Star Wars represents a simplistic view of the conflict of light versus dark. The black and white morality with good guys, such as Luke and Leia wearing bright fair colors, while the villains, such as Vader wearing all black, are the first visual color motifs and cues that the Star Wars films rely on (Campbell). Color motifs predate the Star Wars films, however; the white hats versus black hats is one of the basic forms of fictional morality that visual storytellers have used since early Western films (Budd).
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These are cues that visual storytellers have relied on to trigger an immediate response from the viewer. However, there are other less obvious cinematic cues and techniques that will be examined that also are used to support the black and white morality. Using a scene provided from The Empire Strikes Back, an explanation will be presented of how the theme of conflict of good versus evil is expressed visually through mise en scene, visual structure, sound, lighting and contrast. This will provide an understanding of the ways in which certain visual elements have been arranged and function within the film’s composition, and present the classic struggle of light versus dark at its most basic level.
In the showdown between hero and shadow, Luke is represented as the shining knight of destiny, while Vader is represented as a card-carrying villain. (Henderson) Both characters are contrasted in simplistic opposites in every respect. It is how all the formal elements are edited that ultimately present the classic struggle of good versus evil. Heroes are faced with choices that are either all right or all wrong. The choices and actions presented tell us that there are no real shades of grey. Lucas decided, early on in his career that the editor was in control. His early influences stressed the importance of cutting to the creation of meaning (Brooker 47).
For the climatic sequence between Vader and Luke in Empire, how the scene is presented is just as important as to what is being filmed. For this scene, there is more emphasis on the self-contained sequence of images to create a feeling rather than heavy exposition. We focused a lot on filmic expression, film grammar. I was not into storytelling. I was trying to create emotions though pure cinematic techniques (Brooker 47). A brief shot by shot analysis of those elements will reveal the simplicity of the black and white morality.
The Empire Strikes Back is noticeably darker in tone than its predecessor. This is achieved because of the readability of the graphic storytelling, shot flow and low-key lighting. This climatic showdown scene between Luke and Vader is the heart of The Empire Strikes Back. Luke, inexperienced in the ways of the Force and hopelessly outmatched, fails while confronting one of his most difficult challenges. The lighting, backgrounds, layout, sound, editing and shot sizes all support the story and stage the characters accordingly. The audience is always aware of where to look due to the lighting, the staging of the actors, angles and shot size, which all contribute to help deepen the characters’ arcs during the shots. In visual mediums such as film, certain human characteristics, angles, and lighting setups are instantly recognizable as being evil, threatening, or dominating. A dramatic low angle looking up toward an imposing figure can heighten the vulnerability of the character who is at the mercy of the larger figure. A low camera angle makes characters and objects seem tall and powerful. A high camera angle gives the characters a diminished feel (Vineyard 15). Where the camera is stationed, whose point of view is being expressed, the size of the shot, and the distances between the subjects of the scene can all add to the arrangement of those dramatic elements. The scene opens with an establishing extreme wide shot of the interior gantry and then cuts to tighter master shot with the tiny figure of Luke moving around the railing making his way to the control room. The location is established, but the basic relationship between the wide and medium close-up of cuts becomes clear, heightening our sense that Luke is in danger. The viewer is familiar with the contrast of large, over-empowering background environments that swallow the tiny figure of Luke. Star Wars is overwhelmingly cut according to mainstream Hollywood convention (Brooker 51). The shots are scaled to the subject matter within the frame, in this case, a tiny Luke and the wide-open vastness of the interior gantry. The gantry is filled with low key lighting, creating a mood of pessimism and menace, heightening the viewers sense of unease. The size of interior of the gantry and Luke relate to one another proportionately. The kinetic effect of the sequences of shots builds an emotion and a feeling of trepidation for the audience (Davies). By varying the shot size between the characters and the size of the character’s frame within the shot we instantly have a visual recognition between good and evil. Vader’s large exaggerated samurai mass is shot from a low angle looking up. Instantly we cut back to a reverse shot of Luke from high angle looking down. At this stage Luke cannot win through sheer physical power or skills (Henderson 87).
After Luke enters the control room, we immediately hear the sound of a lightsaber before we glimpse the source of the sound, which is Vader’s weapon. Vader then quickly lunges toward Luke. Here, a sound cut contributes and becomes a main motivator of fear heightening the viewer’s sense of unease, adding to the atmosphere. The lightsaber sound is heard before the cut is made, signaling the threat before we see it. We can also see, in Star Wars, the continuation of Lucas’s earliest experiment with sound layering (Brooker 59). It becomes an integral element to creating an atmosphere of danger (Henderson).
