The Force is With Film! Dan Mindel on Star Wars: The Force Awakens

  • December 11, 2015
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In taking on the pop culture behemoth that is the Star Wars franchise, J.J. Abrams and Dan Mindel, ASC, BSC wanted to make a film that was in harmony with the first three movies in the series - Star Wars (1977; cinematography by Gil Taylor, BSC), The Empire Strikes Back  (1980; Peter Suschitzky, ASC, BSC), and Return of the Jedi  (1983; Alan Hume, BSC).

Director JJ Abrams and Dan Mindel, ASC, BSC on the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens ©Lucasfilm 2015

"Gil Taylor set a very formal, English-style approach on the original," says Mindel, who worked with Abrams on the very successful reboot Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013). "J.J. even asked me to find, if possible, some of the original lenses. Obviously, film stocks have changed, and the digital intermediate has come along. So to preserve the look and feel of those movies, I went to Panavision and asked them to manufacture a set of lenses to our design specifications."

With extensive testing, they developed the right recipe; KODAK film stock and rehoused older anamorphic glass were the main ingredients.

Cinematographer Dan Mindel, ASC, BSC on the set of Star Wars: The Force Awakens ©Lucasfilm 2015

"I've just seen the movie for the first time, and it ended up looking fantastic," says Mindel. "To see the film rendition at full resolution is so incredible. I recently shot another movie digitally, and the differences between that and what is possible with film are huge. Film is so high-tech in its present form. It looks the way my eyes saw it, and that is something that is very difficult with digital cameras. Film sees so much more. To me, it's just gorgeous. It's phenomenal."

Depending on the situation, Mindel used one of three film stocks: KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219, KODAK VISION3 250D Film 5207, and KODAK VISION3 50D Film 5203. In the Abu Dhabi desert, for example, he used mostly 250D and 50D. But for gray exteriors in the United Kingdom, the 500T was utilized.

"When they made the first movie, contrast was something that directors of photography were always fighting," says Mindel. "Film was far less forgiving than it is now. It was either black or it wasn't, and low-contrast filters were popular. The stock we use now was custom-made for DI work, and there's a huge range of light to dark, so you can extract a lot out of the shadows. I wanted to emulate that high-contrast look with super-soft lighting, which is what they did in those days. Shooting in England worked in our favor because we had English lighting technicians who are used to how those soft lighting techniques work."

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm 2015

Mindel also divided the movie into two distinct sections. For sequences focused on the hero rebels, he shot with the Retro C-Series lenses to render a warmer, softer feel - with an "almost built-in diffusion," he says. And the villainous New Order scenes were shot with Panavision Primos for a much harder, cooler and less forgiving look. Some desert exterior establishing scenes and plate shots were done in IMAX format. The final aspect ratio will be 2.39:1 throughout.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm 2015

The filmmakers avoided CG visual effects when possible, opting instead for puppets and robots and practical, in-camera visual effects. "With our rustic lighting technique, and the built-in texture that film has, you can shoot human beings and flawed objects close-up and give them a nice, smooth finish," Mindel says. "I think a lot of filmmakers are going to see this movie and want to do something similar, in a more artisanal and less electronic style. To me, that's what's been missing for the longest time."

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. ©2015 & TM LucasFilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

"We did a lot physically, and the film warranted that," he adds. "That's part of the responsibility we have doing movies like this with a long history and a huge existing fan base. Maintaining the franchise's integrity was really the mandate from J.J."

On the post side, Mindel worked with FotoKem and Company 3. The DI was done with Stefan Sonnenfeld. "Having worked with FotoKem for the past 25 years, I can tell you that we never had an accident or a lab-generated issue that cost us a shot," says Mindel. "We ended up with a roughly three-day turnaround for dailies."

Exposed negative from the set went to Company 3's facility in London, and digitized dailies were produced and sent back to Pinewood. In the morning, Mindel would see the images projected and discuss them with the colorist. By the time the crew was shooting again, the images were colored and loaded into the Avid for editing. "To me, it was an effective workflow, and proof that you can shoot film and then take it through the digital part of the process in a meaningful way," says Mindel.

Regarding the future of film, Mindel opines, "It definitely feels like there is a renaissance. Kodak has redesigned itself, and I think they're going to sell more film this year. People have pulled back from the edge, and are very interested in continuing to work in this format. Part of our responsibility is to teach the younger generation of filmmakers how to use it."