Writer/director J.J. Abrams has written and directed films such as Mission Impossible III (2006), Super 8 (2011), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019). He also directed Star Trek (2009), and Star Trek into Darkness (2013).
However, he has also worked in television, creating shows such as Felicity (1998-2001), Alias (2001-2005) and Lost (2004-2010), of which he wrote and directed episodes.
Abrams started making films when at 10, he persuaded his grandfather to get him a Super 8 camera, and a synthesiser by the time he was 14, allowing him to create his own movies and music (The Mystery Box | JJ Abrams, 2008). From this, technology inspires Abrams’ creative process, because it can bring “infinite possibilities” to a project – important to Abrams in his work, since he has stated that he is, “drawn to infinite possibility, that sense of potential and I realise that mystery is the catalyst for imagination” (The Mystery Box | JJ Abrams, 2008).
Due to this, mystery is evident throughout Abrams’ films and TV shows since he believes this is what holds these infinite possibilities – before writing the blank page is a mystery, since anything is possible (The Mystery Box | JJ Abrams, 2008). Abrams therefore sees that mystery can be used as a way to engage viewers with a story by making them question what’s happening, so that they want to continue watching to find out the answers (Hiatt, 2019).
Nonetheless, the possibilities of technology can allow for stories which require special and visual effects to be made (The Mystery Box | JJ Abrams, 2008), leading to spectacle (‘Star Wars’ Director JJ Abrams on Using Less CGI and Focusing on Story over Spectacle, 2019). Yet, despite the fact that Abrams likes sequences which show spectacle, he intends to ground this in character, so that the audience can track them emotionally and have someone to relate to (J.J. Abrams: On Filmmaking, 2013).
For this reason, Abrams’ directing style is focused on creating a balance between spectacle and the intimacy created by the characters (J.J. Abrams: On Filmmaking, 2013) – thus, his work typically involves lens flares, camera movement and shooting on location, alongside special effects and action sequences.
This is why I decided to research Abrams for this unit, since my own film revolves around the idea of meeting yourself from a parallel universe – which could require the use of special effects to duplicate an actor – but focuses on the relationship between the two characters and what this makes the main character realise about herself. Therefore, it will be necessary for me to also strike a balance between character and spectacle so that the film seems realistic to the audience, but also involves enough mystery to make them want to continue watching.
Abrams credits his interest in using mystery in his work to a mystery box he bought in a magic store which he has never opened, because of the infinite possibilities and potential it symbolises to him – thus, he sees stories as mystery boxes (The Mystery Box | JJ Abrams, 2008). Abrams uses mystery in several different ways: to keep the audience engaged (Campbell, 2016), to withhold information (The Mystery Box | JJ Abrams, 2008), and to create an experience for viewers as they are propelled to the work’s ending, with the story being allowed to unfold on its own terms (Abrams, 2009).
To keep audiences engaged, Abrams suggests opening with an element which is unknown to the audience, so that they question it, building on this by answering this question or creating more questions, encouraging them to keep watching to find out more (Campbell, 2016).
He frequently does this when introducing characters, such as Sydney, the main character in Alias. The first time the audience see Sydney, she is being held underwater (the red emphasising the danger she is in), in an unknown location (see fig. 1 & 2), with the only dialogue heard being in other languages without subtitles. This then cuts to Sydney taking an exam at college (see fig. 3), this contrast creating the questions of who she is and why she seems to lead a double life in this way.
However, Abrams has also stated that this can be done by withholding information from the audience by not allowing them to hear or see something – this can help sustain interest in the narrative by creating “mystery in terms of imagination”, encouraging viewers to speculate on the possibilities of what isn’t visible/audible to them by coming up with their own ideas (The Mystery Box | JJ Abrams, 2008).
Abrams also creates an experience for viewers by using mystery to build to the film or show’s ending, believing that “there’s discovery to be made and wonder to be had on the journey that not only enrich the ending but in many ways define it” (Abrams, 2009).
For example, over the course of Alias, the number 47 was used as a hint to point towards the work and prophecies of philosopher Milo Rambaldi (Abrams, 2009) – (see fig. 4), building to the show’s ending when Rambaldi’s final prophecy was revealed, the result of all these clues, defining the fate of the show’s characters.
