6 Things to Learn from 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' That Will Make You a Better Photographer [Spoiler Free]

6 Things to Learn from 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' That Will Make You a Better Photographer [Spoiler Free]

There is this new film out and I’m sure you’ve heard of it. It's sort of like "Star Trek" but with laser swords. "The Force Awakens" is one of the most impressive films to come along in a long time. Director JJ Abrams does an immaculate job of taking a franchise that has become so culturally embedded that it is ubiquitous and rebuilt the magic that first captivated audiences almost 40 years ago. By learning from his techniques you can translate them to your photography so that you can expand the quality of your own work.

Warning: This post does not contain any story spoilers, however, it does vaguely describe certain aspects and scenes of the film. Do not read on if this is a problem for you.

An Old Concept Can Be Made New By Shifting Perspective

"Star Wars" has always employed a very broad sense of storytelling that gives the viewer a expansive view into its universe. The franchise has repeatedly made a point of hiding plot twists but making the universe very open, otherwise. Little is hidden from the viewers making "Star Wars" feel very much like a soap opera, which was an intentional decision made by George Lucas. In contrast, "The Force Awakens," crushes this awareness into oblivion. Abrams reveals only what is important, when it is important, and leaves everything else to your imagination.

You simply do not know much about this Star Wars universe anymore and by not revealing the broader narrative Abrams is able to very concisely tell the story with tremendous emotion that exceeds any previous "Star Wars" film. In a sense, "The Force Awakens" feels like it is being told from the first person perspective of a few specific characters instead of the more third person perspective that the previous films made use of.

Take this into your next shoot. Always be asking yourself how you can show something from an angle that makes it more refreshing and unique than it has been in the past when similar photograph were created by other photographers.

Color Can Be a Tremendously Powerful Tool to Enhance Storytelling

"Star Wars" has always leveraged color to communicate morality within the narrative. Evil is often portrayed as red or orange while the forces of good enjoy a cooler palette made up of greens and blues. Abrams doubles down on this concept but also refocuses it to also build upon the voice of each scene rather than just the morality of its characters.

The color grading of "The Force Awakens" is among the most impressive I’ve ever seen and is a great example at how elegant grading can invigorate the experience of looking at an image.

A Frame Can Be Augmented by Adding Story Elements At Varying Dimensions

Abrams, throughout the film, makes great effort to add more interest than just what is going on with the primary subject of the scene. There is always more story to be found by looking around the frame and taking in the entire breadth of the moment.

In one particularly impressive scene a character is on the ground during a fight while a star fighter is flying around behind him in the sky dog fighting with enemy craft. The camera perfectly pans around the character so that he stays in the frame but also so the background follows the fighter as it zips around in the sky. The entire scene bridges a fantastic connection between the fight on the ground and the fight in the sky that is able to expand the scope of the scene by adding a dimension that the audience has never experienced before.

Perspective Can Create An Epic Sense of Scale

"The Force Awakens" makes great effort to generate a sense of grand scale that no other "Star Wars" film has ever managed to achieve. Even in the height of the massive space battles of the previous films the grand nature of the scenes were largely diminished by an art style that failed to effectively make use of perspective to bring the scale of the events to life.

In "Episode VII" Abrams is able to to catapult beyond this weakness and make each scene feel like it has a sense of magnitude that few other films are able to achieve. Achieving the exact same thing is possible within the sense of a still photograph and should be something you strive to create when appropriate. Those cost of a frame with epic scale, however, is loss of intimacy. Being aware of when not to use scale is just as important as knowing when scale can be effective.

What You Don’t Show Is As Important As What You Do

As aforementioned, in previous "Star Wars" films the hidden aspects of the story were usually plot twists so unexpected that the viewer never even had any expectation of them in the first place. This is great for creating a sense of surprise but it also fails to delivery on creating intriguing mystery.

