feel, especially directors, that they can manipulate the film in any direction."

He pauses, the language of this new world having not caught up with the reality. "Should I rephrase that? Not 'film'—'images.' So, the relationship between the director of photography and the director has to be built on trust."

With digital, he says, that amalgamation of art and science doesn't exist.

"[Digital] is something else, and that's fine," Mindel says. "But personally, I love the aberrations that film gives me—the grain exploding under stress from light sources that one doesn't want to control. It enables me to add texture and sympathy, empathy, something that's indefinable."

Digital photography continues to replace film. Physical prints of feature films will no longer be distributed by studios to theaters by the end of this year. So even if directors and cinematographers continue to shoot on film, the result will still end up being projected and seen in a digital format. The larger issue here, as Mindel points out, is not new technology and equipment, but the loss of an art form that took a century to develop on the basis of a particular (analog) medium, and its usurpation by an imitative one that is unresponsive—and, ironically, too responsive—to tactile craftsmanship.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Casey Burchby
Contact: Casey Burchby