The wind, the lightsabers, and Vader’s breathing all create an unbalanced framing of ideas, and the low-key lighting and fast movement contribute to the threat. Lucas had Ben Burt create a collage of familiar sounds in new combinations, that like pieced-together props and scuffed costumes, gives the sense of dropping on a convincing, fully operational universe (Brooker 60). Vader’s menace is eminent. Luke is lit by the low-key lighting, while Vader’s dark silhouette, appearing like a demon, attacks Luke. The contrast between light and dark in the cinematography reflects the difference between the villain and the protagonist. Quickly, we cut to a montage using close up lenses and tight framing shots which produce a claustrophobic feeling of terror, pessimism, menace, and anxiety. The use of wide angle lenses would not provide the feeling of anxiety that is created here through the use of tight framing (Davies). As Vader forces Luke back toward the gantry we cut to a low angle reverse shot. This expresses Vader’s dominating dynamic advantage. These angles put the characters in an adversarial relationship. Vader forces Luke backward and the focal length of the lens is increased and focused on the foreground framing the subject, Luke. Luke is beaten. The dismemberment of the hero or god is another archetypical occurrence in ancient myths (Henderson 87). This shot emphasizes Vader as the dominant background figure who has taken part of the flesh of the hero, Luke’s hand.
Because the eye is drawn to the highest area of contrast, lighting is also used, much like in theater, to spotlight area of contrasts and pull the eye in the composition of each shot. The best use of spotlighting in the shots is to support the drama. Luke is in danger during the beginning of the sequence and the low-key lighting and deep shadows create a visually darker tone that heightens our sense of unease. After Luke nicks Vader’s shoulder, Vader’s armor shoots sparks and smoke, followed up with a sequence of shots consisting of only faceless dark figures fighting (Davies ) The intensity is increased through the use of silhouettes with only streaks of rim lighting to define the forms. The flashes from the lightsabers and sparks define Luke and Vader to create a dark and dramatic scene. Rim lighting causes the audience to see less, but imagine more. Rim lit shadows are usually associated with suspense and drama and add interest for the viewer. Vader’s overpowering shape as he warns Luke you are beaten puts him in a privileged position because we can see what Luke cannot. As Vader follows a fallen Luke, the wind subsides and there is nowhere for Luke to go to. Vader has not been able not able dominate Luke, so he now tries to seduce him (Henderson 88) The audience is completely aware of the emotional state of the characters as they are clearly defined through the use of the lighting and the various mis en scene tools. Vader is tempting Luke to the dark side. The lighting cast upon them is used to exploit this theme and accentuates the emotion. Monochromatic rim lighting frames Luke and Vader in a way that supports the story. Empire is shot in similar fashion to film noir or a Gustuv Dore painting, who used value and dramatic spotlights to illuminate certain parts of a composition in order to emphasize key archetypical patterns (Polson). The biggest difference with illustrations is that the viewers have more time to spend with an illustration as opposed to film in which case the viewer has only seconds with the image.
Contrast is another important element that can be used in order for the emotion to be read quickly. Contrast in design, just like contrast of lighting, is extremely important (Polson). Contrast can make things seem more exaggerated than they are. For example, in an illustration, if an artist wishes to make something feel cool in the picture they may add a warm color to the image. If an artist wishes for something to feel soft like snow, then then he or she may add a jagged mountain in the background. Luke and Vader are contrasts by design. In order for Vader to feel imposing, dark, and powerful to the viewer, the filmmaker may contrast those attributes with Luke by making him look smaller and lighter in complexion. The obvious idea is that one object or person is large while the other is smaller. The shot size or the size of the objects within the shot reflect this idea, as discussed in the previous paragraph. Filmmakers and storytellers break the universe down into simple symbols to help communicate the themes. Vader’s physical appearance, with a large black flowing cape, faceless mask and helmet (inspired of the Japanese Samurai) creates a classic demon or animal like appearance (Vogler). Luke’s appearance is fair, he has blonde hair and his costuming is white and dirty yellow. Vader’s appearance was described by Lucas to artist Ralph McQuarrie as looking like a dark lord riding the wind (Henderson 88).
In conclusion, while Star Wars represents a simplistic view of the conflict of light versus dark, the black and white morality with good guys, the verisimilitude or believability of the films is due in part to the way which certain visual elements have been arranged and function within the film’s composition.
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