SDCC 2015: The Star Wars Reel & a Film maker’s Choice

On this weekend’s San Diego Comic Con we were treated to a ‘behind the scenes’ reel about the upcoming film “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. As in previous marketing statements, this reel too was used by Lucasfilm to underline the use of built-sets and of practical effects. And also as after previous such releases there were the teary eyes of prequel-bashing OT fans who firmly anticipate their childhood-world will be ‘repaired’ again and hurt PT fans who firmly read anything pertaining to ‘real sets’ and ‘practical effects’ as a direct implicit attack on the films they love so much. I see something else though.

Your focus determines your reality

It is no secret that I think this whole ‘real sets versus green screen’ debate is a complete red herring. I made that clear in a previous post. I do believe that a couple of months ago there was some reason for concern that possibly in their focus on the new Sequel Era, which is about to be set loose upon us, Lucasfilm was at risk of devoting to little attention to the Prequel Era. A sentiment also voiced here by JuliWitte. However as I argued here much of the criticisms about the Prequel Trilogy are actually revealing disappointed expectations held by those who criticise rather than being anywhere near an intelligible critique of the Prequel movies themselves. That was actually a call onto both OT fans as well as PT fans not to let their judgement of the new films to be clouded and twisted by the expectations they hold. Your focus determines your reality is every bit as true in the Star Wars Galaxy as it is in the cinema while you are awaiting that opening shot of that highly anticipated new Star Wars movie.

What did the SDCC 2015 The Force Awakens reel show?

What we were shown in the SDCC2015 reel was one thing above all: The Force Awakens has been made by filmmakers who have made a few deliberate filmmaking choices. The Original Trilogy was a pioneering breakthrough in the technology of what we now call ‘practical effects’ as well as the use of blue screen. The Prequel Trilogy was an equally fascinating pioneering breakthrough in the use of CGI and digitally created characters. Some PT fans perceive the rambling on about ‘real sets’ and ‘practical effects’ as constant criticism of the current production team on the Prequel Era films. But I would like to dispute this.

First of all, any such criticism that can be made about the prequels would apply to basically all modern day movies whose use of CGI and digital characters has been shaped under the influence of the Star Wars Prequels and the Lord Of The Rings trilogies in the Noughties. However if you look at the Star Wars reel shown then it provides you a mix of reliance on ‘old technology’ and the more advanced techniques that emerged from the PT and LOTR years. Princess Leia in TFAThe way in which prequel-bashing OT fans consider this ‘proof’ of their point of view is not so much driven by JJ Abrams’ drive towards ‘tangible special effects’ but proof of their own adolescent pre-occupations with ‘being right’. It is called ‘framing the debate’ and all you need to do is simply not take part in the ‘framing’ … not even by ‘defending’ you beloved movies against that framing. What I found most striking in the message of the Star Wars reel about it’s approach to film-making was its emphasis on craftsmanship. Why show set-builders, prosthetic-makers, why show the evolution from concept-art to miniature to realized ‘built set’ out in the desert? Why emphasize that people enjoyed working on The Force Awakens? It is the same celebration of craftsmanship that made the LOTR behind the scenes extra’s so enjoyable. That is what the reel was showing you. JJ Abrams is like the chef in the kitchen who is telling you: “But I cam going to bake a real Apple-pie” … no more and no less.

The PT expanded Star Wars story-telling unto the stage of epic mythology exactly as the OT had defined Star Wars in the field of more personal and intimate family-saga narratives. Another thing that, in my eyes, the The Force Awakens reel shows is that Lucasfilm and JJ Abrams seek to make a Sequel trilogy that will try to combine the best of both worlds of narratives. Just as they seek to combine the best of the film technologies developed during the OT and the PT, so will they do narratively.

Let’s face it, in A New Hope the number of emotionally intense scenes is rather low. As much as I adored the movie when I was 11 years old in ’77, I think it is the weakest of all 6 in terms of compelling emotional scenes. Not that this is a ‘fault’ in the movie! It simply is not a crucial element of the story and the main protagonist is simply not that emotionally involved. Luke is still at the start of his path while Anakin is in the depths of his dark seclusion. As the OT progresses the emotional intensity of the films increases, not just because the stakes StarWars7become higher for our characters but also because increasingly they realize how they have been molded and shaped by what has transpired before. That is why after Return of the Jedi the time is right to engage with Anakin’s story, with the Prequel Trilogy. From The Phantom Menace to Revenge of the Sith the scale of conflict increases hugely, the emotional depths of darkness and moral failures of most characters involved surpass anything what you see in the OT. What seemed like a tale-tying death and funeral scene in Return of the Jedi becomes a door-opening to a new story after seeing the Prequels. The Sequel Trilogy will explore that further tale taking the prequels and the originals as given, as firm ground upon which it stands and thus also as inspiration for a new story. A little like Mark Hamill says in this reel:”Nothing has changed and yet everything has changed”. The reel shows this … let’s face it, there is no shot in the reel in which George Lucas appearing would have felt out of place! If ‘prequel-bashing OT fans’ however want to interpret his absence as proving their silly little prejudices … well that is them framing the discussion. It has little or nothing to do with reality.

