19th May2009

dijoo movie get GUTS

by jerad.formby

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On J.J. Abrams’ Film Language for Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek opens with an extreme close up on a ship called U.S.S. Kelvin. The hull of the ship moves, but we don’t know what we’re looking at until the Kelvin moves away from us. As this shot plays out, we are treated with sound effects that call back the original series.

This choice couldn’t have been better. As a huge Star Trek fan, I’m here to be humble and tell you in a sotto voice that a close up of that magnitude has never happened in Star Trek. Ever. Anywhere.

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The opening shot of our new Star Trek film tells us two things right away. 1) this close up is unheard of and has never appeared in our lengthy canon and 2) this sound effect is deftly familiar so don’t worry too much. With two very specific choices, J.J. Abrams speaks only to us Star Trek fans. He built that first shot for us exclusively. The truth is in the pudding. As is his message to us.

This immediate, very bold choice announces a new point of view on Star Trek.

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Star Trek has always existed within the confines of what has always been deemed as “acceptable” or “normal” film language. This is the first in the Star Trek set to challenge us from a filmmaker’s perspective. It’s the first entry to break the outdated mold of linear shot progression. All that means is filming something in a master shot and cutting around that shot with a simple, logical progression through time.

Audiences have embraced this style of film making for decades. It is tried and true and taught in film schools across the country. This film shatters such notions by embracing a more modern approach.

The opening shot will go amiss for people unfamiliar with the universe, but with that opening shot, us Trekkies knew what was up. I would even argue that the opening shot of the film makes or breaks the film for many of us on a subconscious level.

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As the Kelvin moves away, we are also treated to an unfamiliar color in space. J.J. Abrams set the opening scene near a large yellow star. Yellow and red light pollution spreads out and tints the surrounding stars with an eerie and never before encountered glow. Against this haze, voices from a very busy starship can be heard.

The first lens flare makes its appearance in the opening shot as well. It’s a blue light that shines brightly from the still unidentified Kelvin. I have to weigh in on this strangely controversial topic.

Lens flares have been apart of film language since Easy Rider made its debut in 1969. I’m not so presumptuous to assume that it’s the first movie to use lens flares, but it’s definitely amongst the first movies to popularize their use. Before Easy Rider, if a lens flare occurred on film the shot was deemed un-usable. Lens flares, to this day, primarily suggest that there is a camera present and it’s documenting the action. It is a subtle tool that quietly reminds you that you’re watching something that’s been “caught on film.”

In films of the past, lens flares usually have the effect of taking you out of a movie. They appear and are beautiful and you notice them. They were used to great effect in the 70’s and some modern filmmakers have even used them to bring you out of a film in order to engage you intellectually. The shattering of the “fourth wall” inevitably causes you to think about what you’re seeing. This is the biggest gripe I’ve found on the Internet regarding the look of Star Trek. Lens flares galore.

This effect was sought after and embraced by J.J. Abrams from the get go. It might interest you to know that all of the on-set lens flares were created through the camera and were not added in post-production. He’s even boasted about the lights, mirrors, and the challenges of bringing in something that could almost be considered an additional actor with its own needs and placement within a given scene. Abrams has joked that he might have overdone the effect, but he still stands by his final cut. He’s right to.

Lens Flares are an odd tool in the filmmaker kit and 2009 is the prime year to really examine this tool. I already mentioned that lens flares usually have the effect of bringing someone out of a movie, but suppose for a moment that lens flares could be made to have the opposite effect. The challenge would be to introduce them with such frequency and pronouncement that they could become just another set piece or something as indiscernible as a film’s score. When one weighs the amount of effort Abrams put into this effect, it’s not too hard to wonder if he might not have found a tool for film that might have been found in Jackson Pollock’s arsenal.

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Star Trek might be a marvelous re-introduction to a franchise as well as a pioneer in film language. Time will reveal this to be true or false. Just ask Orson Wells.

Most Trek and Movie fans have voiced negative opinions about these flares. One I read even went so far as to hope a ‘lens flare free’ version would be made for Blue Ray. Another, upon seeing Abrams joke about the frequency of the lens flares wished he’d have dropped using them altogether when he realized it. If Abrams dropped the lens flares partway through the film, it would have been a disservice to the piece. Once a tool as aggressive as Abrams’ lens flares is introduced, that bold choice needs to remain in place. These are just reactions to a very bold choice by a filmmaker. It’s happened before.

