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Salvaging Star Wars, Episode IV: Leaner green screen

The last few posts have addressed a single question: how might the Star Wars prequels have been salvaged? How might George Lucas have kept that trainwreck on the rails? In the first post, I questioned the whole “prequel” concept. Then, I discussed how real-world analogues polluted the Star Wars universe. Finally, I suggested some ways that the prequels might have better explored the characters of Anakin and Obi-Wan.

Today’s post addresses the most obvious, glaring problem with the trilogy. To fix the prequels, you’d have to scale back the use of green screen.

“Green screen”—or chroma keying—has become an indispensable tool in the arsenal of modern filmmakers. It allows directors to compose shots that—just a few years ago—wouldn’t have been possible. Whole worlds can be invented, and the creator’s imagination faces nearly no limits.

Ironically, it is the lack of limits that makes green screen a problem for many directions. Creators need ceilings against which to bump their heads; they need obstacles to invent themselves around. Creativity means subverting the limitations of your chosen medium. A New Hope blew our minds because Lucas used models to make us believe in spaceships and laser beams. But without practical obstacles to overcome, Lucas leans too far out into the imaginary, making the action unrelatable and alien.

Overusing green screen and CGI poses problems for actors, as well. Actors need the context that green screening removes.

Why? After all, good actors don’t need a set to deliver a stirring performance. Thespians have dominated empty stages for millenia. Instead, it’s a problem of physics and improvisation. “Physics,” because an actors can’t really fake the subtle way that feet slide differently over carpet than over painted plywood. “Improvisation,” because green screen tends to remove the props and set-pieces that invite impromptu, grounding interactions. When asked to act to an empty room, actors tend to stand around. That’s pretty much all we get from Episodes II and III.

It’s a shame; Lucas hired great actors for his prequel trilogy: Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid. If any cast could have convinced us that the world was real, it was this one. They couldn’t (no one could). Lucas wasted his fantastic actors by filming them in a sterile, green-walled prison.

This combination—static actors on a fantastically animated background—unnerves the audience. They don’t know why, but things feel unreal. They know, instinctively, that nothing’s really at stake. Such disbelief only further undermines the prequels’ subpar characters, dialogue, and plot. Conversely, while real sets and on-location shooting wouldn’t have single-handedly redeemed the prequels, it couldn’t have hurt.

That wraps up the “Salvaging Star Wars” series. What more is there to say? Lucas wasted his fans’ good will and irreparably damaged the greatest franchise in cinematic history. No thought experiment can change that. But maybe, just maybe, future filmmakers can ask themselves the same questions and thus avoid making the same mistakes on the upcoming Star Wars sequels.

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Salvaging Star Wars, Episode III: show some character

Recently, I’ve been outlining ways that the Star Wars prequels might have been improved. First, I suggested that the whole ‘prequel’ concept is irredeemably flawed. Then I complained about how real-world analogues cheapen the Star Wars universe.

Today’s complaint? The Star Wars prequels spoil some of cinema’s best-known, most beloved characters.

Take Obi-Wan Kenobi, that quintessential space wizard. Now, if we’re honest, the Jedi Master comes across a bit static—even in A New Hope. In that original film, Obi-Wan learns nothing and can’t be rattled; he’s more like Luke’s Jedi Encyclopedia than an actual character. Even Alec Guinness himself despised the character and cursed the film’s “rubbish dialogue”.

In fairness, though, it made sense that Obi-Wan wouldn’t change much in Episode IV. The film depicts only the very last chapter of a much longer life story. Obi-Wan’s defining moments happened decades earlier, we learn: Clone Wars heroics and a tortured falling-out with Vader.

That’s where the prequels’ potential lay; we’d finally get to see how it all happened. How did Obi-Wan become the cool, unflappable mentor of A New Hope? What flaws did he overcome? What conflict shaped his elderly personality? One idea: maybe Obi-Wan’s inability to save his mentor’s life haunts him. Maybe it makes him overprotective. Maybe that control-freak behavior pushes Anakin towards reckless power grabs. In any case, regardless of the arc’s specifics, Lucas shouldn’t have hesitated to rough up the golden boy a bit.

Instead, Lucas extends Obi-Wan’s milquetoast personality all the way back to day one. He was (we learn) always incorruptible. Always steady. He’s always been the beige palette against which more colorful characters are painted: Luke, Qui-Gon, Vader.

Speaking of Vader… there’s another great character squandered. The prequels inherit the greatest villain of all time—then manage to spoil him. To Lucas’s credit, Anakin does has an arc (unlike Kenobi); he journeys from adorable, pod-racing wunderkind to moody teenager to malevolent cyborg. But if Obi-Wan’s statis bores us to tears, Anakin’s metamorphosis confuses us. We never quite believe the reasons we’re given for his downfall. Why can’t Anakin handle his mother’s untimely death? Why does he snap. After all, his son faced nearly-identical tragedy (his family’s horrific immolation) with courageous determination.

How might the prequels have better explained Anakin’s degradation? Show us how childhood wounds fester into adult corruption. Make the Skywalkers’ slavery unpleasant to witness. Make Anakin damaged and powerless as a boy, so that his hell-bent power quest makes sense. Show us the hurt; don’t rely on Hayden Christiansen to emote it with furrowed eyebrows and a whiny delivery.

Next time, we’ll wrap up the “Salvaging Star Wars” series. In our crosshairs? The prequels’ over-reliance on CGI, to the detriment of story.