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The Furniture: The Forest and "The Force Awakens"

"The Furniture" is our new design series. Here's Daniel...

Once upon a time, Hollywood movie magic looked a bit different. In this age of CGI, with some blockbusters relying so heavily on digital effects that they border on fully animated features, it’s easy to forget how science fiction and fantasy once looked. This is why the throwback technical elements in Star Wars: The Force Awakens are so exciting to behold.

One could go on for quite some time about all these details, many of which come up in the extensive special features included on the Blu-ray. One production design revelation in particular that's worth celebrating is that the final fight scene between Kylo Ren and Rey, set in a dark and snowy forest, was shot on a set.

Initially, a location shoot was considered. Such a choice worked wonders for the forest sequence in House of Flying Daggers (2004) , certainly. Yet, due to the fact that the nighttime setting would severely restrict the schedule, the production design team led by Rick Carter and Darren Gilford began workshopping a solution [More...]

So, much like Brigadoon (1954) many years before, The Force Awakens features a lushly decorated sound stage. And, as was also the case in Vincente Minnelli’s technicolor musical extravaganza, there are some truly impressive matte paintings.

Of course, their impact is different. The prettier-than-reality backdrops of Brigadoon are gorgeous exaggerations of the Scottish Highlands, colorful and fantastical just like the mysterious town at the center of the story. The painted trees of The Force Awakens are imperceptible, expertly contributing to the unlikely realism of the long, long ago and far away.

Yet while its falseness isn’t self-evident in the background, this set still has an essentially theatrical quality. In this respect it has a lot in common with the snowbound second part of Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964), despite its lack of menacing painted eyeballs. The forest, while seemingly naturalistic at first, is also suspiciously perfect for the cinematic task at hand.

The tall, thin trees lend a simple geometry to the scene. Everything is narrow. There is no sense of any sort of roof or canopy. It is as if they shoot up forever. Their long, slender shadows intersect and blend as the blue, disorienting light of the false moon shines through them.

But there is no uniformity of placement. Sometimes they are thick, forbidding obstacles that surround and trap the characters. In other moments there are sudden clearings, opening up the battlefield and allowing the camera to confrontionally frame the duellists.

Finally, there’s an obvious point about the battle itself. Kylo Ren and Rey fight with lightsabers. Lightsabers are blades of light, simple geometric forms flying across the frame like abstract characters in a Norman McLaren cartoon. The trees are the perfect linear field to make them really pop.

This inspired design choice is never so powerful as in the following shot, the most striking in the entire sequence. Rey is on the edge of victory, cleverly driving Kylo Ren’s bright red lightsaber into the snow. Sparks fly as it is gradually extinguished, while the triumphant blue light of Luke Skywalker’s blade points upward. This bisected diagonal line, shining across the forest’s passive sentinels, is as clear a visual metaphor for the overwhelming good-versus-evil theme of the entire series as you might find.


Previously on "The Furniture":
How the West Was Won (1962), The Exorcist (1973), Batman (1989), and Carol and Brooklyn (2015)

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Reader Comments (9)

That's quite cool. It was so nice watching this movie and seeing people moving around real sets. And not just the immediate foreground, either.

April 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

I love the stage-iness of the scene. I wonder how they filmed it with the planet breaking up?

April 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

I had no idea the forest was a matte painting. I had assumed that- like most backgrounds in modern fantasy, sci-fi, or period films- it was all CGI.

April 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAustin

One of those scenes in TFA that does feel instantly classic. Even if it did borrow a bit from the O-Ren and The Bride fight in the snow in Kill Bill, which itself is inspired by other movies but whatever. Pretty much loved anything having to do with the new characters in this.

But yeah, one of the things that works the most in this movie is how most of everything felt real, even the crashed Imperial Star Destroyers in Jakku felt practical.

April 11, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterpaco.

I am in awe of reading about Star Wars through the prism of Brigadoon. love.

April 11, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

This series keeps getting better and better, Daniel!

April 11, 2016 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

This is awesome.

April 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie

I never would have guessed that it was shot on a set, they fooled me completely. Great production work - and another great installment.

April 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Note to any Hollywood types who may be reading this: This article single-handedly convinced me to go out and buy the Blu-Ray of The Force Awakens - not only did it make me want to see the film again, but it confirmed that the special features were worth the money.

Thanks, Daniel for another great installment of this killer series!

April 12, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

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