Blog Post #77: Gabriel Rhenals on 'Star Wars'!
Updated: Nov 25, 2020
To celebrate the release of the latest Star Wars film on December 20th, here's a 14-part essay originally posted on social media exploring my fascination with the first six films of the series from the mostly formal perspective of a filmmaker:
1/14. Fordian open-framing
Throughout the series, a technique known as open-framing is used to capture shots involving groups of characters. A shot with open-framing relies primarily on context or understanding from preceding or subsequent shots. The open-framing shots here are deliberately flat (i.e. characters mostly aligned along a single plane), objective and compel the viewer to explore the frame. The speaking or central characters of the scene do not necessarily have absolute priority in the shot's composition.
Legendary director John Ford employed these types of shots in many of his classic westerns and George Lucas, a fan of Ford's films, also peppered them throughout his earlier films (see the last still from 1973's American Graffiti).
2/14. Rothko art
Many of the films' most memorable sequences and scenes feature a restricted but bold and signature color palette highly reminiscent of the abstract expressionist art of Mark Rothko. Producer of the prequel films, Rick McCallum, confirmed in an interview that Rothko was an inspiration for the visual design of the films.
3/14. Wagnerian leitmotif
Lucas has often referred to the films as silent films due to the primacy of the visual and musical storytelling. Composer John Williams makes the latter possible through a technique known as leitmotif popularized by 19th-century composer Richard Wagner in his operas. Leitmotif involves each character or force in a story having its own distinct melodic or motivic identity or theme throughout the proceedings. With this technique, an audience can gain a far richer emotional association with the characters and events of a given story.
4/14. McQuarrie art
To help pitch the first film to studio executives, Lucas hired artist Ralph McQuarrie to produce concept art that established the general visual vocabulary of the ambitious space opera. McQuarrie's artwork is highly imaginative and bound by austere design principles owing to his past as a technical illustrator for a defense company. The below examples of his work were produced for the first film of the series but are far more evocative of the increased visual scope of the more contemporary prequel films.
5/14. Soviet montage theory
The editing of both simple dialogue and kinetic action scenes throughout the series are highly suggestive of Soviet montage theory. This theory basically posits that filmic ideas are more effectively expressed through the juxtaposition of shots rather than what is contained within the shots themselves (e.g. pictorial elegance, sophisticated camera movement, elaborate staging, etc.). This emphasis on editing and restraint in cinematography is preserved throughout the series despite the advancements in computer-generated imagery afforded to the later entries.
Lucas, intimately involved with the editing of the films and self-characterized as an editor-at-heart, has cited the work of consummate montagists Sergei Eisenstein (pictured below) and Slavko Vorkapich as influences.
6/14. Sound design
In the late 1970s, then-nascent San Francisco Bay filmmakers, Walter Murch and Francis Ford Coppola, invented the role of sound designer to represent the work of electronically manipulating sounds for use in film. This innovative practice was used for the Star Wars films (by Ben Burtt, pictured below) to create a wealth of unusual sounds, many of them quite memorable, to suit technology and creatures inexistent in our reality. But beyond satisfying those fairly unique creative challenges, the notion of altering or repurposing real world sounds to exact an emotional rather than a literal truth was a powerful one brought into vogue by the sound work in the series.
Intercutting in narrative film is cutting back and forth between separate but simultaneously occurring scenes or sequences. This basic concept is played with in a progressively interesting manner in the series as far as the first four films are concerned. Let me break it down thusly:
• First film climax: Space battle • Second film climax: City escape and sword fight • Third film climax: Space battle (pictured below), ground battle and sword fight • Fourth film climax: Space battle, ground battle, sword fight and palace invasion
The intercutting of the films' climaxes regularly increase by one wholly distinct plane of action! A novel escalation that suggests a unique synthesis of narrative and editorial design undoubtedly conceived of at the outset of the conception of each film. I suppose intercutting between five or more sequences would have been too much for the later films in terms of narrative necessity and coherence.
8/14. "Very fascist"
In creating the design for the original Star Wars logo, graphic designer Suzy Rice was directed by Lucas to make it "very fascist," "intimidating" and something that would "rival AT&T." At first, this may seem like a telling imperative for a film whose story's antagonists are clearly modeled after Nazi Germany. But given Lucas' avant-garde filmmaking roots, it's a direction that appropriately suits the Classic Hollywood send-up nature of the series.
