WWI: The Cinematography of ‘Rogue One’

In my eyes, the cinematography of Rogue One is one of it’s best elements. The visual style is remarkable, as is the use of visceral lighting and colour grading which enhances our vision of the extended universe and the narrative arc we are taken on. The camera angles, camerawork, lens and lighting converge in this piece of film to create a heightened sense of atmosphere and purpose to the scenes. Gareth Edwards frequently used a handheld camera himself to achieve his vision of this installment in the Star Wars franchise. Grieg Fraser’s approach to lighting and his favorite tools to use shone through in the behind the scenes and documentary of the film-making process and I have to admire his highly creative and refined approach.

This film went for a more gritty, on the ground approach to filming than previous iterations of the Star Wars films drawing inspiration from footage of the Vietnam War – an influence which we can clearly see in the final product. The following essay will evaluate the techniques and equipment used to achieve certain effects as well as what meaning this has from a narrative and character perspective.

The majority of the filming for Rogue One was done with A7S and used a flip-up screen. This has the benefit of being able to look up without the distraction of the display. The support that was used is known as the Edal Crone. During the filming of the ending of the Darth Vader sequence Fraser used very close shots and some very specific blocking and marking. This however only applied to the model shots used before production. The bulk of the movie was shot with the Alexa 65 with very special Panavision DXL lenses. This is a full frame or large frame meta-medium format with a large sensor. In this movie they used open gate which is to say they completely used the sensors and was shot in 6K.

Ultra Panavision 70 lenses were used which were 1.25x squeezed which is a very unique format. The combination of the ultra-sharp image and anamorphic lenses established the look of the film. The lut that Fraser used was based off the Kodak 500T. John Knoll was able to scan this and emulate the overall look. The final deliverable resolution was 4096 x 1716. Panavision lenses are usually silver or chrome and huge and therefore highly recognisable. The Alexa 65 rig is big to deal with this. The IMAX look used in Interstellar was reapplied here. The Oconnor 6525 Matt box was used here with a Chapman dolly. To set up the shot an Airy focus was used so as to practice the sequence of movements.

Later in the film a Terradech wireless video is used with an easy rig and a Comfra clip in the Death Star. This gave it a mobile procedural feeling to the frame. Elsewhere Jyn is filmed using a very nice  atypically large diffusion board which is 8×8 and completely clean of tracing paper to create smooth and even lighting. The camera uses a sonar cinotape readout to hit her on the forehead and read the distance. They shoot straight up 24 frames per second with an ULTRA 70 lens with a 172.8 shutter to prevent flickering distortion with a 800 ISO and a 5600 colour temperature. This helped to achieve a gritty realistic look.

When filming Director Krenick Fraser used a large sensor to create a low depth of field, this being the result of the Alexa 65 having the largest sensor while sticking to longer focal lengths. Some really pretty looking Bocas are used in the background. Conversely when we see Jyn arriving at the rebel base in handcuffs a number of other techniques are used. The flare of the Ultra 70 is used unlike a blue hawk. In the background however, we see the oval Boca again being used. One can tell that a 65mm lens is being used from afar. Even though she is walking away the depth of feild remains extremely shallow. The combination of the anamorphic lens and the Pannavision lens is extremely unique to this movie.

One of my favourite sequences of the movie is at it’s beginning with Gaelen Erso looking out over his feild. They stay true to the large format camera to achieve this look with a 5mm. I believe this was shot in Iceland to get the black sands and add atmosphere. They used a 520 colour correct on the Death Troopers using low contrast black shadows with a natural vignette effect which is empahsised by shooting against a white sky. The Lut with the 5230 emulation is visible in this shot. The location proves very useful with the green hills in the background accented by the white housing where the people are living. The art direction and visuals are instantly engaging. The large format focus used when Krenick and Gaelen meet keeps the director in focus with a large format with a very shallow focus plain. This gave it an Akira Samurai feel without the fighting.

