Normally I like a bit of punnage in the title, but I couldn’t think of a good one this time, my apologies.
So I’ve been to see the force awakens. I don’t think the below’s going to be terribly spoilery unless you’re an art nerd like myself. Just in case though, stop here if you haven’t seen it yet.
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Okay, you’ve been warned. Shall we press on?
One of my pet peeve’s in cinematic design is the recent trend towards the overuse of the visual noise used to kick environmental realism up a notch. We have a long pushed towards making scenes and backdrops lush and complex in order to make them feel like they are actual places. Like they are lived in. The original Star Wars, Episode IV, was one of the first to make their universe feel really lived in. Spaceships were worn and dirty, robots had rust marks, random bits of sprue and geometric shapes could be seen littering the backdrops and worlds. Occasionally a random creature would wander through the establishing shot. It began a new way of looking at environments as characters (okay, not wholly new, Jim Henson and Co. laid some of the groundwork, you got me there.)
But the addition of wear and tear did not mean they had allowed their backgrounds to become busy. There is balance within the shot. Background information is conveyed in layers of gray on gray on blacks, rather then each individual object being distinct and easy to recognize. Objects are vague, without an actual purpose to attach them to. It conveys the impression of depth without giving us enough detail to linger and be confused.
The Star Wars prequels made the mistake of becoming self involved. The environments were glorious, hugely, delightfully detailed. They are what you get when you allow your environment designers to pour all of their love into a project. But the environment designers are not supposed to be the guiding eye of any given scene. They build their piece or pieces with an eye towards making that single part the best it can be. They will build you something so beautiful it can make you weep, but once you throw characters into that environment everything changes. From a cinematic perspective it was easy to lose track of the action in those films, sometimes you had to hunt for the characters in scene. It gave you a more “real” world, but at the cost of the story.
The Force Awakens has taken lessons from both the classic Star Wars and the CGI heavy prequel. They still have enormous set pieces, epic scale architecture that reminds us just how small these characters are against the backdrop of the world, but the detail is dimmed by elements like atmospheric perspective, by thoughtful use of color and contrast (and often lack of contrast). There is just enough to tell you that the detail is there, but not so much that you spend all of your time trying to pick your characters out against it.
In TFA this extends to a depth that I have not seen very often in modern cinema. There are scenes in the film where stormtrooper battles take place in front of dark environments, the bright white of their suits making it easy to follow the action. We see black empire ships silhouetted against the light sandy dunes of an alien world. The visual design is very thoughtful and goes along way towards enhancing the viewing experience.