Lens flares – Memories, confusion, unreality

Lens flares have been mentioned before, but this time, a comprehensive article will be dedicated to their main use cases. So here we go with part 1. Lens flares are commonly used to depict memories, confused characters, or merely to convey a sense of unreality to a shot.



Note: correlation between lens flares and memories has already been suggested in Overlays – Transparent veils (Part 1).

In Inception (C. Nolan, 2010), Cobb remembers the time when he and Mal were living in an imaginary world they were building together. When the camera pans from Mal to Cobb, a stark lens flare obfuscates the latter’s face as a reminder that this shot is taken from his memory. We know that over time, some details can be obliterated from our memories while others remain intact, especially emotionally important ones . Lens flares naturally convey that feeling.


“[It wasn’t so hard at first feeling] like gods.”


COBB (V.O. Cont’d)
“The problem was [knowing that none of it was real.]”

In Little Big Man (A. Penn, 1970), the same effect is used when Jack remembers his first encounter with General Custer, just as his shop was being auctioned off and he and his wife Olga were pushed onto the streets. What comes to Jack’s mind when he thinks of Custer is an emotional image, an indistinct shape from his memory. The character — who is on horseback — slightly bends his upper body to cover the sun, which instantly gets rid of the flare and anchors the character in the ongoing action. Note that what appears here as a single shot has been intercut with reverse shots of Jack in the movie.


“[I’ll never forget the first time I set eyes] on General George…”


JACK (O.C. Cont’d)
“…Armstrong [Custer.]”


“Ruined! That what we is, Jack! [Ruined!]”


Note: correlation between lens flares and confusion has already been suggested in Obstacles – Stamps.

Memories and confusion can be closely related. In Minority Report (S. Spielberg, 2002), John Anderton — a “Precrime” police officer wanted for murder — talks to his ex-wife Lara about the time they were leaving together with their late son Sean. But this is only a parable to tell her how confused he is about Sean’s death (and more recent events as well). This shot plays with the code; lens flares are used to depict the character’s confusion about both past and ongoing events. Even though the shot seems to deal with memories, it actually deals with the character’s current state of confusion.


“You remember when I would read Tom Sawyer to you and Sean?”


“He got so scared when Tom and Becky were lost in the cave.”


“I gotta sit down. I gotta figure this out. I gotta figure this out.”

In My Name is Nobody (T. Valerii, 1973), ‘Nobody’ faces a giant with extremely long legs in the middle of a festive street, much to his surprise. The giant happens to be a surly dwarf mounted on huge stilts, but a stark lens flare conceals his body and face from Nobody’s sight. This effect conveys the character’s state of disbelief. Indeed, we all wonder: “what the heck is that?”



Note: correlation between lens flares and unreality has already been suggested in Overlays – Transparent veils (Part 1).

Confusion leads to a sense of unreality. In Midnight Express (A. Parker, 1978), Billy Hayes — an American detained in a Turkish prison — realizes that he might have just killed the man who was about to torture him in a dressing room. In a sudden and unexpected twist, the character moves from prey to hunter. As the camera comes closer to him, a strong lens flare obfuscates the screen to depict his brief loss of contact with reality. Although the character is indeed in a state of confusion, the situation is real. It only feels unreal to both the character and the audience.


Jim Halsey has been unjustly put in custody for Ryder’s murders in The Hitcher (R. Harmon, 1986). He is exhausted and confused about his new situation. As he tries to get some rest, a stark lens flare clutters the screen, bringing a sense of unreality to the shot. This eerie look effectively conveys the way the character feels at that moment; he can’t believe what’s happened to him. On top of that, the following scene is actually a dream sequence, a nightmare the character has in his cell, which reinforces even more that sense of unreality. Note: sound was unnecessary to convey the effect, so it has been cut out.

In Die Hard (J. McTiernan, 1988), Hans Gruber — the chief of a German terrorist group — climbs onto the rooftop of a building to check the explosives his team has planted, and that might have been put out of action by McClane. The character seems to be exploring a place out of time and space. To emphasize that feeling, a lens flare suddenly fills the frame — punctuated by a music cue — which adds one more layer of unreality to the shot. Note that this ethereal moment precedes a huge twist in the story. That’s a clever way to have the villain loose control of the situation without having the audience noticing it.


What’s up?

Lens flares aggressively obfuscate the screen and give an eerie look to a shot. This suits very well fragments of memories, confused characters and apparently unreal situations. But lens flares can also convey a sense of fatality and danger, which I’ll be talking about in part 2.


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