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Back on Trek

Apr 20, 2009 12:00 PM, By Michael Goldman

How J.J. Abrams led the Star Trek revival.

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The movie features camera lens flaring as part of the visual design, including use of a proprietary system designed by ILM’s Todd Vaziri for effects shots.

The movie features camera lens flaring as part of the visual design, including use of a proprietary system designed by ILM’s Todd Vaziri for effects shots.
Photo: Industrial Light and Magic. TM & © 2009 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Flare madness

On Paramount stages and various locations throughout California, Mindel used Panavision Primo anamorphic lenses to shoot the movie with two primary stocks: Kodak Vision2 100T 5212 for day exteriors, and Kodak Vision2 500T 5218 for night exteriors and interiors. Mindel says the approach was mainly traditional, with frequent use of technocranes. He did, however, add some of Panavision’s brand-new anamorphic zooms to his repertoire, including the AWZ2 lens (40mm-80mm) and the ATZ tight zoom (70mm-200mm)—both of which saw heavy action during production.

The biggest innovation in shooting the movie may have been the most low-tech method employed by Mindel overall. That 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 idio¬syncratic 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. In this situation, dailies become especially important. They were done at FotoKem [in Burbank, Calif.] by [dailies colorist] Mark Van Horne, who is one of my closest allies when making an anamorphic movie. It sounds archaic, but watching traditional dailies is the only way to guarantee quality control on an anamorphic movie—especially for focus and other subtle things that are hard to see on an Avid screen.”

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.”

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