Lens Flares: it’s not just the Comic Sans of Filters

LENS FLARES IN THE HEAT OF BATTLE

Lens flares for motion design is like quick-clot for Navy Seals.

Let me paint the scene, the news department orders an open animation for coverage of deadly tornados that struck the Midwest the night before. Inspiration strikes, and you create an animation that would make the Wicked Witch of the East blush.

I mean, on paper it seems like a great idea. You craft an animation that illustrates the sheer power of the storm immersing John Q. Newswatcher into some Jan de Bont debacle. Hurling letters and dust in a washing machine-like chaos. Lightning flashes.

Finally, resolving as quickly as it all had begun into the point of the entire animation. “Deadly Tornados.” It conveys the destructive awe-inducing power of a twister into a brief bite that will precede the edited news package.  

Playful? Of course, it isn’t, this is demonstrating the raw-power of these goddam miniature land-hurricanes, how dare you!

You think it’s a hit. Because you are young and naïve and enjoy making animations that serve inspiration over function and well, you hadn’t experienced anything resembling a tornado until like 10 years later.

And everyone loves it. Well, everyone sans the producer that ordered it. “I just want to make sure that this isn’t too playful,” she says.

Playful? Of course, it isn’t, this is demonstrating the raw-power of these goddam miniature land-hurricanes, how dare you! Hours of work seemingly hang on the brink.

And the Junior designer in the corner has worked up an alternative that is basically a slow push with some offset opacity. He’s staring at you side-eyed, thinking this animation is better. He actually thinks his animation is technically superior, because he created it, bless his heart.

For the love of Knoll, you create animations like this for breakfast.

TO HELL WITH THAT THIS IS A WAR (WITH LENS FLARES)

You add not one but two well-placed flares, one that acts as a light whose intention is to wake the viewer from their armchair apathy. The other flare is a more-serious flare-fellow. He’s there to clean up this whole mess and get everything in order. He brings us to the point. This shit is serious, pay attention.

The producer seems somewhat more convinced. Nevertheless, you explain the modified construction of the comp, which is basically just animation Band-Aids, but you don’t mention that.

You recycle some of the earliest conceptual thoughts as if they were new and hang on the subject of the more critical flare’s intentions. The producer nods, and if you note the producer’s eyes, they have totally glazed over. You’ve won.

Perhaps it is the nature of man to avoid obscurity by reaching for the top of every pyramid he can and then buy a small sports car with a sunroof to prove it.

“I mean it does feel a bit more serious,” the producer concedes.

Take that, Jr. Designer.

No one ever taught me that graphic design was competitive or worse, an extension of one’s member (forgive me, mom).

Perhaps the bleep-bloop video games of yore engrained in me the unwillingness to lose at all costs? Maybe it was military school?

Perhaps it is the nature of man to avoid obscurity by reaching for the top of every pyramid he can and then buy a small sports car with a sunroof to prove it.

HEMOPHOBIA

The flare as quick-clot adage came about from personal battles like this one. Whether the foe is a less-than senior designer or the adversary is a deadline.

Sure, it’s an absolutely ridiculous comparison. There is nothing life-threatening or even globally significant when it comes to middling motion design at your local tv news station.

I’m not even sure quick-clot is an actual thing, at least the way I thought it was. I thought it was something contained in a big foot-powder tin that you sprinkled generously into a wound that would magically make everything coagulate. I assumed a dude on the battlefield was predetermined to be the magic foot-powder wound fixing, dude.

It’s not even a pleasant comparison… After recovering from having my gall bladder removed, I had a pool of blood form in my belly button.

Gall Bladder Maked Stones
GALL BLADDER’S LAST DAY BY AWKARD YETI

When I removed the dressing to shower, I noticed coagulated blood clinging around my belly button. With some prodding, the gelatinous mass flopped to the tub. It resembled canned cranberry sauce.

As nauseating and unheroic as it is to reminisce over the reasons surrounding my own experience with semisolid blood. It’s probably not an adage I will let go of any time soon.

