Friday, November 28, 2014

Why the Opening Shot of the STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS Teaser Matters

           Believe it, bruv.

            I should start out by saying how absolutely ridiculous it is to write up a post on what is essentially the first 10 seconds of an 88 second-long teaser for a film that won't be out until this time next year. But said opening shot of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser struck me in such a way that I had to take a moment to break it down to illustrate why and how it creates a powerful mission statement for JJ Abrams' continuation of the Star War saga.

           The teaser begins by slowly fading in on a desert landscape, before John Boyega pops up into frame, sweaty and panicked. He stumbles forward, and the camera pans around him; revealing the desert surrounding him in its totality. It's a pretty simple bit of filmmaking, but as the opening salvo of this new Star Wars trilogy - and the first new footage since 2005's Revenge of the Sith - it acts as something of a statement of purpose on behalf of Abrams and what we can expect from these new movies.

           First and foremost: that's a real desert, with a real John Boyega transplanted right in the middle of it. We have the ability to take anyone and plop them in front of a green screen and have them appear to be galaxies away, but as far as special effects have taken us, the "green screen" effect is still evident, what with the rather noticeable and ugly matte lines even in costly CG environments. This is obviously in direct opposition to the prequels, in which even veteran, talented actors looked thoroughly adrift in their endless, solid green and blue. So by placing Boyega in an actual desert, it adds a further layer of believability beyond even the fuzzy matte lines - it adds a believability to his performance that just isn't possible otherwise.

            Also noticeable is the shooting on 35mm film. It's odd to still call them "films" when in actuality none of them are ever shot on film anymore. And while digital photography has come a long way since George Lucas pioneered the format with both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, the format still has trouble with warm, Earthy colors. Compare this bottom still with the above of Boyega:

            The reds and the oranges have a washed-out quality, and even fourteen years on, digital cinema still can't quite match the vibrancy of film, with most movies these days settling for a drab, metallic blue look.

            The shot itself seems carefully placed first in the teaser as a direct reaction to the prequels: the shooting on location is the most obvious aspect, but more importantly is that this scene feels actually directed, even in the most simplistic, basic way. Look at any of the prequels and you begin to see a pattern of banality emerge: several scenes of characters walking and talking, always beginning with a wide establishing shot...

           ...then moving in for a close-up...  

            ....and a close-up reverse shot...

            Rinse, and repeat. It results in the antiseptic, lifeless feel the prequels exhibited when the lightsabres fizzled and the blasters cooled off. Thus we have what we'll call "anti-cinema": a style brought out through the bland and boring confines of the green-screen. By contrast, the rather simple act of having Boyega raise himself into the frame, stumble forward with the camera panning to follow him across the landscape is a masterstroke of filmmaking. There's nothing so simple or effective in any of the prequels, which fluctuate from tedious to overly busy at the drop of a hat. I may seem to be making too much of a big deal out of so little, but the difference in filmmaking on display is striking - Abrams appears to be casting a respectful eye towards the past, but not constrained by any prohibitive stylistic tics of any of the previous films.

           Once again: this is an 88 second teaser for a film that won't come out until a little over a year from now, but a well-crafted piece of film (commercial though it may be) is still a well-crafted piece of film. It certainly shows off a lot more than I expected it to, and gives off a nice vibe of what to expect - let's hope the remaining 120-odd minutes also stack up.

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