Cinematography and the Star Wars universe

by Josh Henderson

Close up of a video camera

The Star Wars series has been hit and miss for a lot of people, including me. While I loved the first three films (Episodes IV, V, and VI), I wasn’t a fan of the prequels (Episodes I, II, and III). Like many other people, I didn’t connect with these latter films. Why did these films not connect, especially when the first Star Wars trilogy was such a hit? As a cinematographer, I think the answer lies – at least partly – in the visual world of the prequel trilogy.

A cinematographer’s view on the original Star Wars trilogy

The original Star Wars trilogy broke a lot of ground in terms of science-fiction visuals. Many of the locations had realistic, gritty looks. The colours – and their saturation levels – seemed in line with the locations that were being created. For example, the harsh desert planet of Tatooine used less saturated colour, giving it a bleak, dusty look.

Luke Skywalker watches the two suns of Tatooine set
Photo credit: Lucasfilm

The original trilogy also handled most effects practically. The perfect example of this is Yoda, who was a puppet in the first trilogy. This gave Yoda a more realistic look than the technology of the time could have ever allowed.

Finally, the original trilogy was shot mostly in medium wide shots and medium close-ups. These shots together worked to create the feeling that the viewer was in the space (pun intended), right at the centre of the action. Not only did that make the characters feel more like friends, but it helped draw audience members into the films’ narrative and emotional moments.

Chewbacca, Luke, Obi Wan and Han Solo in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon
Photo credit: Lucasfilm

These are just a handful of the visual choices that can be identified in the original Star Wars trilogy. Almost all the choices, however, work to connect viewers to the films, their stories, and their heroes. Given this, I would argue that the cinematography helped make the original Star Wars movies hits at the time and the classics they are today.

A cinematographer’s view on the Star Wars prequels

Now on to the Star Wars prequels… It would be hard for the Star Wars prequels to be more different from the original movies – at least in terms of cinematography. Gone was gritty realism and in its place were attention-grabbing, oversaturated colours. Scenes were also overlit, making everything too bright and flattening the images. This made the Star Wars universe suddenly feel artificial and plastic, less science-fiction and more kids’ cartoon.

Young Obi Wan blocks a bolt of force lightning with his lightsaber
Photo credit: Lucasfilm

The practical effects were also gone, having been poofed away in a cloud of CGI smoke. Puppet Yoda was replaced with CGI – and let’s not even talk about the travesty that was Jar Jar Binks. My problem with the move to CGI was three-fold. First, I didn’t feel the swap over was necessary or motivated from a story perspective. That made the CGI feel showy and out of place. Second, there was too much CGI and an overreliance on post-production. Items and location elements you would never normally CGI were and heavy post-production work was done, adding to the plastic, kids’ cartoon feel. Finally, the CGI just wasn’t good enough. It stood out, drawing attention to itself, which disconnected viewers from the narrative ride of each film.

The shots used changed too. Instead of medium wide shots and medium close-ups, the prequels tended towards wides and close-up. Now viewers were positioned as outside watchers being fed a story instead of in the locations with the heroes, going along for the ride with them. This also made the films’ narratives seem more planned, almost robotic, versus the spontaneity of the original series, where it felt like anything could happen.

These cinematography choices and others worked together to make viewers feel less connected to the Star Wars prequels than they had to the original trilogy. The prequels just didn’t take viewers on the ride. The choices also lowered the age the films seemed to be targeting, making the prequels feel like the intended audience was kids. With all of these visual issues, it’s no wonder to me that the prequels didn’t become hits – or the classics they were hoped to be.

A cinematographer’s view on the new Star Wars films

Kylo Ren stands in the dark with his red lightsaber
Photo credit: Lucasfilm

Where do the new Star Wars films fit in? Episodes VII, VIII, and Rogue One marked an evolution rather than departure from the cinematographic choices of the first trilogy. There have been some changes and technological improvements, but the new films and the original trilogy play in the same sandbox. There has been a return to the epic, cinematic imagery, as well as the less saturated colour palette. The lighting is more natural. The camera moves are controlled, but still give the sense that you, as the viewer, are in the action. Also, some of the practical effects, including a few puppets!

Makeup/puppet application for one of the aliens in Star Wars
Photo credit: Lucasfilm

It will be exciting to see how the cinematography of the Star Wars films evolves from here. In the meantime, if you have another favourite sci-fi or fantasy film you want me to discuss the visuals of, leave a comment on The Dandies Facebook page! Want more Star Wars content on the double? Dandy Chris Casselman’s got you covered!