WWI: the Cinematography of ‘The Force Awakens’

‘The Force Awakens’ brought Star Wars into the modern era of cinema. With polished CGI, new techniques and approaches, as well as a wide selection of increasingly innovative cinematographers. As the most highly anticipated film of all time the expectations were high. However, the visual language was impactful and emotive with particular emphasis on the bridge scene at the film’s finale. The seamless transition between the outdoors and indoors, space and spaceship interior as well as heat and frost throughout the feature was spectacularly pulled off by DP Dan Mindel. Adopting several JJ Abrams tropes but standing his ground, Mindel developed a captivating and atmospheric approach to a diverse range of scenes with multiple demands unique to themselves. One can recognise a confident visual style with clear intent and purpose in every shot as well as a deep comprehension of the necessary equipment to fully capture the sentiment of these scene’s storyboards.

To begin with let’s focus on mindel’s camera of choice – the custom black Pannavision G2. This is the perfect camera for most of the hurdles overcame during the filming process. When Rey is introduced in the interior of a Battlecruiser the light is broken up very nicely to highlight interesting details. The perspectives used are very stylish and engaging. We immediately can tell that this is an unused ship as the camera articulates the abnormal tilt in the ship and reemphasises this in following shots. Moreover, the foreground of fallen wires with a lens flare is a great addition to set the scene. The next shot transitions to a three point perspective shot which is engaging as a result of the silhouette and depth of the shot. Then, Mindel uses volumetrics to shine light on the main interior. This sequence is fantastic because it is a hybrid of CG, set design and matt paintings. The execution of this was to use a main prop for the talent to interact with alongside some lighting. The concept designers made a fantastic contribution to this sequence by characterising the look of each shot and deciding on the look.

Shifting gears to the shot of Poe patting the back of Finn we can see that a steady cam has been used. The octogan bounce allowed there to be a little bounce on the exchange between directions. This is one of the greatest camera moves of the film which brings us on to the shooting process in Abu Dhabi. Mindel uses a Terradec with a Kisch viewfinder and a C40 Pannavision lens alongside a video tap to demonstrate his framign process. In designing the filming process the AD was able to  use a miniature set to establish the sequence in preparation. The atmospheric perspective is a main feature of making a film feel cinematic. The lighting on Finn contrasts less as a result of the lighting and dust behind as it fades to the left with a lens flare. This was a mechanism used to draw the eye to the details of this shot. They used a 4×4 beatboard with an octogan bounce with a low angle from the Lieberhead.

Mindel insisted on using a live droid for this sequence so as that the talent had somethign to act towards which is a wise decision in ensuring the interaction is convincing. When filming BB8s freeing by Rey the sunlight was quite low and gentle and so required a lot of lighting. They used a Cinemills 18K going by a 4×4 CTO and a 12x grid with a fill light. They used a hightec Chapman dolly for the sand for a sweeping shot to keep the scene mobile. Alternatively, when shooting Finn immediately post-crash a Lamee is a soft shiny surface to fill in the talent as the sun shines from behind. This technique was essential in achieving the jumpscare shot seen in the trailer and in capturing the expression. To achieve a higher energy shot they used the custom dolly again with a quick sweeping shot in between the market. Mindel’s organisation of staff in this sequence was phenomenal. The trackign shot was custom made, the boom man had to move whiel capturing sound and the pyrotechnic had to time the explosions with the visuals with appropriate timing. This coordiantion comes from clear coordination and collaboration.

The sand scenes were shot with an IMAX camera with a MOVI stabilised head. In several of the pursuit shots the aperture was different from the final and needed and extension for the fianl effect which did not damage the resolution. This approach to me was a poor approahc on Midnel’s part but makes sense as a practicality. IMAX distortion was used for the Battlecruiser alongside the matt painting. This approach improved the overall visual look of the film but was achieved in a roundabout way.