"The Force Awakens" makes a point, however, of only revealing what is needed to propel the story while leaving everything else shaded in mystery with only slight hints to per percolate the imagination. When creating photographs with can leverage a similar thing by creating tastes of story within the frame that don’t actually reveal anything to the viewer other than making them wonder.

Practical Effects Build Realism

CGI is a powerful thing and it is present in great force throughout "The Force Awakens," however, unlike the prequel series Abrams made practical effects a huge priority in order to construct a realistic film. Not every problem was solved by a computer.

For example, the characterful and lovable droid BB8 could easily have been completely created using CGI but instead the production created an impressively realistic, live version of the droid. This real robotic actor not only created a great presence for the actors to react to but it was also able to capture the hearts of everyone when it showed up on the red carpet at the premiere.

The film is riddled with these sorts of practical effects that were created in camera rather than on a computer after production was complete. Because of this realism "Episode VII" is able ground itself and bridge a stronger connection to the audience.

Personally, I’m often guilty of over-using compositing when something can be achieved while shooting. The latest "Star Wars" installment is a great lesson in why it is always good to create an effect in camera when it is possible.

Duality Creates Cohesion

"Star Wars" has always leveraged duality at a fairly intense level. George Lucas loved the idea of opposite pairs. Abrams makes a point of continuing on this path but in his own unique and unexpected way.

Think about the way everything is paired with its opposite throughout the entire franchise. Light (Jedi) and dark (Sith), selfish (Solo) and selfless (Chewbacca), brother (Luke) and sister (Leia), old (Kenobi) and young (Luke), ignorant (3PO) and aware (R2D2); The list could go on forever and what makes it most interesting is that the franchise often reverses the duality to create exciting character arcs.

Duality can also be a tremendous asset when creating photographs. Conflicting ideas within a frame creates the tension of conflict which can make a photo endlessly more compelling.

Conclusion

There is a ton to be learned about storytelling and framing from "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Watch it and pay close attention so that you can draw on it to expand your own work in new and exciting ways.

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9 Comments

Sean Shimmel's picture

Ryan, solidly insightful and with such detail. Appreciate your thorough article.

Tom Jacobs's picture

Great post Ryan! Very articulate and insightful and interesting!

Matthew Dartford's picture

"Practical Effects Build Realism"

There are many shots of BB8 are renders (inc the one you have used here). It's my understanding the physical model is not capable of fast movement. Any shot where it's moving at running speed is CGI.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Thats true, of course, those scenes generally are not ones where the actors are directly interacting with it. (Also that photo was used because it was from the public trailer, I didn't want to use any that might be spoilers from the film)

(That said there really is no way to be sure the one in that screen is a CGI model, you'd only need to CGI it at running speed when other elements are in the frame that are also moving at that speed. They could have just recorded it going slow and sped it up. Though, you are probably right, I think that shot likely features a CGI BB8, though the background is almost certainly a plate of a real structure on set)

Mo Bius's picture

NPR interviewed the head of the team that created the physical BB8s, and he said they had something like 8 iterations of it. One which was hand puppeted for close-ups, one that just wiggled in place, one that could go like a bat out of hell, and others I don't recall. I think I remember him stating that any time you see a BB8 running, it's the "bat out of hell" version, which indeed is a practical and not cg.

*EDIT*
...not that it has a damn thing to do with the article. I just wanted to point out that the BB8 team did create one that can go at running speed. :)

Kent LaPorte's picture

I have to say one of the best articles I have ever read on Fstoppers. Whether or not you are a Star Wars fanboy or not this was a great dissection of the movie from a cinematogrher's perspective so. I haven't seen the movie yet but I understand everything you were describing and feel it represents the most important areas of improvement I need in my own photography. Mastering the technicals of photography are fairly straightforward but storytelling, emotion, drama, juxtaposition are areas that we continually work to improve. Hope to see it soon.

Kirk Vagg's picture

I hope it made me a better photogshopper.. At least it was fun trying :)
https://fstoppers.com/photo/105060

wayne myers's picture

Damn, I'm gonna have to watch it again. Gutted!!