Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Empire Strikes Back: A Case Study in the Basics of Cinematography

The Empire Strikes Back: A Case Study in the Basics of Cinematography

I teach a fair number of video production courses—particularly with those who have little or no experience with cameras—in fact, many of of them have never even picked up a video camera let alone a lighting kit. So I'm always looking for inroads to help the novice understand the basic ideas of lighting, color, and composition--the tools of our trade.

Often my students find that they know more than they think—this is due, I believe, to the large amount of TV and films that all of us, whether intentionally or not and regardless of our ages and backgrounds, are exposed to everyday. In short, I feel we are all video and film experts, by default—whether we want to be or not.

Having said this—I periodically use TV and feature films as examples in my classes—although its rare that I'll use an entire film—I recently starting to make an exception with the second film in the original Star Wars Trilogy: The Empire Strikes Back (Lucasfilm Ltd., 20th Century-Fox 1980, 1997

I've seen this film easily fifty or sixty times (several of those in the cinema)—I mean actively watching it on a critical level—not to mention the countless more times I've put in the DVD just as background noise.

Why is this film worth discussing in a videography or cinematography class? I Could give you a few reasons—but I think the most important is that we must consider that so much of a film or video is about environment—both depicting an environment as well as showing how characters interact with it and within it—or put another way, how environment influences these characters' behavior and decisions.

A big part of the cinematographers job (and ditto videographers' job) must therefore be to create believable environments—to convey their realness vividly to an audience (whether on a cinema screen or a television screen). This idea is not surprising, and I'm not talking about the special challenges of a science fiction or space fantasy film—this job of creating a convincing environment is independent of genre—certainly creating the visual worlds for certain genres are obviously more complicated than for others,i.e, Westerns, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, historical costume pieces, and war films pose certain challenges that family dramas, domestic or naturalistic stories,etc. do not—but no matter what if you as the director of photographer (DP) have not persuaded your audience that the environment that they are confronted with is credible and therefore helps to define the characters and their motivations in the story then you have failed.

More challenging still is a story that demands that the DP create for the viewer more than one environment as part of the story but rather multiple ones. And it is this last point, that first drew me to TESB, so many years ago.

What are the cinematographers' and videographers' basic tools? Composition, lens selection, color palette, and of course lighting.

Peter Suschitzky, BSC succeeded admirably both in mine and, for that many a great many peoples' view, in deftly creating and clearly delineating with this basic toolkit three very distinct terrestrial environments in TESB. I will take a few moments to explore each along with how Suschitzky accomplished it in the film.

I will assume that my readers have seen the film at least once—either in the original cinema release from 1980 or the Special Edition version released to theaters in 1997—both versions are on DVD. If you have not seen it in a while it would probably be a good idea to reacquaint yourself before going too much further.

Environment I: The Ice Planet of Hoth

Suschitzky's first challenge in the film was to create the barren ice world of Hoth—both extremely dangerous and brutally inhospitable to man. He achieves this with three key tools for a DP:

Composition: The rebel inhabitants are shown riding or flying across a barren landscape—the shots are wideshots and longshots—the effect to dwarf the humans within the landscape—giving the latter a power over them. I always thought that Suschitzky was taking some inspiration here from David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (Columbia, 1962, 1988)—in which a similar approach is used with desert sands replacing snow—with both being depicted as having the potential to swallow human beings up at any given time.

Color palette: The color temperature Suschitzky uses is 5500K which gives everything—even interiors scenes, a bluish-white tinge—there are a few props and costumes that have reds, yellows, or oranges in them—but these are almost entirely lost as the whites and blues vie for dominance—Hoth and the Rebel base that is carved out of it are cold places, and the cool colors underscore this sensation.

Lighting: Suschitzky sticks largely with high-key/low contrast lighting which means little or no shadows—the equivalent of being under very harsh fluorescent lights—a sense of no privacy for the characters and therefore safety either.

Environment II: Dagobah

By contrast, Suschitzky gives us a very different environment from that of Hoth with the rainforest/swamp world of Dagobah. As we look at how, let us keep in mind that this latter place serves a very different purpose for the characters and story in the film than Hoth which is depicted as a temporary hiding place for the rebels it is clear that they will not be there for long and will need to flee—it is not meant to be conveyed as a safe haven either for the characters or the audience.