Thus, Abram sees mystery, like spectacle, as needing to be grounded in character, since often there is what an audience believe the story tells, and what the story is actually trying to convey – Abrams uses the example of ET (1982) seemingly being about a kid who befriends an alien, despite really dealing with divorce, a divided family, and a child who has lost his way (The Mystery Box | JJ Abrams, 2008). For this reason, to Abrams, what is really essential about mystery is how it encourages the audience to invest in the character(s) (The Mystery Box | JJ Abrams, 2008), by causing them to “stop and consider – or, at the very least, slow down and discover” (Abrams, 2009).
Writing Film vs TV
Abrams believes audiences should do this when watching both TV shows and films, despite the differences between the two (Abrams, 2009). Since TV series evolve over many episodes, they are free to explore possibilities not related to the main story, although, many of these possibilities need to be set up or at least hinted at in a show’s pilot to be feasible, making the focus of the pilot to deliver a promise on what could come next – this makes the ending of the pilot especially important, since it hints at what could happen over the course of the rest of the show (J.J. Abrams: On Filmmaking, 2013).
For example, at the end of the Alias pilot, Abrams sets up the rest of the series by having Sydney take her first phone call – as a double agent for the CIA. This sets up the possibilities of missions to come in later episodes.
In contrast, according to Abrams, “films, by their nature, require a more kind of disciplined story telling where there’s less opportunity for smaller, sort of nuanced scenes that might not be serving the main story” – yet, despite this meaning there is less room for infinite possibility, Abrams still favours film over TV (J.J. Abrams: On Filmmaking, 2013).
This is because he likes boundaries when working, since, sometimes they can help the creative process – Abrams found this when developing Lost, as he was asked by ABC chairman, Lloyd Braun, to make a show about survivors of a plane crash, allowing Abrams to come up with weird ideas because the brief was specific, making the show more original by opening up more possibilities (Dadich, 2015).
Possibilities & technology
For this reason, one of the first discussions Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy, the president of Lucasfilm, had was about using real locations, and as many practical effects, such as costumes and puppets for the creatures and pyrotechnics for explosions, as possible (Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Behind the Scenes In Abu Dhabi, 2015) – (see fig. 8 & 9).
However, Abrams believes that “there’s no difference doing a big Star Wars film as there is doing a dramatic scene in a TV series – it’s all going to be about who the characters are and what they’re wrestling with” – yet, due to the scope of The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams found he had to focus on the emotional intimacy of the story whilst also dealing with many logistical challenges, giving him a new appreciation for every department working on the film, as so many pieces had to be brought together to achieve the sequences (‘Star Wars’ Director JJ Abrams on Using Less CGI and Focusing on Story over Spectacle, 2019).
Shooting on location & lens flares
For The Rise of Skywalker, Abrams has done similar, but on a larger scale, since some of the film’s sequences required filming on location in a desert valley in Jordan, where it’s so remote, the cast and crew were the only inhabitants, having to create new roads, and set up a new settlement of tents in the sand so that they had shelter when sandstorms hit (Grossman, 2019). Despite these logistical challenges, the imperfections which come from them are why Abrams and Kennedy – following on from George Lucas in the original trilogy – intended to film on location as much as possible (Grossman, 2019).
Although Abrams still used some green screens whilst in the desert, it was necessary to do this on location, since he felt that “the way that the sand interacts with the light, and the type of shots you would set up – if you were designing the shot on a computer you would never even think to do that” (Grossman, 2019). Thus, this combination of using green screen effects and being in a practical location allows the special effects to be grounded by the authenticity of the location, making it seem more realistic for the audience (Grossman, 2019).
This sense of realism is important to Abrams, shown through his signature of using lens flares. A lens flare happens when bright light is picked up by the camera lens and is thus reflected, scattering to produce an effect which either looks like haze, or starburst shaped marks within the frame (Masterclass, 2019).
Although evident throughout much of his work, Abrams most notably used lens flares in Star Trek, intending to create “a visual system that felt unique” to the movie, because of the futuristic setting, which Abrams thought would be more brightly lit than the present (Woerner, 2009). Abrams had these lens flares created on set, not added in post-production, by the director of photography using mirrors when filming outside, and a torch inside, as the bright light source which would be reflected off the lens – this is because Abrams’ main aim for using lens flares was to add some realism to the film, which required a lot of CGI and green screens, by giving each scene this element of light which was unpredictable and therefore seemed more natural than the visual effects (Woerner, 2009).
