The Force is back – bigger, better and bolder than ever as Dan Mindel, ASC, BSC helps J.J. Abrams restore the franchise’s thrilling (film-based) roots. By Kevin H. Martin and Matt Hurwitz.
On the original Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope, writer/director George Lucas, reportedly desirous of a diffused romantic look, approached Geoffrey Unsworth, BSC, to shoot the film. But when scheduling conflicts arose, a second Stanley Kubrick alumnus, Gil Taylor, BSC (fresh from another 20th Century Fox project, The Omen), undertook the assignment. While Lucas was not wholly enamored by the results and had some sequences reshot (with Carroll Ballard and Tak Fujimoto, ASC, among those credited for the additional photography), the film was completed only slightly over schedule and went on to become a mega-hit while launching the first sci-fi/fantasy boom in cinema.
After executive-producing the next two sequels, Lucas allowed a period of time to lapse – waiting for digital technology to catch up with his vision – before embarking on a trilogy of prequels he directed and co-wrote. While massively successful, the films often failed to capture the popular zeitgeist of the originals. When Disney obtained the rights to Star Wars, it turned to J.J. Abrams, who had jump-started Paramount’s Star Trek franchise.
Abrams was eager to take the reins of a series that had thrilled him as a youngster, and he intended to start off the first film of a new trilogy – Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens – by going back to the beginning. “I wanted to stay away from the prequel aesthetic,” he reveals. “It was critical this film look like a continuation of the original trilogy – to have the purity of Episode IV, but, where appropriate, have the drama, beauty, and use of shadow seen in The Empire Strikes Back. I wanted the image quality to be film-based and location-shot, to feel tangible and authentic.”
Dan Mindel, ASC, BSC, Abrams’ collaborator on his rebooted Star Trek films, came aboard very early, and says he and the director tried to keep the process as physically grounded as possible.
“The ASC had digitized back issues of American Cinematographer,” Mindel shares, “so I obtained versions of their production articles on Star Wars, Empire and Jedi that we could reference from my laptop. I found [those articles] to be a hugely useful resource; I passed them around so everyone could see the direction we had to follow.”
The film’s art department also went back in time for inspiration, adhering to what Abrams calls an “analog” movie in look and feel. “Not just in the vector graphics on screens,” he describes, “but in the real displays on set. Yes, we are augmenting some scenes with [CGI] holograms. But for the most part, [production designers] Rick Carter and Darren Gilford designed and built extraordinary, vast, and practical sets.”
These sets often employed 2D forced perspective rather than green screen and VFX set extensions. “Because of our familiarity with film and anamorphic,” Mindel adds, “we know how to make the image drop off so the background just fades away naturally, avoiding unnecessary scrutiny. Designing with depth of field in mind helps that along, and anamorphic is also enormously forgiving with regard to set textures and surfaces.
“I use Panavision anamorphics on every show and approached them about helping me design a set of retro lenses,” Mindel continues. “These would feature some qualities associated with late 1970’s films while retaining aspects we know and love from today. I wanted to preserve that era’s higher contrast levels, so Panavision added a lens coating. Another aspect involved building in a softer feel to the glass.”
Some films from the 1970’s employed filtration to achieve that softer look, and Mindel notes that having been a camera assistant in the U.K. during that period, he was “very aware” of how a stocking placed either behind or in front of the lens could help offset some unforgiving aspects of film stocks from the period.
“On this project, I sent someone out to buy up all the remaining Christian Dior #10 stockings,” the DP describes, “and we shot tests with rear nets using various glass, but we ultimately found our newly designed lenses made these forms of diffusion unnecessary.”
Panavision provided a single set of custom primes (40, 50, 60, 75 and 100 mm), dubbed Retro-C’s, which would be shared among various units shooting on Panaflex Millennium XL2s throughout production. “We used the Retro-C anamorphics when photographing the heroic Resistance,” Mindel adds, “and those were augmented with C- and E-anamorphics. I divided the movie up into two halves visually, so for scenes featuring the [First Order] bad guys, I went with Primos, as they are harder, less forgiving lenses, [employing] primes plus the AWZ2 and ATZ zooms.”