Initially, sound in movies was called ‘distracting’, by some. Color was a ‘gimmick.’ Every breakthrough in filmmaking is called ‘problematic’ upon its introduction. The public and critical outcry against Citizen Kane would be considered batty by today’s standards and that movie’s “crimes” included an introduction to flashbacks and cameras placed on the floor.

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Look at the more recent criticisms of ‘hand held’ styles that exploded with the Blair Witch Project. Annoying at the time and absolutely acceptable now. Even I complain about the frantic cutting and jarring geography that Michael Bay and his contemporaries are rocking right now. Film language is evolving and I can’t help but wonder if Abrams has stumbled upon a new twist on an old notion. To what end and aim this tool can be used for, I can’t even speculate, but I can speculate as to its use in Star Trek.

Lens flares are just one of the tools J.J. Abrams employs to suggest to you that Star Trek is real. He’s not saying this is a documentary, but his lens flares and hand-held camera create the almost quiet sensation that this movie could be. In a lot of his early contact with the media about this project, Abrams was very specific about his goal to make Star Trek feel real. His tools are not limited to the camera either.

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Science Fiction, since its cinematic inception, has always used very sterile and very bright environments to communicate futuristic or alien environments. The cleaner something was, the newer it was expected to feel. This approach to futuristic set design continued all the way up and into Star Wars. Because George Lucas was a racecar driver, he took a very different approach and shattered our conceptions of what a spaceship could be. Star Wars introduced us to the “lived in” science fiction universe where a spaceship might have more in common with the used car down the street than the Starship Enterprise.

With this simple choice, Lucas made his fantasy seem more “real.”

That was about as real as anyone was prepared to make Science Fiction for a good long while. Earlier in this decade, Joss Whedon began development on a science fiction series called Firefly. His intention was to borrow from Lucas and feature a very lived in kind of a spaceship. He also had a bigger challenge that he would give his special effects team. To put it succinctly, he asked them what it might look like if Stephen Soderbergh shot spaceships as they moved in space.

Firefly stopped grounding the camera for ship exterior shots and challenged it to capture fast moving objects through use of wide-angle lenses and zoom lenses. This lent a very gritty and strangely documentary effect to the show. This very frenetic pace did a lot to suggest that the world of Firefly was a real place that viewers were invited to experience week to week.

This device was so beautiful and such a welcome departure from the norm that Battlestar Galactica incorporated it into its 2003 miniseries. This approach dominated Battlestar Galactica – a show that prided itself on its realistic approach to Science Fiction.

Like the Millennium Falcon before them, both Firefly’s Serenity and the good ship Galactica rocked the lived in look of outer space, but both also illuminated the look with handheld cameras that existed both inside and outside of the their respective hulls.

To make something in space feel real, this modernized Science Fiction camera approach is sort of a no-brainer. But Star Trek has never felt ‘lived in.’ Hell, even Kirk’s apartment in San Francisco is clean as can be. Every Enterprise has been spotless, including Johnathan Archer’s.

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So Abrams explored and discovered ways to create another approach to make his spaceships feel real. Star Trek, as a series, has always come from the “new feeling, sterile” school suggested by decades of science fiction. Strangely, our own reality has a number of things that suggest cleanliness that also suggest “gritty and real.” When the doomed Captain Robau climbs into his shuttlecraft, he has to push past heavy plastic clear sheets to get to his controls. Incorporating elements from sterile environments like hospitals and elements used for safety in construction sites into his scenic design, Abrams gave us even more realism for our buck.

To ensure that the sterile Star Trek he was imagining would feel real, Abrams used the lens flares to in effect sterilize the future and to make it feel bright. There is nothing cleaner than light. Bright lights simply “feel” clean and no matter what was happening in the drama before us, we still felt that the universe was warm, clean, and most likely a great place to live.

This was an interesting two-fold challenge that Abrams gave a common and mostly unmotivated film effect. It is the surest way to remind us that everything is at once clean and urgent. This in an aspect of Star Trek he didn’t make up, but he found a new way to communicate –for good or for ill.