Thus, during scenes in Star Trek each lens flare occurs for seconds, before disappearing (see fig. 11 & 12).
Yet, budget is also a logistic a director has to keep in mind when filming on location, as Abrams did on Super 8 when shooting in West Virginia since he began to realise that production was going to exceed the budget – from this Abrams suggests that once the director knows a scene may need to exceed the budget to work, they should then think ahead to the next scenes which need to be filmed, considering what they can do later to save budget and make up for exceeding it (J.J. Abrams: On Filmmaking, 2013).
Spectacle & emotion
This identification is backed up by shots inside the ship which show the characters’ reactions in close-up – with these often shaking to show the ship’s movement – shots which position viewers behind the characters, as if they are in the ship with them, and point of view shots to place viewers in the characters’ places (see fig. 15, 16, 17 & 18).
Using these types of shots is what helps Abrams achieve a balance between focusing on character and the spectacle of the action sequences and/or special effects used (J.J. Abrams: On Filmmaking, 2013).
Yet, because of his focus on emotion, some of Abrams’ favourite scenes are sometimes when the characters are simply talking – his favourite film is The Philadelphia Story, which was adapted from a play – since this provides opportunities for them to confront each other, or make revelations (‘Star Wars’ Director JJ Abrams on Using Less CGI and Focusing on Story over Spectacle, 2019).
Abrams uses a scene like this in Super 8, during which Alice reveals to Joe that she feels it was her father’s fault for his mother’s death. Abrams chooses to frame this scene by tracking over to and pushing in slowly on Alice as she makes this revelation, going from a two shot to eventually cutting Joe out the frame (see fig. 19 & 20). This framing forces the audience to focus on the emotions of the characters and thus the actors’ performances, which is the element of film Abrams believes can convey the most emotion (‘Star Wars’ Director JJ Abrams on Using Less CGI and Focusing on Story over Spectacle, 2019).
Thus, it can be seen that casting is an important part of the pre-production process for directors, especially for Abrams when casting The Force Awakens, since the actors were going to play the characters for three movies (Dadich, 2015).
Abrams and the casting directors found casting Rey was one of the biggest challenges, since they wanted to cast an unknown actor, yet needed them to be able to be “vulnerable and tough, sweet and terrified” (Casting Rey | The Force Awakens Bonus Features, 2016).
For this reason, during auditions Abrams had actor Daisy Ridley read the scene where Rey is tortured by Kylo Ren, since this would show if she could perform what was needed for the character – to do this, Abrams had her read the scene once, finding she could perform what was needed, stopped her to give her some adjustments, before asking her to read the scene again (Casting Rey | The Force Awakens Bonus Features, 2016). Doing this within the casting process can help not only determine if the actor can perform what is needed for the character, but also how well they take direction.
Therefore, it can be seen that J.J. Abrams’ writing is based upon mystery to keep the audience engaged, with Abrams relying on collaborators to help him solve story problems and set up logistics in pre-production. This affects his directing style as he frequently works with his collaborators to improve the film even if this means a story idea changes lines, or even entire plot points during production.
Yet, mystery carries through to Abrams’ directing style by how he uses camera movement to focus the audience, typically on character, since, although his films often involve the spectacle of action sequences and special effects, Abrams likes to ground this in character and focus on emotion to make the experience of the film more realistic for the audience – backed up by using practical effects and lens flares to make the film’s world more believable.
List of Illustrations
Figure 6. Abrams & Kasdan on set (2015) [Behind the scenes photograph, IMDb] At: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2488496/mediaviewer/rm3801014528 (Accessed on 27 December 2019).
Figure 7. The Force Awakens table read (2015) [Behind the scenes photograph, IMDb] At: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2488496/mediaviewer/rm3489974528 (Accessed on 27 December 2019).
Figure 8. Secrets Of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey Documentary (2018) [Behind the scenes clip] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_Cj_9BfEiM&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=34 (Accessed on 27 December 2019).
Figure 9 & 10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Behind the Scenes In Abu Dhabi (2015) [Behind the scenes clip] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ysM4eiAOaw&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=32 (Accessed on 27 December 2019).