A digital booklet (which lived on the iPad) allowed anyone to see the idiosyncrasies and unique look qualities for each glass. As Mindel explains: “In the old days, cinematographers spent a lot of time trying to match the lenses because of the color temperature and contrast and other variables. But now we’re very fortunate in that we account for such indiscretions in the DI. So if the colors from different lenses don’t match up, that isn’t a critically limiting factor for us as it would have been in the past.”
Mindel received his lenses from Panavision just prior to shooting, which meant VFX Supervisor Roger Guyett had to get all the lenses mapped immediately to ensure his ILM team could proceed. “I’ve worked with Roger often, so it was just a matter of my being able to keep in mind his needs and relying on the unwritten language between us,” Mindel states. Guyett also oversaw outside VFX vendors on the show, including Kelvin, Abrams’ in-house group at Bad Robot. “There are close to 2,000 VFX shots in the film, and ILM is doing 1,200,” he describes. “Seven-hundred staffers at our facilities in Singapore, Vancouver, London and San Francisco operated as a global network.”
Guyett knows the franchise, having worked on the last Star Wars feature. But for The Force Awakens, he says the goal was to capture light in real locations: “How your eye responds to the light, to the tactile quality of images, [and] balancing that with the practicalities of filmmaking – all while taking advantage of techniques that weren’t available back then,” he explains.
“There are many nods to the old-school stuff,” Guyett adds. “J.J. and I spent an afternoon doing a little hanging miniature! But at the end of the day, you have to decide what’s best for the movie. ILM’s building a digital version of an X-Wing or the Falcon becomes a different process when you look at a real one, even if it is only a fraction of a practical set.”
While conceptual art and storyboarding are standard on VFX-heavy projects, they did not form an ironclad basis for what was to come. “Sometimes we had the benefit of previsualization,” Guyett allows. “But J.J. is of the mind that you can’t preplan every shot. Dan and I went over at the end of 2013 to Pinewood [U.K.] to shoot tests that laid the groundwork for everything – going to the desert and testing the BB-8 [practical robot] character. We could place BB-8 in any real environment, so our CG guys could reference those passes if some component of digital lighting might be missing.”
While scouting Jordan and Dubai, Mindel dug out Sunpath data to work out the arc of the sun through the sky months in advance via old-school means. Even though stage work would be handled in the U.K., Mindel also recruited key members of his usual Local 600 team, including 1st AC Serge Nofield, A-Camera Operator Colin Anderson, SOC, B-Camera Operator Philippe Carr-Forster and 2nd Unit DP Bruce McCleery.
“This show was scheduled with enough time to do what needed doing,” Mindel describes. “My department and grip/electric were able to bring so much more to the film because we were organized with the proper infrastructure and could bring our projects through to completion.”
The DP readily acknowledges that having so many well-known and even beloved aspects of this universe already established helped to further hone their efforts. “We weren’t going to add anything to the Millennium Falcon or any known structures,” he reports. “On the newer sets, we used some modern lighting and different techniques – no LEDs, as I don’t like their finicky color space. But it only made sense to keep the lighting style and techniques the same, using gels as needed on traditional HMIs and incandescents. Our mandate was to preserve all of those handmade qualities built into the sets and wardrobe, which avoided any jarring modernization.”
The cinematographer used Kodak Vision3 stocks throughout, relying on 50D 5203 and 250D 5207 for location work and 500T 5219 during stage shooting. Mindel’s oft-stated preference for originating on film is not just about the aesthetic, but also about how a film workflow impacts the progress of a shoot.
“I love [film’s] natural rhythm,” he declares. “You shoot a thousand feet; then, while reloading, the floor gets cleaned and a light gets moved back while the actor is allowed a glass of water. You stay more involved as a cinematographer. Instead of going to check email because the DIT is covering your ass, you’ve got your meter in hand and are watching what the light is doing on that actor’s face. There’s just a different, deeper level of engagement.”
Keeping audiences visually engaged is key to Abrams’ approach, as his love for moving camera shows. Anderson says the director eschews wide static masters followed by coverage, relying, instead, on the Steadicam to design dynamic masters that allow a scene to unfold and reveal salient points throughout the move.
