JJ Abrams and Lens Flares


I absolutely love the work of JJ Abrams, including Lost, Fringe, the new Star Trek movies and so many other great and exciting works. If I could be any living movie director right now, that’s who I’d want to be – one of the greatest action and suspense artists of this or any time in my opinion. As you probably know, this is the director Disney chose to create the newest Star Wars film. So what is he doing right, what are some of his techniques, and what can we learn from his artistry? I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a fan and not a film expert by any stretch of the imagination but I have noticed a few things.



Any art form benefits from strong contrasts in all forms. JJ Abrams is a master of light/shadow, quick/slow pacing, loud/soft, complex/simple, and so on. As a performing cello soloist I use all of the audio tools I can to create contrast by alternating between pizzicato and arco, staccato and legato, fortissimo and pianissimo, lots of vibrato to none, glissando or none, double stops or none. I also alternate pieces in my repertoire between faster and slower song selections. Curt Cobain was asked about his technique and style once and he said it was all about playing something soft and pretty, then hitting the pedal and blasting it out – just going back and forth. Contrast keeps viewers and listeners paying attention and it makes a strong impression.

When I’m shooting and then processing (still) photos, I’m also very aware of contrast. In Photoshop, getting more contrast is easy, you just pop it up in the settings. If your initial subject has good contrast that makes it easier, but if you’re going for an effect, the real action happens after your shoot. Depending on what I’m going for, in CS6 I will adjust an image with Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast. I’ll pop them both up a lot, play around with the sliders in both directions and just see what I think looks good to me. You can spend a ton of time adjusting or very little, and it really depends a lot on what you’re starting with and what you’re trying to achieve. I also like to play with vibrance and saturation – again it depends on what I’m going for. Color contrasts such as red and green are also great.

All of that said, the above “before” photo is completely unadjusted, other than than to blur out the name on the crates for privacy. Journalists and many others who are going for realism have a strong ethic of keeping images as shot rather than altering them. The news should be told as it is, not as it should be – and that is good, that’s the way it is almost always done. In advertising, truth is still just as important if not more so, because consumer confidence is at stake and if something is just flat out fake it is called false advertising. Different lighting and things like that, simple adjustments and cropping are common practice though and the only thing really stopping an advertising artist is his or her imagination.

Lens flares.


JJ Abrams was teased once for using a lot of lens flares in the first Star Trek but I love them and I get what he is going for. When we see a movie, we are going for an experience. In real life, when I’m outside riding my bike or something, the sun is moving all around and it is so bright, I have to squint and sometimes kind of see that intense brightness and movement through my eyelashes. At the movies you are just sitting there and you don’t get that experience of motion with the light unless the director does that for you. JJ Abrams does that for you with lens flares.

In Photoshop, you can go to Filter > Render > Lens Flare and then play around with the settings. Be sure to click Preview so you can get a sneak peak of what it will look like.

The extreme.


JJ Abrams is not afraid of going all the way with an idea – and then continuing to go way past that. He will do whatever it takes to get the effect he is looking for. One example of this is in Star Trek when Kirk, Sulu and another crew member freefall from orbit face down in colored uniforms and helmets, wearing parachutes in a desperate heroic effort to save the planet from a mining drill. Light is blasting, wind is ripping at them and you can tell they are moving incredibly fast. It looks real and when you think about it, it appears like it should have been impossible to shoot. The whole sequence is crazy and exciting, dangerous in an extreme sport kind of way. In my opinion no other director would have even attempted something like this.

I took my same shot of the vegetables and inverted it, put some more lens flares on it, then hit it with Filter > Stylize > Wind. Now it could be in Lost, something from the Dharma Initiative produce section maybe.

Screen shots.

Here are a few screen shots from Photoshop used to get the effects shown in the After and Later images above.

Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 7.46.23 PMScreen Shot 2014-05-19 at 7.47.10 PM  Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 7.49.38 PM


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