Updated: Aug 12, 2020
One of the things that makes film such a great medium is the fact that it is able to tap into the art of the camera. It is the most important tool of a filmmaker, it's what tells your story, what reveals character, and what helps your screenplay come to life. And while you may not know their names, the cinematographers are arguably just as important as the director and writer on a project as they influence the look of the work while also giving it their own flair.
Blockbuster films tend to sometimes have a bad rap when it comes to their cinematography, and in my opinion somewhat undeservedly so. Especially in modern blockbusters, there is an increasingly high amount of films that really take advantage of more beautiful shot work, clever blocking, and other fancy film school terms. And Star Wars is no exception to this, in fact it might be the catalyst for it in a lot of ways.
In this multi-part series, I will be exploring the different people responsible for bringing Star Wars to life, while also analyzing how well each property uses the film medium to it's advantage.
PART 1: A NEW HOPE (dir. George Lucas, 1977)
I think it makes sense to start with the film that started it all, Star Wars, or A New Hope as it is commonly referred to nowadays. The film's production has been long documented and constantly retold, but to give a refresher on those that may not know the history of the production, Star Wars' production was famously troubled. The original script dates back to 1973 and it was a chore to even get the film financed due to a multitude of factors ranging from it's large for the time estimated budget to the science fiction genre not being well respected at the time. Eventually, 20th Century Fox agreed to make the film, and the rest is history from there.
Filming began in March 1976 and Gilbert Taylor was hired as lead director of photography on the film, though he wasn't the first choice. Initially, Geoffrey Unsworth, best known for his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Superman, was hired to shoot the film and was genuinely interested and excited. However, he dropped out last minute to work on Vincente Minnelli's A Matter of Time, and Taylor was hired after Lucas saw his work on Dr. Strangelove and A Hard Day's Night.
Now, Taylor is a massively accomplished DOP with a large resume. Despite having never been nominated for a single Oscar, his work was extensive and spans nearly 50 years of output. Taylor was different from his 50s and 60s contemporaries in that he used mainly bounced light as opposed to the more common direct lighting (bounced lighting refers to light that is literally "bounced" off of an object while direct lighting refers to light that is placed directly on a target), and because of that his films had a distinct, naturalistic look to them.
Lucas, clearly wanting a grounded universe for his film, hired Taylor for this very reason, even if the two didn't get along very well on set. Lucas' independent background and more hands on approach clashed heavily with Taylor's more old school styles. The two got so heated that Fox actually had to step in and basically intervene in order to make sure they worked together! This is likely why he didn't return for the sequels, the first of many cinematographers that would drop in and out of Star Wars.
The look of Star Wars is heavily defined in this film, mainly through how it portrays the vast nature of space. All of the space sequences are shot as if they were reminiscent of World War II dogfights, with a focus on steady cam in the cockpits and a swirling camera that moves back and forth from the ships in question. This style is arguably at it's best in this film, with these sequences not only highlights but the backbone of what Taylor is trying to do with his visual stylings.
This documentary approach extends to the rest of the film. Many of the shots are simply cutaways to the environment, other characters, and whatever else is going on in the scene. The opening shot of the Star Destroyer, followed by the opening scene, is the best example of this, placing you directly in the action like somebody actually went here and placed a camera during this event.
And while the film doesn't experiment with colour as much as it's sequels, the film still looks great from a sheer visual perspective. There is a strong focus on symmetry here, possibly reflecting the ying and yang aspect of the Force in the film and how that entire philosophy carries the entire franchise and it's characters.
The above shot in particular is a great example of this, with both Obi-Wan and Vader standing in opposite corners at the same angle, their blades crossed. It's a striking image, and the film is bursting at the seams with instantly iconic and gorgeous tableaus like this. It's a well known fact that the work of Akira Kurosawa was a strong influence on Star Wars, it's likely that this focus also came from his striking usage of them.
Indeed, the Kurosawa influence also extends to how everything is blocked and how the camera moves around the scene. Preferring to have a stationary camera most of the time, much of the action happens in quick succession and with quick reaction shots, with the main meat being an elongated static shot. While many films nowadays attempt to be more stylistic with their action, this method has always been tried and true, and it works wonders here.
At it's core though, A New Hope's real strength is in how it shoots dialogue sequences. While Lucas would be criticized in his later Star Wars work for how plainly many of his conversational shots are done, A New Hope has none of those problems, mainly in that he uses clever ways of communicating power dynamics. The scene between Obi-Wan and Luke after his rescue from the Tuskan Raiders is a great example of this, as the characters constantly move eye levels in order to remind who is in charge of the conversation. This kind of blocking is arguably more important then anything else, as it's the easiest visual shorthand for telling the audience which character is in control of the scene.
And the film has many of these, too many to count - from the scene with Han and Greedo, the planning scene in the Death Star, and everything in the Trash Compactor (which is also a fantastic example of claustrophobic direction and visual shorthands), it's a wonder of visual storytelling that also manages to be visually stunning to boot at the same time. And this would only be the beginning for the franchise, as it's next film would be an even bigger step forward then this was...