“For me as a Steadicam operator, it’s enormously rewarding that J.J. will use an entire Steadicam shot without breaking it up with coverage,” Anderson shares. “He’s also not about flying walls to make it easier for the camera. J.J. believes that the audience can tell when you’re manipulating the physical constraints of the set, which undercuts credibility. As a result, we just squeeze the camera into the available space.”
“It never ceases to amaze me how the most difficult scenes to shoot are sometimes the most seemingly simplistic and straightforward,” the director remarks. “Two people talking in a room – or in this case on the Millennium Falcon – are always the most painstaking. We tried as much as possible to balance the majesty and scope of Star Wars with the intimacy and heartbeat of each character. I tried to think about this movie in a more classic style than I normally apply. That’s not to say there won’t be some quick-cut action sequences, but I try to hold on shots longer, more confidently.”
Carr-Forster cites the admixture of Mindel plus Abrams as a factor that “makes this a very rewarding place to work. J.J. doesn’t want boring shots lacking energy, and he won’t accept sloppiness,” the veteran operator relays. “His eye is so good, he’ll catch everything, so when you get it right for him you know you’ve done well.”
Getting “a galaxy far, far away” right meant venturing beyond U.K. stages to provide scale and spectacle. In fact, Abrams says he’s never filmed on so many locations, nor felt more inspired by his surroundings. And he’s certain his cast felt the same.
“We were in an incredible forest in Wales,” he says. “We were on Skellig Michael Island in Ireland. We filmed in the deserts of Abu Dhabi. There is something about that incredible opportunity that infuses every scene, every actor, and every crewmember with an undeniable presence. It’s an energy that can only help the movie.”
The film’s desert shoot was for many the most grueling part of the production. Mindel says locations were spaced a couple hundred kilometers apart, and practical sets were built that used wind, sand and natural light in ways rarely done anymore.
A small fleet of Toyota Hilux vehicles formed the support caravan for this desert odyssey, and Carr-Forster remembers how “each camera had its own white pickup truck towing a rickshaw with lenses.” Shooting on the dunes was usually on a stop between 8 and 11, with ND used to bring the light down. “An interesting part of the art direction affected all this,” Anderson adds. “Many buildings incorporated netting-like blinds that cut the light levels in a way similar to shooting through a double net.”
Nofield says Production kept everybody hydrated on what was the toughest shoot he’s ever done. And the Panavision film cameras were reliable in a situation that would have been too hot to shoot digitally without problems. “Our tests had ensured we wouldn’t get problems from metal expanding under extreme heat, and things worked out beautifully,” Nofield recalls. “Film is a perfect medium for intense environments; combat photography shows just how well these cameras can handle a great deal of trashing.
“We had Patti Harrison’s Camera Essentials aboard to make film-changing covers,” Nofield continues, “plus custom rain and dust covers that were breathable for Imax and Panavision cameras. We also brought a great deal of dry ice from Dubai that was attached with Velcro to camera bodies inside the covers to mitigate the heat.”
IMAX capture was mostly limited to one major desert action sequence, using the 15-perf MSM 9802 with Hasselblad lenses. “Imax cameras are very sensitive pieces of equipment, and this time we used the 15-perf unit [MSM 9802 with Hasselblad lenses], primarily in Abu Dhabi, but also for second unit in Iceland,” Mindel recalls. “Not being able to get film processed to view the next morning is one pitfall. But augmenting the 2.40 anamorphic with this format is a great way to deliver striking imagery.”
Anderson says the Guild camera team was “a bit leery of Imax from past experience with threading and jams on the last Star Trek. [See ICG May 2013.] “But to the ACs’ credit, it behaved really well,” he admits. “Due to the extreme weight of the 15-perf cameras, we used a Libra head mounted to an ATV for a running sequence instead of the Steadicam.” Both Nofield and B-camera 2nd AC Simon England had IMAX experience, and the former credits IMAX tech Scott Smith with working well past wrap every day to service the lenses and cameras.
For Nofield, making the film afforded him the chance to see physical production on an epic scale. “Going on a scout and seeing a practical downed TIE fighter was a real trip,” he enthuses. “You think back on the model shots in the old movies and imagine what these things would look like for real – and then what you see measures up to that, and then some. Incredible attention to set and costume detail, along with the animatronics, contributes so much to the tactile feel of what we shot on set. We knew this was really Star Wars being made here, not some green screen epic.”