For conveying the importance, albeit ridiculously, of Lens Flares to middling motion-design and mission completion while all the chips are down, nothing works as well.

And people laugh at the comparison, So…

IN THE BEGINNING

My first foray into lens flares and well, desktop photo-editing, in general, began with Micrografx Picture Publisher in the mid-90s.

In it, I could create some pretty neat compositions using every filter available. It made me rather popular at college. I designed party fliers, bar ads, dance club leaflets, etc. And they really did utilize a shit-ton of filters (being that I wasn’t an artist in the traditional sense). And as there was no online community for photoshop or digital art snobbery, I made them all work without being shamed. 

Mix Tape covers that harkened Men in Black and Reservoir Dogs
MIX TAPES I CREATED WHILE IN COLLEGE

I did ads with 7 or 8 fonts. Shit, some sentences had three fonts. I had no idea what the hell I was doing. And I was convinced I was good as shit at it.

I told him I could do way better, and I charged lunch at a Taco Bell.  

What I really loved doing involved Hip-Hop. I was an avid connoisseur of 90s hip-hop mixtapes that I would buy from urban clothing stores, off the street, or picking up 40s from Cumberland Farms. I amassed a collection of DJ Clue, DJ Premier, Tony Touch, and more.

Mix CD Cover with my buddy Ed and Bill Clinton on Sax with a FUBU medallion
MIX CD COVER I DESIGNED WHILE IN COLLEGE, I WAS OBVIOUSLY A NO LIMIT FAN

And fortunately for me, my buddy, Ed was creating mixtapes with really wack, homegrown covers. I’m pretty sure he was using printed clipart art taped to paper and running it all through a combination fax machine, copier for his earliest covers. I told him I could do way better, and I charged lunch at a Taco Bell.  

And then came the folks at Pen & Pixel, who did all of those fantastic Master P (No Limit) album covers to solidify what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I FEEL THE EARTH MOVE UNDER MY SEAT

When I grew up, I found myself working, not on hip-hop album covers, but local news graphics. And on a late-August Tuesday in 2011, I would have my skills put to the test.

I had returned to the WJLA graphics department from lunch. It was around 1:30, and I began whittling away at a decent-sized list of graphic requests for the evening news.

This was the only calling I found myself excellent at whizzing through “Over the Shoulder” graphics, mugshots of terrible people, maps of street crimes and etc. I was basically a digital Sisyphus, pushing the boulder of graphic completions up a mountain of requests. And the next day starting over at the bottom.

SISYPHUS carrying the photoshop
IF SISYPHUS MADE NEWS GRAPHICS (CREATIVE COMMONS)

24 Minutes later, the room began to shake. It was somewhat normal. We were right above the parking garage, and trucks had a knack for occasionally bouncing us about. 

Only the shaking didn’t stop. My body involuntarily stood me up, I was looking around like WTH. Someone said, “it is that an earthquake?” Which was enough to shoot me out of the room, down the hallway, down steps, and outside. I instinctually stopped once outside. 

My buddy EJ, or eyedesyn as he’s known in the motion design world, was like “DON’T STOP” and pushed me several more feet. So we wouldn’t get trampled by the stream of our fellow colleagues from WJLA and Politico hot on our heels.

I nervously lit up a cigarette, which was silly as I was having a hard time catching my breath from the shock. Was it an underground nuke? My mind was racing; this was DC, and only 10 years after planes had been hijacked and aimed at buildings nearby. Anything seemed possible.

FAST AND GOODER

Managers and producers milled about talking loudly amongst themselves, “Yes, yes, a news package,” came one. “We need to go on-air now,” came another. “But what was the magnitude?”

They were shepherding us back inside by an executive producer to “just give us an open animation, ‘DC Earthquake’ – NONONO, ‘East Coast Earthquake.’ Call me when it’s finished, we’ll build the package piecemeal.”

We had run outside moments before only to find ourselves sprinting back inside to go live. All the graphics I had made prior were out the window.

This was honestly the ‘kind of shit I lived for while working in the news world. It was a feel-good story that required an opening animation and probably a shit-ton of maps. It was a blast-off, adrenaline-pumping charge to stay ahead of the tsunami of orders.

