One of the great pleasures of the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer is seeing a new director inject his own flourishes into an already visually distinctive series. The Star Wars visual catalog has a few staples that have stayed consistent throughout the series: think transitional wipes and pilot POV shots. Unfortunately, the prequels saw George Lucas expand the toolset with a lot of uninspired tricks: slow zooms on wide shots, Barbara Walters glow, and a stubborn use of a locked-down camera.
From the looks of the new Star Wars trailer, J.J. Abrams and his cinematographer, Dave Mindel, seem to be trading out the bad visual trademarks and replacing them with some of their own. Here are some examples of what we might be able to expect from Abrams’ visual take on the galaxy.
The Dolly Shot
It’s a pretty basic camera move. The gist is that a camera, usually on a track or Steadicam rig, moves forward into the subject, going from a wide shot to a medium shot. J.J. Abrams does this a lot. Though it is a tried-and-true technique, what makes his dolly moves really dynamic is that while the camera moves forward on the Z-axis, there’s action moving on the X-axis.
So in this shot, you have the camera moving toward R2-D2 and embers flying from left to right. The combination of Z and X movement can also be seen in the previous Star Wars trailer. It won't add to the Star Wars visual repertoire, but it’s nice to see a killer dolly move in a series that rarely has them.
Wait, what? Where?!
It’s been exhaustively noted that J.J. Abrams loves his lens flares, and he hasn’t taken the criticism lying down. There was significantly less of it in Star Trek Into Darkness, for example. But if you think The Force Awakens will do away completely with this visual flourish, well you’d be wrong, yet also kind of right. There are lens flares in there, but they are subtle as all hell. J.J. Abrams actually falls in line with the Star Wars visual design. Anything more than what we saw in the Darth Maul fight scene would be pushing the boundaries. I think we can all agree with this amount of subtle lens flare; J.J. Abrams can love them all he wants.
Shaky Cam Aerial Battles
It’s a visual holdover from his Star Trek films, and I think it will be a stake in the ground for the rest of the Star Wars saga. The smooth tracking shots we saw in the aerial battles of the prequels will be replaced with a visceral shaky cam perspective. Personally, this is my favorite trademark of his, and I’m glad to see it being put to use in Star Wars. The style really makes it feel like you’re in the environment, feeling the turbulence of the action.
We got a small taste of the director’s love of canted angles in the above shot. This is another one of Abrams’ visual choices that I love, because he really understands how to properly weigh the shot composition. The canted angle can be pretty hard to pull off correctly since it can quickly fall into hokeyness — a bad-looking canted angle has the subject in the center of the frame. But J.J. Abrams is really good at avoiding this pitfall, and creates a beautifully composed shot by populating one side of the frame more heavily than the other.
In the above shot, for example, you have the floaty TIE fighter lifting up the right side of the frame, while the explosions and the impact of the lasers pushing down the left side. It looks great, and the canted angle remains natural.
This snap zoom shot caused a lot of discussion among the Verge Staff. J.J. Abrams used the technique to great effect in the Star Trek films, and he’s using it again in Star Wars. It’s a precarious technique inspired by camcorder war footage. Surprisingly though, this technique actually fits within the Star Wars catalog of camera moves. You’ll see it used a couple of times in the Battle of Geonosis in Episode II. I’m ambivalent on the technique being used here. It can bring a sense of realism, but also make you feel like you’re in on the artifice of it all.
I think this is all great and has got me more excited about Star Wars than ever before. Based on the trailer it looks like J.J. Abrams and company are doing away with the series' stale camera work. In the end I hope this opens the gates for the Star Wars directors to have more authorship over the saga, avoiding the sameness that plagues the Marvel films.