Given the ground it broke, the original Star Wars was beset by one-of-a-kind challenges, e.g., the light-saber battles. Swords coated with front projection material used on set were prone to breakage, plus the light effect was blunted when the material was seen off-axis, necessitating optical overlays. This time out, an in-camera approach netted more significant – and dramatically impressive – results.
“I was excited about creating the right amount of interactive light on-set with the light sabers,” Guyett recounts. “Building them so they emitted enough light to register on the combatants became a huge plus on my end and Dan’s, as we could program the amount of illumination and balance the color temperature with the sets. We could build behavior patterns into the lighting, so when two sabers clashed, they would flare in intensity – in dark environments they became our principal light source. When replacing the saber with our digital effect, it was easy to push up the brightness without having to cheat the light direction, as on the previous movies.”
Bizarre aliens and robots are also key elements in the Star Wars universe. Neal Scanlan handled practical aspects relating to creature work.
“[Neal’s] work is mind-blowingly brilliant, and it showcases skill sets that are so underused in modern filmmaking,” Mindel froths. “We took these creatures on location in the desert and they performed wonderfully. None of the ‘Don’t worry about the seam, we’ll fix that later’ talk. I can’t wait to hear how new young directors respond to seeing these characters. They’ll be asking how that was done and wanting to emulate our style, so the part of the industry that died out as a result of CG may get another life.”
For wholly digital characters, ILM London VFX Supervisor Mike Mulholland and Creative Director Ben Morris led much of the charge, along with Animation Supervisor Mike Eames. “The complexity of [CGI] characters was just incredible,” marvels Guyett, who says a mix of performance capture approaches was employed.
“When you have a real human on set playing the character, it provides many practical benefits,” he outlines. “ILM has developed fantastic facial-motion-capture tech that is all low-profile on set. Wherever possible we used motion capture based on infrared; often we were able to just use IBC [image-based capture], and that was a blessing since it doesn’t leave much of a footprint.” Another approach employed VICON’s four-camera system. “Our preproduction tests taught us what a performer’s smiling or wrinkling his nose would do to and for our character,” Guyett adds. “[With] Vicon you can rebuild the whole face just from those views.”
The filmmakers also used Andy Serkis’ Imaginarium facilities in London. Abrams shares that “both Andy Serkis and Lupita Nyong’o play characters brought to life using performance capture. While I was desperate to use tangible, analog techniques, only a fool would have rejected the opportunity to use any tool or resource available that was right for the job. For these two characters, performance capture was critical.”
The visceral thrill-ride qualities of the original films owe in part to the use of motion-control cinematography pioneered at ILM, which freed the camera from traditional effects constraints. Abrams says that “thanks to [production illustrator] Ralph McQuarrie and of course Mr. Lucas himself, star fields, ship design, explosions [and] costumes all feel of a piece. I wanted visuals that looked the way we remember Star Wars – not the special editions, but the original movies.”
To create the film’s trademark space battles, a primarily CG approach was spearheaded by Digital FX Supervisor Daniel Pearson and Digital Artist Rick Hankins. “They rewrote and rebuilt our simulation engine for this show,” Guyett says. “So it was a watershed event, [allowing] us to do spaceship choreography that I would normally think to shoot as a practical element or miniature. And the quality of [CGI] lighting was amazing, as when the Falcon flies into the downed Star Destroyer.”
At press time, The Force Awakens’ DI was finishing up at Company3 Los Angeles under the stewardship of colorist Stefan Sonnenfeld, with the general release being augmented by a limited 3D IMAX run. Mindel says shooting The Force Awakens brought him back to his more humble industry roots.
“When the first film got made, I was a camera trainee in the U.K.,” the DP concludes. “All of the elite technicians were on that film, but there was nothing any of us starting out could do to get close to those sets or be part of the thing. So getting to do this movie so many years later feels like a real closing of the circle. It was also amazing to find family members on the film who were sons and daughters of people from the original electrical and construction crews. The whole experience turned out to be the chance of a lifetime, and I can’t thank J.J. enough for letting me be a part of it all.”