"[Speed's] a pleasure center." -George Lucas
In both form and content, speed and movement is at the very heart of the series. It can plainly be seen through the ubiquity of fast-moving spaceships and land vehicles in the films' universe. But these elements only gain a lion's share of their appeal by way of the momentum of their respective sequences and the restlessness of the overall directorial approach. "Faster, more intense!" would fittingly appear to be the films' modus operandi if Lucas' most common direction to actors is any indication.
But where did this particular interest in highly kinetic filmmaking begin? The answer may reside in an obscure short film I've linked to below. It's from 1966 and titled, 1:42.08: A Man and His Car. It was made by George Lucas when he was a film student at the University of Southern California. The film lays bare this preoccupation with speed and movement while clearly laying the foundation for work to come.
10/14. The Break
Spatial continuity in film editing prevents the viewer from becoming disoriented about the presented story space from shot to shot. Amid the series' 806-minute runtime, there is only one single break in the films' otherwise totally abiding spatial continuity. And it lasts a split-second!
This clear break (a still from the relevant shot below) occurs in the climax of the fifth film of the series (my favorite one!) and involves the tragic protagonist facing off against a major foe in a sword fight lit solely by the light of their laser swords. It's a textbook example of how to powerfully throw emphasis on a single moment in an expansive work.
Irony as a device in fiction can be used to create a contrast between how things seem or are expected to be and how they really are beneath the surface. Its use dates back to the earliest storytelling traditions. There are three main types of irony: verbal, situational and dramatic.
All three types are used throughout the latter prequel films to accentuate the rich consonance established with the films the prequels provide a backstory for. Consequently, much dialogue and many scenarios in the prequels play upon or beg the audience's awareness of the ultimate fate or trajectory of the films' characters and institutions. The resulting effects can be cleverly humorous as well as darkly satirical.
"Anakin, how many times have I told you?! Stay away from power couplings!" -Obi-Wan Kenobi
In filmic terms, a genre is a group of films that share similarities in conventions, iconography, settings, narratives, characters and/or actors. Star Wars is a mash-up of film genres because it purposely incorporates some of the most salient features from a variety of film genres. Some standout examples include:
• the desolation and grittiness of Spaghetti Westerns • the futurism and episodic structure of '30s sci-fi serials • the samurai character and aesthetic of Japanese period dramas • the aerial ballet and bravado of WWII aviation films • the romance and heroism of Classic Hollywood films
The series as a whole is an intriguing amalgamation of film genres and suggests the untold potential in being inspired by what has come before and harvesting it astutely.
13/14. Ring Theory
Several years ago, an essay was published online explaining how Lucas, as its author Mike Klimo puts it, "used an ancient technique called 'ring composition' to reach a level of storytelling sophistication in his six-part saga that is unprecedented in cinema history."
What is ring composition? It's having a story "organized into a sequence of elements that progress from a beginning to a well-marked midpoint. Then, the ring turns and the first sequence of elements is repeated in reverse order until the story returns to the starting point."
That is the essence of the palindromic ring organization at work in the first six Star Wars films. The degree to which it has been implemented, however, is nothing short of astounding, as it involves corresponding narrative structure, plot points, visuals, dialogue, themes and music. If you're a fan of the series or the art of storytelling in general, this detailed essay is highly recommended!
You can find the complete essay here: http://www.starwarsringtheory.com
Today, digital filmmaking is the industry standard. Digital technology guides virtually every stage of the filmmaking process on a modern production, big and small. Two decades ago, however, the landscape was quite different. Shooting on celluloid was regarded as inarguably empyrean but restricted mainly to industry professionals while shooting on video engendered an inferiority complex among its primary user base of amateurs.
But in 2000, Lucas announced that the fifth film of his space opera, the most popular movie franchise in history, would be shot using newly developed digital cameras from a major camera manufacturer. Consequently, the film became the first major motion picture to be shot digitally and helped kickstart a digital revolution in the film industry.
Beyond being a shrewd and forward-thinking move in economic terms (less expensive) as much as artistic ones (more control), Lucas' choice to go digital with the last two films of the series was a monumental endorsement of a future that would see formidable filmmaking technology easily accessible to anyone willing to accept the hard challenge presented by the art and craft of making movies.
I hope you've enjoyed my 14-part essay. Thanks for reading!