FEEL GOOD IS A RELATIVE TERM

I say “feel good” because no school children were in danger. No one was extremely hurt (the folks at the top of the Washington Monument might disagree). There was no giant calamity of death visiting upon poor souls that would typically fuel a breaking news event this big.

And so, it was off to the races. The animation wasn’t going to be anything that would wind up anywhere near my reel, it needed to get done fast.

I let Boris Red handle my type-on effect. While rendering, I visited AP Graphic Bank for a Richter magnitude scale image, plopped it into After Effects. Picked the 35mm Prime flare to work the top of the animation while a not at all subtle radio wave filter pulsed below it.

Thankfully I couldn’t find the animation anywhere online. Yet, you can see the OTS I built from it next to Allison Starling’s head, below. The OTS is made from the last frame of the animation, and sadly the flares resolved themselves off the stage by then…

East Coast Earthquake in DC 2011
(WJLA)

BUM DEALS

As far as I’m concerned, Lens Flares are the design manifestation of the NSFW joke that the “F-word” is the only word that can be used as almost every word in a sentence.

Lens Flares work much the same way in still and motion compositions, and the more, the better. I almost always hold my breath when applying the filter. This shit is about to achieve greatness like a Skrillex album cover.

With that said, I obviously feel lens flares get a bad rap, the filter everyone likes to use yet not admit it.

OMG — Star Trek, JJ Abrams, tsk tsk. It’s not as public a design feud as Comic Sans, which also has an undeservedly bad reputation. As far as I’m concerned, if John Stossel’s stank geezer-ass is telling me not to use the typeface after his, why did the house-wife murder some terrible bastard and disintegrate him acid, program; then I’m using the goddam font.

Or Papyrus, which may even deserve its bad rap, but who gives a shit? A million other designers are on the record of the how’s and why’s we shouldn’t click on Papyrus in the font drop-down menu (just Google search “don’t use papyrus”).

It’s like a million Simpson comic book guys flexing their design knowledge by taking on the most universally loathed font, way to put yourselves out there, guys.

If these folks were really the paragons of design, wouldn’t it be a real feat to construct something with the font that worked? Pull the sword from that stone.

Wes Anderson if he loved Papyrus font
WHAT IT MIGHT LOOK LIKE IF WES ANDERSON DUG PAPYRUS (20TH CENTURY FOX)

Besides, we all know the slime would switch if Wes Anderson suddenly became smitten with Papyrus over Futura.   

GOOD MORNING PHILADELPHIA

I remember my first flare from Knoll Light Factory. I was a graphic designer in Philadelphia on the super-early morning shift for Good Day Philadelphia. It was the day before St. Patrick’s Day, and I was listening to “WorkinOnit.”

Despite the early hours, that was a tremendous friggin’ gig.

Our studio was right next to Benjamin Franklin’s home address (I say address because it was marked by an odd white-metal frame that outlined where the house would be). And a few flights underneath it was a bizarre, yet excellent, Franklin museum that had to have been created in the late 70s.

And just a few blocks east was Christ Church where according to local legend, John Adams would chill in the bell tower.

Aside from historical heroes, the station was within walking distance of a few of my favorite cheesesteak joints (Sonny’s on Market and Jim’s on South). 

And as I’ve mentioned ad nauseam, I love pizza. There were quite a few great spots to choose from, including GianFranco Pizza Rustica.

Lunch breaks aside. It was one of the first (and few) places I worked that encouraged hyper-creative animations for the newscasts. My first project was a St. Patrick’s Day intro. The producer specifically asked me to channel Lucky Charms Cereal (and I did that with a shit load of filters).  

We had an array of third-party plugins to choose from, like Sapphire (now part of BorisFX), Digieffects Delirium, Zaxwerks 3D, and Knoll Light Factory.

This was in the late aughts, just before everyone and their mother wanted designers to use Cinema 4D for absolutely everything.