Figure 11. Star Trek Haze Lens Flare. (2011) [Film still, clip] In: Star Trek (8/9) Movie CLIP – Spock Meets Spock (2009). At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Ppo5YIYwTM&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=35 (Accessed on 27 December 2019).
Figure 12. Star Trek Starburst Lens Flare. (2011) [Film still, clip] In: Star Trek (8/9) Movie CLIP – Spock Meets Spock (2009). At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Ppo5YIYwTM&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=35 (Accessed on 27 December 2019).
Figure 13. Escaping Jakku (2016) [Film still, clip] In: Star Wars The Force Awakens Millennium Falcon Scene. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sarFZJl3h0&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=36 (Accessed on 27 December 2019).
Figure 14. Mission Impossible III (2019) [Film still, clip] In: Director’s Trademarks: Season 2, Episode 5: A Guide to the Films of J.J. Abrams. At: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11341976/?ref_=vi_md_po (Accessed on 11 December 2019).
Figure 15-18. Escaping Jakku (2016) [Film still, clip] In: Star Wars The Force Awakens Millennium Falcon Scene. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sarFZJl3h0&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=36 (Accessed on 27 December 2019).
Figure 19 & 20. Emotion in Super 8. (2018) [Film still, clip] In: Super 8 (2011) – My Father’s Fault Scene (4/8) | Movieclips. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRGjkQ_iBL8&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=38 (Accessed on 27 December 2019).
Figure 21 & 22. Secrets Of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey Documentary (2018) [Behind the scenes clip] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_Cj_9BfEiM&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=34 (Accessed on 27 December 2019).
Campbell, C. (2016) ‘6 Filmmaking Tips From J.J. Abrams.’ In: Film School Rejects 6/4/16. At: https://filmschoolrejects.com/6-filmmaking-tips-from-j-j-abrams/ (Accessed on 17 December 2019).
Casting Rey | The Force Awakens Bonus Features (2016) [online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=th9WjOogezQ&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=31&t (Accessed on 17 December 2019).
Dadich, S. (2015) ‘Superfan J.J. Abrams on Directing The Force Awakens.’ In: Wired. At: https://www.wired.com/2015/11/star-wars-force-awakens-jj-abrams-interview/#slide-1 (Accessed on 17 December 2019).
Grossman, L. (2019) ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, The Ultimate Preview.’ In: Vanity Fair 22/5/19. At: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/05/star-wars-cover-story# (Accessed on 17 December 2019).
Hiatt, B. (2019) ‘J.J. Abrams and the Secrets of ‘Skywalker’.’ In: Rolling Stone 26/11/19. At: https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-news/star-wars-jj-abrams-secrets-of-skywalker-912362/ (Accessed on 17 December 2019).
Itzkoff, D. (2019) ‘Will ‘Star Wars’ Stick the Landing? J.J. Abrams Will Try.’ In: The New York Times 12/12/19. At: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/11/movies/star-wars-the-rise-of-skywalker-jj-abrams.html (Accessed on 17 December 2019).
J.J. Abrams: On Filmmaking (2013) [online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bN-On2CusDM&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=28 (Accessed on 17 December 2019).
Masterclass (2019) What Is Lens Flare Photography? Tips and Tricks for Achieving Perfect Lens Flare. At: https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-lens-flare-photography-tips-and-tricks-for-achieving-perfect-lens-flare (Accessed on 17 December 2019).
Secrets Of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey Documentary (2018) [online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_Cj_9BfEiM&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=33 (Accessed on 17 December 2019).
Star Wars’ Director JJ Abrams on Using Less CGI and Focusing on Story over Spectacle (2019) [online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwe9tisiICc&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=31 (Accessed on 17 December 2019).
Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Behind the Scenes In Abu Dhabi (2015) [online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ysM4eiAOaw&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=32 (Accessed on 17 December 2019).
The Mystery Box | JJ Abrams (2008) [online video] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpjVgF5JDq8&list=PLc9QYgv46S0PqaESmTLhM9Cji18I9PpR1&index=29 (Accessed on 17 December 2019).
Woerner, M. (2019) ‘J.J. Abrams Admits Star Trek Lens Flares Are “Ridiculous”.’ In: Gizmodo 27/4/09. At: https://io9.gizmodo.com/j-j-abrams-admits-star-trek-lens-flares-are-ridiculou-5230278 (Accessed on 17 December 2019).