Lens Flares 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.'"

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Contrast the purists' comments with that of director Sidney Lumet, who was 83 when his film, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," was released. In the DVD commentary, he praised digital to the skies and claimed he could make anything he shot look exactly like film.


So Mindel wants to be left alone to do his mysterious craft with autonomy and complete creative freedom. And that is one of his main concerns with going over to digital? I thought filmmaking was a collaborative art? At the end of the day film is about feelings, evoking emotions with images and sound. As long as what is being captured is worth being captured, as one cinematographer put it, the thing could be shot on gaffer tape. Personally, I loved Deakins' work on both "Assassination of Jesse James..." AND "Skyfall" (the movie not so much, but the images were outrageously well crafted). One was 35mm film and the other shot on digital. It's more about the man behind the art, not the box itself, that is at the core of this "argument" if there was one.



A: Lens flare is not unique to film, it happens exactly the same in digital cameras. It's just that they overused the hell out of cgi versions in the new Star Trek film. You may also notice that the space battles happening around the lens flares were cgi.
B: Before fumbling into the digital/analog debate (which is clearly over), people should be made to explain concisely the various photochemical processes that take a film from exposed negative to finished, titled, analog sound-tracked film print. This would show their understanding of what they are talking about. Also they should come to my office and repair a few thousand feet of vinegar-syndrome affected acetate film.
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