Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Grandfather of all lens flares

Ah, the lens flare.

An exciting effect, a beautiful image, now reduced to another keystroke in a suite of special effects in the digital cinematography platform.

I was watching a routine, earnest film called “Denial,” when, near the end of the movie, the director Mick Jackson and his cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, all of a sudden seemed to have discovered the lens flare. None appeared in the first 100 minutes of the movie, but in a few scenes in the last 10 minutes? Blue and golden horizontal streaks suddenly appear. It was as though they had just watched a 'Star Trek' reboot. (A better title for this earnest melodrama would have been 'Denied!')

That this has even become a thing is due, of course, to JJ Abrams, the godfather of the aforementioned 'Star Trek' franchise, who took the horizontal blue streak lens flare to something like a fetish, if not an art form.

There have been many articles written in the past several years decrying the use of the fabricated lens flare in digital photography, and there are reports that Abrams himself has said he took the effect too far. 

But where did it all begin?

Without access to all the literature on the subject, and reading published articles online, there seems to be some consensus that the lens flare came into prominence in the late 1960s, thanks to the work of artists such as Conrad Hall, Haskell Wexler, and Laszlo Kovacs. They each used the lens flare to reframe the idea of what a modern movie should look like. If you showed light, whether from the sun, or a headlght, refracted through the camera lens, then you obviously did not shoot the film in a studio. It was a great symbol for the new freedom.

Prior to that, lens flares were assiduously avoided. It has been famously reported that Orson Welles and Gregg Toland coated the lens of the camera during the shooting of 'Citizen Kane' to ensure that no lens flares occurred. The idea was that the audience should not be aware that they were watching a film — it was in a time when artists believed in the idea of the 'suspension of disbelief.'

Those days, as we have so often noted here, are long gone.

But one of the great and most honored cinematographers of all time, Leon Shamroy, experimented with the idea of a lens flare before anyone else.

Shamroy was nominated for an Academy Award 18 times, and won four. He was meticulous, and precise. 

So when did he use the lens flare?

In “Leave Her To Heaven” a gorgeously shot Technicolor film from 1945. It is often called the first 'film noir' in color, but I'm not sure that's right. The villain, played by Gene Tierney (in her only Oscar nominated role), is insane, but no one else in the film is. 

In the words of the great JJ Hunsecker, the character played by Burt Lancaster in “The Sweet Smell of Success,” every character in film noir should be “a cookie full of arsenic.” Outside of Tierney's character Ellen Berent, everyone in 'Leave Her To Heaven' is a saint. So this is no film noir.

But there is one scene that is deservedly famous; a nasty, brutal scene. 

Ellen takes Danny, the little brother of her new husband, swimming. Danny has polio and his legs are paralyzed, but he wants to swim the length of the lake in Maine where they are spending the summer. Ellen follows the boy in a rowboat. Danny, as Ellen knew he would, succumbs to his cramps and drowns. But as Danny flounders and cries out, Ellen hears her husband whistling as he walks on shore, and yells, in fake concern, “Danny!” and dives into the water as if to save him. The husband, played by the reliably wooden Cornel Wilde, hears the screams, and as he runs closer to the lake, Shamroy employs a judicious lens flare to ratchet up the tension. The effect is brief, maybe a second or so — a slight lens flare (seen below) — but it adds to the brutal realism of the scene. It's a beautiful cinematic moment. Shamroy knew what he was doing. After all, he won the Oscar for his work on this film.

It is up to scholars more estimable than I to declare whether this is the first official use of a lens flare.

But as John Lennon once said of The Beatles' single, “I Feel Fine,” that song may feature the first instance of guitar feedback on a recording, but unless it is on some unknown blues record that no one knows about, we'll never know for sure.

The lens flare occurs at 3:12 in the following clip: