The Force is strong with… Star Wars: Episode V’s cinematography
Martyn Conterio | On 09, Dec 2015Reading time: 6 mins
We take a look back at each episode in the Star Wars saga – and where you can watch them online.
It’s commonly accepted, as a near fact of reality, that The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars episode. But how often do we recognise the film as the most beautiful-looking of the juggernaut space opera saga?
There is a visual distinctness and use of composition entirely unique to this particular entry, which not only sets it apart from A New Hope and Return of the Jedi, but reveals a depth and level of artistry lacking in the other films. That’s not to suggest the rest are bland – there are iconic shots in all Star Wars films and all are very well made – but The Empire Strikes Back achieves a level of tonal perfection between the storytelling and the cinematography. On this note, it really does stand aloft.
The use of light and shadow, especially, is often extraordinary, capturing the “Dark Side and the Light” (as that mysterious voiceover in the first trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens so menacingly put it) as pure visual expressions. We’ve been told by Obi Wan Kenobi all about the Force, but in The Empire Strikes Back, we can feel it too.
Peter Suschitsky is well-known and lauded for his work with Canadian auteur David Cronenberg. Since 1988’s Dead Ringers, they have struck up a working relationship which has gone smoothly for almost 30 years and produced some incredible movies. It’s very easy to forget, however, Suschitsky made many films with other noted directors. In 1979, he was hired by George Lucas to serve as the director of photography on The Empire Strikes Back.
Suschitsky and his crew were tasked with delivering technical film-making on a new, and often ground-breaking, level. George Lucas would not repeat the prep-time woes and budgeting nightmares which plagued Star Wars. An array of cameras and lenses were used on Empire: Arriflex, VistaVision, PSR, PanaFlex-X and normal PanaFlex cameras were deployed, depending on the specifics of the scene and what effects work needed doing in post with matte artists. The effects scenes were shot on 70mm, as to better integrate with the 35mm prints. But the film was first released as a 70mm engagement at 127 venues in the USA on May 21st 1980, followed by a wider 35mm run a month later, on June 18th. Needless to say, The Empire Strikes Back was a smash hit around the world, even if its critical reception was mixed. Today, those critics are massively out of step with public sentiment that not only is The Empire Strikes Back the best Star Wars film, but that it is the best sequel ever made – as well as, according to some outlets, the best film ever made.
The Empire Strikes Back, too, arguably features the most iconic shot of Darth Vader. It occurs in the third act, as Luke searches the Bespin City carbon-freezing chamber for his encounter with Darth. Suschitsky frames the villain in a medium-long shot to resemble a black widow spider luring unsuspecting Luke into his trap/web. The metal structure of the chamber appears like the web of a spider and the use of backlighting casts Vader’s hulking frame in a way that recalls Christopher Lee’s introduction as Count Dracula in the 1958 Hammer classic, Dracula. It’s an electrifying shot.
As another example of Suschitsky’s clever use of framing and composition, take the clever but less showy ending. It’s a sombre cliffhanger, representing the rebellion’s darkest hour of defeat. They’re left on the run, to lick their wounds and begin to plot their rescue of Han and what to do next. Luke, Leia, C3P0 and R2D2 are framed together inside the rebel spaceship looking out at the stars, no doubt thinking about Han’s tragic fate. The white, sterile interior of the craft is contrasted with the blackness of space beyond the window, our eye drawn to the swirling sun and the debris field around it … the birth of a new star or the death of one? The ambiguity of such an image reflects the mood of the scene perfectly. The scene cuts to outside the vessel and the camera pulls back, leaving our eyes to focus on the characters inside the ship, as they slowly edge away as tiny figures. Ships fly past and we are swept up by the grandeur of the spectacle while still connected to the loss felt by Luke and Leia. The convoy of rebel ships goes off into outer space and the next step of the journey.
It’s a really majestic final shot, aided by Williams’s scoring arrangements and the classic Star Wars use of an iris-cut to the credits. Such complicated shots, which are able to dramatically capture the mood of scenes, highlight the notion blockbusters need not be reduced to bang-for-your-buck empty spectacle, but can integrate technical artistry to heighten the emotion of a scene; the storytelling must always come first.
According to Suschitsky, in an interview for The American Cinematographer’s Society, conducted not long after Empire’s release, Lucas initially sought him out to shoot the first one, but Gilbert Taylor (a fine British cinematographer, who had worked for Roman Polanski, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick) ended up taking the job. Lucas and his cinematographer had a tense relationship, no doubt hindered by the different working practices between American and British crews – we unionised Brits love our tea breaks. For Suschitsky, taking on the film presented a mighty challenge. He hadn’t worked with special effects before and admitted the term initially intimidated him somewhat.
Lucas bailed on taking up directorial duties, after Star Wars proved too traumatic an experience, with rushed prep times, budget headaches and rewrites shattering his nerves. He wouldn’t direct again for over 20 years. Yet when Star Wars became a massive success and pop culture phenomenon, a sequel was set into production, in 1978, and Lucas hired Irvin Kerschner, a journeyman helmer, who, at the time, was undergoing a career boost. Given how many times The Empire Strikes Back appears on ‘greatest movies ever made lists’, usually taking the top spot, Kerschner’s success – and he was more than just a Lucas puppet – sticks one in the eye to our cinephile auteurist obsessions. But the real star is Suschitsky. The stuff he pulled off in Episode V is exemplary and deserves more praise.
Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is available on Disney+, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription or a £59.99 yearly subscription. It is also available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of an £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription.
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