Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Psychological Effects of Flare in Dr. Strangelove (1964)

One of my favorite things in the world is flare. I mean flare like you might find in photography, not "flair", which is also good, but something else. Flare is a lens aberration that comes from light reflecting off elements in a lens. I mean a REAL lens, not the fake lenses that one finds in computer animation or the fake lens flare programs people sell for photoshop. I mean the real flare that comes from real lenses, particularly older lenses, that comes from light being being deflected from where it should be going, to the emulsion or sensor, and instead bounces around inside the lens, willy nilly, going whereever it damn well pleases.

The type of flare I am talking about has several kinds of effects. One kind of effect is on the image (loss of contrast, washing out the blacks, causing halation or a glow around bright objects, etc). But it has another kind of effect as well, a wonderful effect. It has a cognitive effect, or if you prefer a psychological effect. We have learned that when you take a picture in bright sunlight, that the image will be washed out. We have learned that when you take a picture of a bright object, that there will be a distortion of some sort of the picture. We have learned to expect to see halos around lights in night photography. And because we have all learned this, and don't think about it anymore, we can use this to create in an image a different feeling or persuade you to think you see something that is not there.

So, if I am simulating a city at night, or an airplane at night with bright lights on it, then it is a standard approach to create a halo or some other artifact around each of the lights that are supposed to be bright. Back in the days when people did model photography, they would reshoot a scene with only the lights visible, everything else black, in order to get a "light pass" which could then be composited in. Think Bladerunner (1982) or Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). These kinds of effects are all throughout these two films. (The effects facility was the brilliant Entertainment Effects Group in the Marina, now long gone, and the work was supervised by Doug Trumbull and Richard Yuricich, both ASC.)

But there is one sequence of all that is my favorite use of flare. It is all through this sequence, a sequence that I consider one of the best in all of film, and no one ever notices. This is "the bomb run" from Dr. Strangelove which is six minutes long and is the last six minutes before the bomber drops an atomic bomb on a target in the former Soviet Union. It is the sequence where they run through the checklist for the bomb and try to get the bomb bay doors open. Among other things, it has a very young James Earl Jones in the role as bombadier ("Negative function, sir. Bomb bay doors do not open, sir").

Here are some images from this sequence.

There is flare in every one, and a lot more in the sequence itself. It is completely subliminal and I promise you that it is not accidental. I say that with such assurance because before Stanley Kubrick was a director he was a professional photographer in NYC. And no photographer is unaware of flare. Not a chance. This was deliberate and I think it adds to the atmosphere of the world inside the bomber.

What a shame that lens designers work so hard to remove flare from modern lenses. Progress, I guess.

There is an ok copy of the bomb run at the following link. The particular sequence I am referring to is from 3:00 into the clip to the end.

Zeiss explains their T* anti-reflection coating in this youtube video:


  1. This is very interesting. I am still not clear on what the psychological effect of deliberate lens flare is. Is it heightening reality, making you feel as if you are there with the camera, somehow immersed in the scene, but not part of it? Generally, the camera is not supposed to do anything to draw attention to itself, but lens flare is kind of a subtle reminder that yes, what you are seeing is through a lens. Not really sure. Just curious.

  2. Well its a good question.

    By the way, there is a second effect going on, which is the way that film (remember film?) reacts to being overexposed, which is sometimes called bloom.

    What is important about it is that it is a learned, but unconscious effect. You do not see these effects (or at least I dont) and think "bloom or flare", I think to myself that it is very bright. So one learns to associate the artifact with the fact that it is a bright light of some sort, so when you see the effect, you think, oh it must be bright.

    A possibly analogous situation is when you see someone with a visible breathe, like one might have when it is cold outside. That is not a lens aberration, it is just that we have learned that when it is cold, your breathe (warm and humid) becomes visible as a form of fog. The movie titanic, for example, used this and added fake visible breathe to make it look like it was cold outside.

    So it is about learning to associate something visible with a cause, and assuming that the cause is true when we see that visible sign.