During the battle on Skarig a Spacecam is used which is an older OG gimble. A dolly is also being used simultaneously to create an easy transition between the two shots. For the water shots they used a Gib on a Leiberhead on a raft. Then on the beach itself a spider-cam is used without four towers with a very low to the ground action shot. Later we see a parallel sidetrack of the rebels running into the water with a mock-up of the ship on a crane being lifted up and on the other side a dolly of wood and skateboard wheels to increase the speed sitting on a cinoset with the custom dolly. Switching to the desert scene a panther jib is used on an electronic car with a stabilised Scorpio head for a mid range mobile shot of the meeting. During the Storm-Trooper confrontation in Jedha the director uses a handheld dolly to pull back with two grips using a dolly mover to move him back while he operates the shakiness of the camera in a very old school approach.

When in the container on the slave mining planet Jyn is confronted by a Rebel and asked if she wants to leave. In most spaceship scenarios a lot of enclosed tube structure is used leaving little space for lights. In this case they are built into the set such as in this one which uses panels of light gear light ribbons with plexi-panels that are masked out by the production designer. All these lights are either RGBA or RGBW meaning they can change the colour and temperature of the lights. The lighting style changes in the spaceship we see under siege by Darth Vader as the film’s finale draws to a close. It changes to a top source which is a interesting set-design and architectural change. The red LEDs in the boxes and the lighting makes everything more square. Greg Fraser used this approach for most of the lighting in Rogue One sets. Here Cream source space-lights are used putting out light in all directions while pushing down softly onto set with a diffusion panel to mimic the lighting of the A New Hope film.

Tungstun bulbs are used all over set to give it that back-lit look.  The digital Sputnik is very helpful. As four by four inch cubes they are essentially spotty lights for extra punch. You can articulate and custom spread these RGBW devices with intent and purpose. Moving to the Death Star, when we get scenes overlooking planets a Sky Panel X60 is commonly used and the prop window is a prop TV screen displaying the planets. The black plexi with a huge opening and a projection make this an incredible set.

Later in the film, during the assault on Scarif a similar technique is used. Light ribbons are dotted around door entrances. The camera uses a Scorpio stabilised head in overslung mode which is becoming a trendy approach to remote tracking shots in large films. The Chapman dolly is a suitable companion for this particular task. When shooting Darth Vader, who’s mask is essentially a black chrome ball, any lights put on it on axis with the helmet would be highly visible so Fraiser used a selective approach when shooting using aerial lighting and diffusion.

Greg Fraiser’s love of natural light is evident in the larger set work. On the rebel base a hanger was used with an open door for natural lighting instead of using a ton of MAC LEDs such as in Arrival. A solid is used to block out the middle and the back is left open as is the opening. This resulted in a large soft source and a more organic friendly feel when compared against the Republic bases. Take the scene between Gaelen and Krenick on the Science base bridge at the mid-point of the film. The scene is fully hazed with lots of practical and back-light much like the look of Blade Runner. Oval BOCA in the Storm-trooper helmet head creates atmosphere as does the top lighting with a haze. The minimal front light is a nice addition to the moodiness. Gaelen is later uplit by alight in a grate. The digital sputnik’s used in this scene in a 4×3 formation on a two-axis moving head. to articulate the location of the light and articulate the lighting from a Ti-fighter. Creamsource LEDs alongside physical moisture mist released from the grates set the atmosphere. Fraiser uses white targets at the bottom and an 11,000 Kelvin to make them blue with a super-techno Lieberhead to support.

Moving along to how the crew shot the interior of flying or moving spaceships. Both Gareth Edwards and John Nole, the VFX supervisor, avoided the use of blue screen. They used a cyclorama LED display of the moving environment as the natural light source for natural reflections with complex lighting and a combination of blue and brown lights. 3D VR lat-longs are beign used in this scene. They use a shower screen type sheet because of the low density of the LEDs and the higher array being picked up by the camera. In other similar scenes a couple of telehandlers are used with large LED screens wrapping around the scene completely. A GF crane is used to hold and rotate the practical set.. Many a time they used hydraulics which allows the spaceship set to dance around in response to the action on set.

Overall I believe that the cinematography for Rogue One was intelligent, well-crafted, creative and intuitively pragmatic making it an admirable example of stellar photography, lighting, camera angles and a lot more. One should particularly admire the collaboration of production design, cinematography and directing.

WRITING WITH WORDS: THE CINEMATOGRAPHY OF ‘ROGUE ONE’

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