Watch: A Video Essay About the Power of the Lens Flare

Watch: A Video Essay About the Power of the Lens Flare

The lens flare is typically used, or perhaps over-used, to show a brush with the unnameable, in whatever form that might take. Jacob Swinney takes us through over 50 of these instances in this video essay, but they are all unified by a sense of sublimity, either benign or horrific. We see lens flares at the opening of Saving Private Ryan to signal the enormity of the war carnage approaching. When Leatherface spins his chainsaw around, and around, and around, the lens flares recall the grandiosity of the bloodshed that has preceded this moment. The technique doesn’t always have to signal dread, though, of course. In Punch Drunk Love, its presence signals the growth of love between Barry and Lena; in There Will Be Blood, we catch lens flare as Daniel Plainview ponders the possibilities of oil. It’s been argued that the technique is a cinematic trick, somewhat facile; it’s also been suggested that lens flares are annoying, little bursts of light that interrupt visual narrative for not certain purpose. This viewer tends to find their effect somewhat different–the lens flare almost always expands what I’m looking at, increases its potential, and brings speculativeness into the picture. Swinney’s beautiful video piece concludes, quite sensibly, with lens flare from one of the more expansive and widely appreciated stories of the last century: E.T., in which the earthly touched the unearthly, both in a literal and figurative sense.

VIDEO ESSAY: Steadicam Progress – the Career of Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots

VIDEO ESSAY: Steadicam Progress – the Career of Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots

With The Master winning the Best Cinematography award from the National Society of Film Critics over the weekend, here's a look at the evolution of Paul Thomas Anderson's approach to his films' camerawork over his first five features. The video above and essay posted below originally appeared in Sight & Sound.

One thing I wish I had explored in some way was the contribution of Anderson's longtime cinematographer Robert Elswit, who shot Anderson's first five features. The video makes the implicit auteurist assumption that the visions being expressed through the camerawork are that of the director, with the cinematographer acting as a technical facilitator. This of course is a gross oversimplifcation of the collaborative dynamic between director and cinematographer that perhaps gives too much credit to one party.

My dissatisfaction with this reductive approach informs the topic of my subsequent video essay for Sight & Sound, an exploration of the creative contribution of special effects team Rhythm & Hues, as a postulation of the artistic visions brought about by technical craftsmanship.


Thinking on what sets The Master apart from Paul Thomas Anderson’s earlier films, what strikes me most vividly is a marked difference in camera movement and staging. I wouldn’t be surprised if a proper cinemetric analysis found that up to half of the film’s running time consists of close-ups with little to no camera movement.

This is a far cry from the run-and-gun days of Boogie Nights and Magnolia with their stunning array of sweeping Steadicam shots, push-ins and whip pans. But upon surveying his career film by film, one can trace an evolution in his technique. This video essay examines one signature tracking shot from each of Anderson’s five previous features, showing how each epitomises his cinematography at each point, from the flashiness of his earlier films to a more subtle approach that favours composition over movement.

While The Master offers a couple of swirling tracking shots in a department store, and later a pair of straight-line lateral tracking shots to match the onanistic thrill of motorcycle joyriding, the film settles more often into shot/reverse shot dialogues in cozy interior sets. It seems that Anderson’s camera strategy here has less in common with ScorseseAltman or even Kubrick (with all of whom he’s frequently compared) than with Jonathan Demme. Indeed, in the DVD commentary of Boogie Nights, Anderson expresses a profound emulation of Demme, though Demme himself couldn’t recognise a shot from Boogie Nights that Anderson claimed to have blatantly derived from him.

Here the connection is apparent as never before, in a film that seems less concerned with riding the kinetic thrill of a camera set in motion than in tapping the psychic voltage of physiognomies seen up close. In his most psychologically intimate film to date, Anderson largely foregoes his signature camera movements in order to tunnel into the human mind.

Kevin Lee is a film critic, filmmaker, and leading proponent of video form film criticism, having produced over 100 short video essays on cinema and television over the past five years. He is a video essayist and founding editor of Fandor, and editor of Indiewire’s Press Play blog, labelled by Roger Ebert as “the best source of video essays online.” He tweets at @alsolikelife.

VIDEO ESSAY: There Will Be Blood and Symmetry

VIDEO ESSAY: There Will Be Blood and Symmetry

Paul Thomas Anderson’s youthful panache and exploratory bent has yielded a small but forceful filmography. Even his two shortest efforts, Hard Eight and Punch-Drunk Love, are imbued with a relentless, epic spirit. Anderson has always embraced the electric potential in themes such as faith, incest, scamming, family dynamics, and the American West.

If Magnolia was a work that could only be made by a cocky, precocious rogue, then There Will Be Blood was evidence of mature polish. Magnolia’s creative ecstasy was replaced by tight formal elegance in Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood, and they’re all variations on the common themes of fatherhood, power, and spirituality. However, There Will Be Blood’s scope was so enormous that it required a type of maturity that Anderson had yet to demonstrate. He succeeded by employing large-scale symmetry capable of sustaining his dangerous ambition. The film didn’t collapse under its own gravitas because of a careful system of visual and thematic rhymes. Of course, Daniel Day-Lewis delivered a performance of Streetcar-Brando level virtuosity, but accolades are due equally to Anderson, who constructed a final vision of the character from subtle visual cues that lead Plainview from rise to ruin.

Matt Zurcher is a senior at Carnegie Mellon University studying film and musicology. He is an arts critic for CMU’s newspaper and blogs at

VIDEO ESSAY: 2001/The Dawn of Blood

VIDEO ESSAY: 2001/The Dawn of Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson is a director who wears his cinematic influences on his sleeve. From sprawling dramas that echo Robert Altman’s work (Short Cuts, Nashville) to the signature camera movements found in Martin Scorsese movies (most notably Scorsese’s Copacabana Nightclub tracking shot in Goodfellas, which Anderson employs during a television studio walkthrough in Magnolia), the filmography of Paul Thomas Anderson is the direct result of passionate cinephilia merged with mastery in filmmaking. And Anderson’s last film There Will Be Bloodis the kind of staggering, challenging and singular piece of cinema that launches a director into the stratosphere, to be hailed as an “auteur.”

In Blood, it’s the influential work of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that permeates the body of the film. To say that There Will Be Bloodis only about the dawn of twentieth century capitalism is about as valid as describing 2001: A Space Odyssey as merely an astronaut’s adventure tale. Consider: Anderson’s masterpiece opens with a wordless, quietly haunting sequence, which in many ways mirrors “The Dawn of Man” section in 2001. Next, both films heavily rely on unnerving, sweeping pieces of music to drive key scenes; in 2001, György Ligeti’s “Requiem” brings malice to the mysterious black monolith, while Jonny Greenwood’s disconcerting Blood score suggests a volatile turn of the century American frontier. Finally, if one considers the framing of certain shots—apes around a black monolith, workers around an oil derrick—and the implications they carry, it’s obvious that Anderson is channeling Kubrick’s powerful visualization on the primordial nature of humanity, amidst the frail, dangerous act of discovery.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System."