GO TO HELL, BUT IN 3D WITH LENS FLARES

Quick aside, local news loves some goddam 3D text (if you haven’t noticed). This has been the case for decades. The only difference between now and way back then is the power of computing. The accessibility of desktop 3D options has expanded. It’s gotten way easier and way more affordable to create decent to excellent looking 3D.

I didn’t know how to do any of that shit around 2007. So, I had to learn Zaxwerks fast, which did some pretty competent 3D, and it was all the station had at the time.

One assignment that comes to mind was the segment open for “Today’s Headlines,” which was heavily influenced by the Sin City trailer. The city is basically just a bunch of squares and such that I set up in Illustrator 8 and extruded the shit out of in Zax.

Another Zaxwerks dominated project was actually nominated for an Emmy, where I built an entire city block within the Zaxwerks interface.

It was a Fox station, so there were quite a few first-run syndication shows on the schedule. We had a lot of judge shows running back to back to back to back to…, and the producer, Mike Schwartz, wanted to have the judges “team-up” in the court block spot similar to the Super Friends. Which was right in my wheelhouse.

So, we created the “League of Judges,” with a lot of DC Comic abilities: the Flash, Superman, Wonder Woman. With a Marvel-inspired Thor-ish character wielding a massive gavel Mjölnir. Judge Judy was, of course, Wonder Woman.

I’m sure you’ve noticed all of that glorious standard definition; we hadn’t transitioned to full HD yet. HD and C4D would both come roaring into our graphics department a few months later.

KNOLL YOUR LENS FLARES

Finally, there was the animation for “the Buzz,” which included Zax and a gigantic flare from Knoll Light Factory. After it had aired, one of the producers approached me, “that is the biggest flare I have ever seen,” he said. “Do more of that.”

“Who’s Knoll?” was what a colleague recently asked when I was in the middle of one of my glacially to the point tangents that included “the Buzz” animation.

My tangent of course included my missives on lens flares and navy seals. Basically, I have been writing it here to the tune of 2600+ words.

“Who’s Knoll?! That’s like asking who Moses is, or like who Mr. T is?!” I was revving into a slew more tangents.

“Who’s Mr. T?”

F**KING MILLENNIALS…

In 1987, Thomas Knoll wrote a subroutine that allowed him to translate monochromatic images to greyscale on his monitorThe code was called Display and would serve as the bedrock for what would become Photoshop. Soon after, Thomas Knoll was creating processes for applying effects, which is my sole reason for getting out of bed in the morning.

Thomas’ brother, John Knoll, was just as smitten, as the entire world would someday be, and started working with his brother on commercializing the whole project.

And so, the two brothers set about becoming the Wright Brothers of desktop photo compositing.

Around 2001 I was in an afternoon meeting at Artel Software (BorisFX). An engineering colleague started describing having talked to Thomas Knoll as if he was conversing with Sinatra.  

At the time, I had no idea who the hell Thomas Knoll was. Still, he was describing this small interaction to the nth-est of nth degrees. It was similar to an anecdote of my own about having once washed Christian Laettner’s rental car on Martha’s Vineyard. So I figured Knoll was a talented dude.

WHICH MEANS

Outside of just helping bring Photoshop to the world, John Knoll has been at Industrial Light and Magic, like, forever. ILM are the folks that, among other things, helped bring us baby Yoda for the love of God. He’s also the father of digitally created lens flares.

Without folks like the Knoll brothers, I would probably be working at some dull outfit doing dull things. Like whatever the job equivalent of an actuary is for dummies such as myself.

Or worse, I would still be a middling motion designer and not have Lens Flares to fall back on when I’ve run out of ideas. That is a terrifying thought.

And so thank you for joining me on my excessively long love letter to the lens flares. Maybe next week, I will cover Media Encoder feature requests! (YAY).

Also, I’ll have to eventually get into how awesome recovering from my gall-bladder surgery was. I’m honestly not one that gets into opiates. But I had a week of hanging out in bed, taking some magical prescription meds while playing Animal Crossing New Leaf.

If you tell me that you are getting your gall bladder removed and I suddenly look extremely envious, well, you know why. I regret that I had but one to give.

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