Switching to the interior of Kylo-Ren’s spaceship reflections, practicalsa and depth were all used. The lighting was a series of 6K lights alongside a 10K with a Blue infront of it. In the knowledge that red worklights would be used Mindel introduced them into the physical set so that they are reflected correctly. The flares used in many of these scenes were included in the final result for authenticity. The clear layout of each element of the scene alongside a clear filiming schedule alongside the practicals contributed greatly. A minor blue coloru correct was used so that there wasa more metallic functional feel. The Pannavision was flipped for the majority of this part alongside MR16 bulbs built into the set as another example of the production designer’s close collaboration. This created a greater freedom.

When Rey is seen climbing around the surface of a loading bay a clever three point perspective shot is used again to mirror her transition. A Super 70 Technocrane was used for this wide shot. The surface was a back-lit Plexi-LEDs alongside a spotlight. The perspective was all the same so the shot had to be liend up correctly to the pre-vis. At the Stormtrooper rally they correctly got the perspective with a lens. To achieve the perspective a crane shot was boomed down to go behind the Stormtroopers. This subtle yet intelligently spaced approach to cinematography elevated the scene greatly.

To achieve the anamatronics in this films they used a software that 3D maps your face and finds the depth points which is tracked and fed to the robotics. Lupita N’yongo’s performance as Maz Kanata was tracked and 3D morphed into the final result. The micro-movements that would be otherwise hard to recreate are easily tracked in this process. Andy Serkis’ performance as Snoke was digitally puppeted and used artifical lighting. This was strong cinematography though as evidenced by keeping him in thedark except fo r the back and edge lighting. The cameras triangulated the position of the face. This technical brilliance, although not photography related, speaks to the collaborative nature of the filming process.

During the bridge scene a blue light with a red back light was used by Mindel using atmospheric light built through CG deep compositing in 2.5D with greater creative control of the location of the haze. This was due to the width of the shot as a result of an uneven haze level where everything had a volumetric which kills the contrast and quite whispy to undermien the tone of the scene. To achieve the cold light comignfrom the sky a strong blue-light was used with a pre-vis bleu light alongside a diagonal red-light. When the shootig  begins a lot of atmospheric and lens flare was added in post. The on-set red lighting was boosted and colour corrected for additional saturation.

During the snow forest lightsaber duel Mindel uses phenomenal cinematography to achieve the lightsaber and forest contrast. The high darkness of the scene with very low contrast. Soft-edged light was used for Kylo Ren and on the trees surroundign the talent. The reason the scene works is because of the extreme brightness of the lightsaber. It reads as well exposed with one practical to bring it together and balance it out with a tinted blue. The contrast, when changed to an action sequence, is very middle of the range 40% IRE blue to contrast against the 100% light of the saber to make it stand out and look awesome. The set was surrounded by sixty-foot blue screen with white par-cans so that Mindel can shoot a ton of bright light when necessary such as for selective edge and back light.  There is no blue lighting on set, this is colour corrected on set. A steady-cam and techno-crane with a scorpio stabilised head is used and is operated around fake snow on a large set with thirty- foot trees and space-lights for back ambient. The mixed colour lighting was probably animated alongside the 2D colour correction in post-production. Unfortunately source-maker LEDs should have been used for a more convincing outcome. Being filmed on a platform, many up-angles were used with a Lieber on a Super-techno 50 as well as a low camera on a slider. This composition of filming techniques helped to create a highly atmospheric, tense and beautifully shot duel sequence with a ferocity and stage-by-stage choreography perfect for the cinematographic approach.

All things considered, Mindel’s approach to shooting this film, although not perfect, was well coordinated with several departments and demonstrated a deep understadning of the appropriate lighting, camerawork and preparation to achieve a diverse, yet excitingly consistent visual look. An increase in the use of practicals in lighting and character design could have elevated the visual appearance to a keen eye as an end product. Despite this Mindel delivers on almost all fronts with a spectacularly exciting and ambitious approach to filming action in a variety of environments.

WRITING WITH IMAGES: THE CINEMATOGRAPHY OF ‘THE FORCE AWAKENS’

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