The Beauty of the Galaxy: The Cinematography of Star Wars (Part 2)

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.

You can read Part 1 here.

PART 2: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980, dir. Irvin Kershner)

Any good storyteller will tell you that making a great story is immensely difficult, but making a great sequel is even harder. There is a reason why sequels are such a risky endeavor - not only do you have to follow up a potentially great film, but you also have to live up the expectations set on you from that film and also stand on your own as a good film in it's own right. The original Star Wars was a massive box office smash, becoming the highest grossing film of all time, meaning that more was bound to happen with or without George Lucas.

Lucas was protective of the film though, and came to an agreement with 20th Century Fox that gave him nearly full creative control as well as most of the profits in exchange for financing the film himself. With his duties expanding, Lucas stepped down from the director's chair of what was initially called Star Wars: Chapter II and offered the duties to Irvin Kershner. Kershner, who was a professor and mentor to Lucas, was reluctant to take the job at first due to his love for the original, but was convinced to take the job by his agent.

Kershner envisioned the film as a darker, more adult film then the original, though he still wanted to keep the "fairy tale nature of the first film" as he put it intact. After Leigh Brackett's draft for the film was completed, Kershner collaborated heavily with new writer Lawrence Kasdan on what was now called The Empire Strikes Back and hired his cinematographer - Peter Suschitzky.

While the previous DP Gilbert Taylor was already accomplished prior to his work on Star Wars, Suschitzky was something of an unknown. His films were mainly independent films in his homeland of Britain, with one large exception - The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the cult classic itself. And while that film and The Empire Strikes Back couldn't be further apart, there are elements of Suschitzky's style present in that film that would be seen in not just Empire but also his future work with body horror maestro David Cronenberg.

Suschitzky's shots in Empire are vastly different from the prior film. While Taylor relied on more classical filmmaking techniques, Suschitzsky opted to go in a more dynamic direction with his visuals. With a heavy focus on close ups, zooms, pans, and tracking shots, the film is one with a nearly constant moving camera, never letting up with the action.

And of course, there are the wides, probably the best thing about Empire's overall look. Suschitzky took the grand nature of the original film and upped up ten fold - everything is bigger, everything is grander, and there is a much greater focus on the landscape then in A New Hope. It's a film where the environments themselves are characters, where the harsh nature of some of these worlds are antagonists in themselves. Whether it's the barren tundra of Hoth, the swampy marshes of Dagobah, or the mysteriousness of Cloud City, it's a film that lives and dies on it's environment.

But the most interesting thing with the film is how it uses lighting. The film has a distinct heavy use of shading, colours, and dynamic lighting throughout, and this can be seen throughout the entire film. Most obviously though it's seen in the Cloud City segments, where the oranges, blacks, and whites, fill up the screen with an absolutely gorgeous colour palette that trumps anything the first film did.

Take the scene above. Han's carbon freezing is still one of the best looking sequences in the saga, taking advantage of the smoke, the orange light, and the heavy shadows to create a dynamic looking tableau. The entire film is shrounded in gorgeous scenes like this - shadows are oppressive by nature, and the darker tone of the sequel is not just conveyed through it's writing, but also in how the actual film itself is darker.

Dialogue scenes are also more dynamic compared to the first. Unlike A New Hope which tended to focus on blocking and placement over everything else, Empire strives for a more a camera angle focused approach to it's storytelling. This isn't to say the film has bad blocking, far from it - in fact it's got some of the best of the entire saga, with characters placed strategically and with purpose, but it also manages to have actual movement in it's camera unlike many of the prior film's static shots.

This is also mostly present in the thrilling action setpieces, which is far more intense and up close then A New Hope. While it does admittedly lose some of the documentary stylings that it had - which is the rare thing I think it does better then Empire if I am being completely honest with myself - in it's place are tight, widely inventive shot compositions that focus more on tension building rather then simply showcasing the action.

The Battle of Hoth is probably the ultimate example of this. The way the imposing AT-ATs are framed are unlike anything else in the film, despite them being stop motion miniatures. There a grand scale to them and the build up to their appearance is nothing short of masterful, and the fact that they use their slow walking as a ticking clock is a genius move. This is all conveyed visually through the cinematic language - no spoken exposition about this, just the image that everybody can understand.

What The Empire Strikes Back did for the franchise in terms of cinematography cannot be understated. It's a visual marvel like the first but there is a confidence to the way it's shot, to it's compositions, to it's tableaus. It was proof that Star Wars would be able to evolve with each film rather then repeat itself, and this would only continue as the original trilogy reached it's end...


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