The Star Wars films are my favorite films from my childhood (yes, I am a little biased toward them). They've become a part of film history and The Empire Strikes Back presents a strong story told by its cinematography. When director Irvin Kershner and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, BSC, ASC, set out to make this film they didn't approached it as sci-fi. Neither of them were sci-fi filmmakers, so they chose to tell a story about characters that happened to take place in space. That's the main driving force of this film: we care about the characters. The middle film in a trilogy is typically the weakest because it's the 'in-between-film,' but when it comes to this trilogy, it's strong and enhances trilogy.
Cinematographer - Peter Suschitzky, BSC, ASC
Camera & Lenses - Panavision / Arriflex and Panavision C-series anamorphics
Acquisition - 35mm Anamorphic: Eastman 100T 5247
Aspect Ratio - 2.35:1
The use of color in this film is beautiful! Each location has its own look and color scheme due to the production design and the lighting. The filmmakers had full control of the looks as a majority of this film was shot on sound stages. The only location work was the Hoth sequences in Norway. The rest was filmed on a set or as a miniature. Speaking of which, the film contains many miniatures and optical effects which were handled by Dennis Muren, ASC, the effects director of photography. His elements brought life to the universe, while Suschitzky brought life to the characters.
The overall look of this film is a bluish cyan, almost a steel blue. This pops up all throughout the film. Halfway through the film orange is introduced. I've come up with a theory (I could be wrong) of their color scheme. It begins with an icy, cold blue for the scenes on the planet Hoth. The rebels are in hiding, things are stable and they are hopeful, yet the Empire may find them at any moment. Luke goes to the planet Dagobah, which has a similar ivy blue look, but much darker. He's lost, seeking Yoda, the Master who will train him. Once he finds Yoda, the look becomes warm, full of oranges. We start to recognize warm colors as hopeful and good. Whenever Luke is being trained we go outside to the cool look, showcasing the hardship of training.
When the other characters arrive at Cloud City, they are greeted by a beautiful sunset of pinks and oranges. As an audience we've grown to trust warm colors and therefore trust Lando, the city administrator. Notice how the warm look morphs into the white, cool look we were introduced to in the beginning of the film. This disturbs us subconsciously, but we still trust Lando... until he betrays the characters by delivering them Darth Vader. The film moves into a blue and orange look for the next sequence, creating beautiful color contrast for the two clashing sides and the tender moment that ensues. The end of the film gravitates to a blue look, but darker in lumenance as the hero learns a devistating truth.
The use of color is bold. Suschitzky is not afraid to key with orange and have no white light in a shot. I think that's one of the elements that makes the cinematography of this film stand out. Two different colors that contrast each other in a scene can be powerful. That's the beauty of lighting with color. And it calls for a bold cinematographer because once it's captured there's no going back.
Ironically enough, during this viewing I didn't notice the lighting as much as I normally do in other films. That may be due to my focus on the usage of color, but also the fact that the lighting looks natural. The human eye easily spots bad lighting. It might be subconscious, but we're used to seeing natural light in our worldly environments. When lighting is surreal or unnatural, we're startled. Even though the world of Star Wars is fabricated, it's grounding in the world we know. Therefore, the lighting was approached naturally as though it were real life instead of a sci-fi. Exteriors typically have a soft, overhead source, while interiors are lit with practicals built into the set.
I did notice the extensive use of atmosphere. Some films use atmosphere with creative license (like to see light beams), but Empire uses it practically. This adds to the realism of a swamp planet, spaceship exhaust ports and a carbon freezing chamber. There's a reason the fog is there and it only makes the film better.
Skin tones throughout the film are typically on the lower end, around 30-40IRE on average. Yoda is darker yet, ranging between 20-35IRE. Keeping him in darkness hides the fact that he's a puppet, making him more believable as a character. Princess Leia tents to be a stop brighter than other characters. This may be purposeful, since she's the leading lady, but could be from her lighter skin tone. The characters on the Star Destroyers are on the brighter side as well, around 50IRE. The color for these sequences is very 'normal' and contains little of the blue look that's in the rest of the film.
The contrast ratio from key to fill is around 2-3 stops, depending on the setting. As I study older films, I keep noticing how contrasty they are, and how the cinematographers boldly let elements fall off to black. It's almost the opposite approach to the modern cinematography approach of seeing into the shadows.
Many scenes cut back to characters in the Millennium Falcon spaceship. One of the difficulties as a cinematographer is to create a different look in the same location. This is typically done with different camera angles or lighting. I love how Suschitzky takes the challenging approach of using the same cockpit interior shot, but changes up the lighting, depending on the situation or environment surrounding the spaceship. Below are images of the different looks. Each is almost idential framing, yet unique due to the lighting. This showcases the skill of the cinematographer and the ability to change mood with lighting alone.
Something I've always wondered is how the Star Wars films treat reflective objects. In the case of the shinny chrome C-3PO, they always have him dirty to matte the reflections. But Darth Vader has to be lit with reflections since he has a black reflective surface. Light needs to hit curved surfaces at the proper angle to create the illusion of depth, otherwise it'll be a black blob. Interestingly enough, there's not many specific moments when the lighting brings out the nuances of the mask. That would be near impossible to do unless it's a commercial. Darth Vader's silhouette is easily recognized to so the cinematographer chose to use that to his advantage (sound effects also help). Take a look at the above images to get a good glimpse of the different ways Vader is lit. Interestingly enough there's only a few lighting setups that bring out all the facial elements of the mask. Sometimes it's completely black save a few reflections from an eye light.
Framing + Movement
In general, the film is full of wider shots, as it follows groups of characters and spaceships. The tightest shots are CU's from the neck up, no ECU's. Despite the lack of ECU's, we are still emotionally invested in the characters. Most of the shots have head room, no haircuts. Whenever haircuts are used it's a CU on one of the main characters and in an emotional moment in the story. This becomes this film's version of an ECU.
Suschitzky presents a classic look in the camerawork. He's not afraid to let a shot play out, or let the blocking change the framing. The camera is planted in one place for a majority of the shots, though it pans, tilts, or rolls to change the framing as it follows characters. The dolly plays a small role, mostly in the wide shots, but the majority of movement in the film are objects or characters moving throughout the frame.
Many scenes involving the Millennium Falcon contain unstable ground while the spaceship is shot or has landed on a moving surface. This was achieved by moving the camera instead of the set. They did a fantastic job making it look real. the camera shakes and rolls (on a dutch head) while the actors lean, or jerk their bodies around to make it look like the surface under them is unstable.
The 1980's demonstrates the classic 'filmic' look we've grown to love. This is due in part to the anamorphic lens choice of many Hollywood blockbusters from that period. The Empire Strikes Back has this look created with Panavision C-series lenses. Very little lens flare takes place in this film, but the oval bokeh and barrel distortion is apparent. Another characteristic I noticed was the vignetting. The amounts differ per lens, but typically wider lenses vignette more than longer focal lengths. One lens in their set has a lot of vignetting, which kept sticking out to me every time it was used. The best part is the eye doesn't notice it in the film until one purposely studies it.