Return of the Jedi is a long time ago

Now there are prequel-fans who are worried, or should I say upset(?), by the emphasis on the Original Trilogy in the lead-up to the Sequel Trilogy. yes the sequels will star, definitely the first episode, the OT characters. It has been well over 30 years since we last saw those in live-action (or any other) format on the screen. Yet the OT events will be crucial for having a proper understanding of the story of the first Sequel episode.  Return of the Jedi was in cinema’s long time ago and Lucasfilm knows you need to pick up your audience where they are, not where you want them to be. So all ‘marketing towards moaning OT-sclerotics’ aside … it simply makes story-telling sense to focus on the Original Trilogy, especially on Return of the Jedi. The inclusion of Warwick Davies on set is no coincidence in this reel … The Force Awakens does not harken back so much to the entire OT, as it does to Return of the Jedi.

However Return of the Jedi is old also in an in-universe sense. Many decades have past since the Battle of Endor and the Old Trilogy characters will have changed beyond simple recognition. We are not going to see Luke & Leia doing another swing across a chasm, Han and Chewie will probably have lost quite a few of their cocky and arrogant strains in the years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. The fact that Harrison Ford considered it a story he was happy to be involved in should not be taken as proof that we are getting ‘old Han’ back but rather that Han has grown old. The decades that have past since the celebration with the Ewoks will have been decades of at least as much defeat and frustration as of victory and success. You liked the ‘worn-out universe’? Then expect a worn-out Han. The single shot of Harrison Ford in the Star Wars reel was a contemplative one, I would even say it was as close to an eulogy as you can get in a single 2 second shot. Immediately preceded by Anthony Daniels looking around himself, happy to be ‘back home’ … the look on Han’s face was not one of ‘Chewie … we’re home‘ but one of ‘I have a feeling I won’t see her again …‘. It is just speculation on my side of course, but it is not a far stretch to believe that Han Solo is ‘on his way out’ in The Force Awakens. By giving us the ‘3 good protagonists’ alongside the ‘3 antagonists’ on the SDCC panel it is evident there is going to be not just a hand-over. The Sequel Trilogy is anything but a continuation of the OT … it is new territory. Any discussion about whether the Sequel Trilogy is vindicating ‘prequel-bashing OT fans’ or not is pure framing and has little to do with the content of the stories or films.

Prequel-bashing is a mindset

As I wrote in earlier posts, most of the prequel-bashing I see going on is a mindset, not a statement of informed opinion. I don’t believe Lucasfilm or any of the people working in The Force Awakens are taking that mindset as a starting point for what they do. JJ Abrams wants to make a movie that feels ‘real’, ‘gritty’ and ‘tangible’ and for Star Wars Series Posterthat he chooses a number of options from the vast toolkit that has been developed over the decades, significantly also due to George Lucas. JJ is very aware … I think … that this movie can break his career. If he blows it, it will rest on his resume as a stigma for decades to come. I think he is also very aware that certain Star Wars fans are capable of vitriol that even makes great movies appear negatively in the public eye. He and Kathleen Kennedy are raising the stakes enormously with the great wave of anticipation they are creating.

However this wave of anticipation is just as much part of Star Wars as is C3PO or Darth Vader. Prequel bashing is a mindset and I expect for plenty of them this mindset will also make them focus on the things they will not like about the Sequel Trilogy. Some may be cured by The Force Awakens from their puberty-rage. But many will see things they don’t like that trigger their habit to rage and complain.

Prequels fans have had to live with this for more than a decade now. However during that decade they have had near-continuous exposure to new Prequel Era stories via Star Wars: The Clone Wars and what an excellent ride that was. Prequel Era characters such as Ahsoka Tano, Captain Rex and Hondo Ohnaka are forming bridges from the Prequel Era to the Original Trilogy Era via their roles in Star Wars: Rebels as we speak. Anthology films such as Star Wars: Rogue One or the upcoming film about a young Han Solo provide further opportunities to create more story-telling links between the Prequels and the Originals. And let us not forget … Anakin Skywalker’s legacy is set to be the starting point of the Sequel Trilogy. Given the state of the Star Wars Universe and the people involved this means we are talking Anakin Skywalker … I doubt there could be a stronger tie to the Prequel Era than that.

Prequel fans have a choice, a really simple choice. They can either accept the framing by a minority of ‘PT hating OT fans’ and enter those theaters on December the 18th to view The Force Awakens and judge it on the extent to which it praises the Prequels. Or they can accept that in-universe we are now more than half a century after the Prequel Era, be happy about the strong ties that nevertheless remain to the Sequels and enjoy the excellent ride that JJ and Kathleen and so many craftsmen and -women have been working on so hard. Do … or do not, there is not ‘try’.

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