Dagobah, conversely, is where the film's main protagonist, Luke Skywalker will develop his relationship with his teacher and mentor Yoda as well as where he will be trained as a Jedi and have to face his own inner demons. Thus it is place of personal growth and intimacy—and it must offer Luke a respite from the chaos of the battle that has just taken place on Hoth as well as from the battle with the Empire as a whole. Suschitzky must create this environment to convey these attributes—he does so as follows:

Color Palette: The colors on Dagobah are dominantly green and brown—Earth tones representing groundedness and home. Similary, Suschitzky gives us many layers of vegetation and reptile life in each scene—it is therefore a place rich in texture and movement, a place teaming with warmth and life rather than the cold sterility of Hoth.

Lighting: Low Key/High Contrast lighting is the rule here—since this is a rainforest world sunlight never appears but rather we only have firelight and lamp light for illumination with the result being that at times, especially in Yoda's cave we, the viewer, feel like we are on very intimate terms with Luke and Yoda—in their personal space as it were. Yet the kind of shadowy effects that this type of lighting can achieve are used deftly in the “Magic Tree” sequence where Luke is forced to confront his own dark side.

In either case, the low key/high contrast lighting techinque gives us, the viewer, pause to see all of the aspects of the characters as well as to feel that we can see into them.

Composition: While there are wide shots used for establishing purposes, most of the shots are medium and close-ups, in keeping with the need in this part of the film for these two characters to interact with and react to one another.

Environment III: Cloud City

The third distinct environment in the film is Cloud City on Bespin. Modeled to an extent on the look of Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis (UFA, 1927) and using innovative aerial photography—Astrovision, essentially a means of allowing a film camera to be mounted on the nose of a jet plane for breathtaking high altitude camera work, Suschitzky gives us the backdrop for the film's climax but, equally important for our discussion, another safe harbor—this time one for Hans Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO as they try to evade pursuit by the Empire and find a place make necessary repairs to their ship the Millennium Falcon. Cloud City seemingly meets these needs—at least to all appearances—yet Suschitzky must differentiate this environment from his earlier ones, the unwelcoming Hoth and the primitive Dagobah. His decision, to create a place of breathtaking natural and architectural beauty—clean, well-ordered, and above all welcoming to the eye.

Color Palette: Far and away the biggest component here, Suschitzky uses red and orange at almost every turn—colors of life—making the viewer feel safe and warm. These colors are not just used as filters for lighting the indoor scenes but also in the exterior aerial sequences which depict the Millennium Falcon flying through the dawn Bespin sky and in turn approaching a vast Cloud City ensconced in the blazing reds, oranges, and yellows of sunrise (feats accomplished with the Astrovision technique mentioned earlier along with some gorgeous matte painting work).

As a personal aside, I feel that this is by far the most beautiful sequence in a film awash with great images. I can tell you from my many experiences encountering Empire in the cinema that it never fails to make the audience sit up in their chairs.

Composition The compositions that Suschitzky uses make Cloud City almost a character in the film—its interiors are a maze of walls and corridors which are omnipresent—it is like being in a gigantic gilded cage. Even though it is depicted ideally as a safe haven, its true purpose is revealed toward the film's end as a place of betrayal (the manager of the city and old friend of Han's-- Lando Calrissian has in reality made a deal with Darth Vader to hand Han and his comrades over to the Empire as the latter plans to set a trap to abduct Luke). Accordingly, Cloud City through this narrative shift goes from being safe and welcoming to encircling and pressing in on the characters, a sinister labyrinth, offering no escape.

It is the closeness of the spaces which Suschitzky creates which also convey this latter effect once Bespin's true nature in the story is revealed.

Lighting: As mentioned earlier, Cloud City is derived in part from Fritz Lang's city of the future and is thus based on that filmmaker's use of German Expressionism. Thus Suschitzky lighting follows that approach, giving the viewer sharp angles and often steeply slanting sets—Cloud City is a place of clean, harsh geometries which serve to underscore what is ultimately the dual nature of the place—order/safety vs. authority/menace.

As another aside, I think in all of these cases aspect ratio (a topic that warrants a whole separate discussion) in this case 2.35:1 anamorphic, helps to underscore Suschitzky's efforts.

In summary, we can see in TESB how a cinematographer can use the basic tools at his disposal, composition, lighting, and color palette to create as well as differentiate environments in a film vividly and powerfully. I have had considerable success using this film as an example to my students in that it has allowed them to see more clearly the power of these simple tools for filmmaking and videomaking open to them.

Perhaps some of you will never look at Empire in the same way again? At any rate, I also have a few films that I use as examples for my video editing class—as well as intros from some famous TV series.

In future blogs I'll try to explore some of those. Suffice to say, for now, that I really find the intros to the Mission Impossible series as well as Hawaii Five-O to be excellent examples of montage.

Cheers for now!