Some believe his realism went a little too far as this is the first Star Trek film to feature product endorsements. Bringing our own modern world into the film did much to suggest that a future like Star Trek was possible. That is really what’s behind the product endorsements and the use of the Beastie Boys song “Sabotage.” This is simply an attempt by Abrams and possibly the film’s writers to make this future far more relatable and readily identifiable.

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What Nokia means to the immediate future is something for a future debate.

Fans complain about forklifts, but I welcome them. If something already works, how much does it have to be tinkered with over the course of two hundred years? It seems wheels are still a very efficient way for Starfleet to keep necessary tools nearby. Maybe all of these things could have “hovered” but that notion in Science Fiction feels very dated and maybe too “Jetsons” these days.

Trekkies have always mused and boasted that Star Trek has influenced our modern culture. Showing us how our modern world might influence the future in Star Trek is an exciting first.

Trekkies have also wished Star Trek could be real. Thanks to the choices of a passionate and bold filmmaker, now it is as real as can be.


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endtitles1
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The real reason New Star Wars movies suck
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The new Doctor Who . . . or lack thereof!
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How the Borg went from badass to blowing chunks
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Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica
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Star Trek Optimism
Ugly Romulans and Vulcans

  • Raul4510

    Who won the contest for the Season 1 TOS Blu-Rays? DVD geeks never announced the winners on their recent show like they promised?

  • zancho

    (generic comment #47)thanks for another great blog jared!

  • April Hebert

    The college instructor in me says: Your comparison of the two different sub-genres of science fiction (gritty vs clean), and the ways in which elements such as camera angles, set design, and visual effects are used to create a sense of reality, was well-thought out, clearly organized, and extremely well-written.

    The geek in me says: You rock, Jared! You totally got it!

    Your best post yet. I love to read your stuff.

  • shane doucette

    your argument is well thought out and insightful, and to an extent, I agree. some of the lens flares were excellently planned, and fit with the movie perfectly. there were several, though, that were distracting, and took me away from what a character was saying, a point of action, or plain and simple made me wince with an unexpected and annoying flash of light.

    I don’t think that he needs to remove them completely. using them with more discretion would definitely be a good thing, though.

  • http://twitter.com/super_spock jerad.formby

    Thank you for your remarks Shane.

    I felt inclined to do a light rebuttal that required use of a picture, so as it couldn’t happen in these comments, I made my additional arguments over at the facebook fan page for Hey Star Trek!

    I encourage you and anyone else with a facebook account to join up. It’s absolutely free and can be done by clicking the ‘become a fan @ facebook button’ at the top of the comments here.

    Thank you all for your encouragement on this piece.

  • http://twitter.com/brumplum Richard

    Hi, just found your blog (and twitter) for the first time. Very illuminating and thought-provoking, unlike most…

    Thanks!

  • S.A.S.

    I love the “Clean and Sterile Future, Mostly because of THIS guy” Haha. Words with the photo made me laugh. Out loud actually. :o)

    The new Star Trek movie turned this non-believer into a Star Trek believer…If that isn’t proof for something, then I don’t know what is :o)

  • The Gooch

    I loved the article and found it quite fascinating.
    However, I should point out that it would be good to mention the film “Blade Runner,” and the host of films since, which present the “dirty” cyber-punk future. You could say the production design of “Blade Runner” is the complete opposite of “Star Trek.”

  • http://apizzagirl.blogspot.com apizzagirl

    I’ll admit that I went to see the movie a 3rd time b/c I had no idea what you were talking about when I read this. Honestly, I managed to miss the lens-flares both times around, well, maybe didn’t miss them, they just subconciously did their job. The 3rd time around I noticed them! They are everywhere! Seriously, a lil overdone. There were scenes on the bridge where I really wanted to feel like I was standing there with the characters and instead I was treated to camera affects that made me feel like there was a piece of glass between me and the camera. It was almost as if I was really there and JJ Abrams had hired a bunch of Oompa Loompas to carry around a piece of glass in front of me at all times. There was almost some Oompa Loompa murders goin down.

    Anyways, thanks for the great blog.

    P.S. I challenge the claim that all the flares were filmed live. Unless they managed to actually film the space scenes 🙂 Maybe he filmed the flares and digitally imposed them on the digitally created scenes. Seems a lil overboard though just so you can claim they were all filmed live instead of created.