ART OF THE SHOT: Colin Anderson, SOC on his career and shooting Star Wars

Part 2

Gary Hymns (Key Grip/Dolly Grip–front right), Colin Anderson, SOC (Camera Operator/Steadicam Operator, A-Cam–middle), Graham Hall (Camera Operator, B-Cam–back) on The Rise of Skywalker. Photo: Dan Mindel, ASC

Editor’s Note: Mr. Anderson just received his Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Camera Operators at an awards ceremony in Hollywood on Saturday, January 18th.

This is a continuation of a conversation with camera operator Colin Anderson, SOC. Click for Part 1 of the interview. And later this week, look out for the premier episode of the Art of the Shot podcast to hear the full interview before Part 3 of the article goes live next week.

Derek Stettler: And on the very heavy visual effects kinds of shots, where there isn’t so much of a set that he can walk through and figure out where things are and how to move through it–how are the shots determined then?

Colin Anderson: Those types of shots are fairly rare for J.J. because he likes to work on real sets. It’s very, very seldom we’ll just be in a total blue screen or green screen environment with nothing. He will always ensure that there’s a set and so it’s very seldom that we don’t have anything to work with. Once he’s blocked out a scene in his head and we start flying the camera around and showing him the shot, it often changes. J.J. is a director that wants to see what he’s getting. Some directors can visualize everything in their minds and know exactly what they’re going to get, but J.J. wants to see it. So we’ll often change shots completely. We’ll start in one direction with the camera moving, for argument’s sake, left to right, and I’m climbing in height and by the time we land with the final shot, it’ll be the exact opposite of that. So it’s very fluid. And what’s wonderful about that, is that you see how things develop. And J.J.’s personality is such that he doesn’t get frustrated. He will allow things to develop. If we’re struggling with something, invariably he’ll apologize for making it so hard. But we come up with something worth being on the screen.

Stettler: Well, that is certainly a testament to his talent, not necessarily the process. And I would think that process, in the hands of a lesser director, would make the shooting schedule longer than it needs to be, maybe make it so they’re not making their days. He’s obviously working at the top of the craft and able to deliver on time and on budget. So what’s your experience of what he’s doing where he’s able to not take a long time and delay the process of shooting as he’s trying to figure things out?

Anderson: One thing I’ve seen with J.J. that I don’t see that often with other directors is that J.J. loves shots to develop. It’s very seldom we’ll just do a standard wide shot and then just go in for coverage. He will allow one thing to take the camera into something else and then once you get there, an actor or an action will allow the camera to go somewhere else. So it’s a moving master. If you’re doing, for example, a one-page or two-page scene, traditionally you’d shoot a wide shot of that, maybe from a couple of angles, and then go in for your coverage, for over-the-shoulders and close-ups, stuff like that. J.J. will very often do that all in one, with minimal coverage. And anyone who sees any of his films will see that.

The Rise of Skywalker has some good examples of that. On the Star Destroyers, guys are running around the corridors and often one shot will be on the Steadicam or on a crane, where it just goes from one bit of action to another, to another, and another. So it’ll take a long time to set that up and a long time to rehearse it and to get it perfect. But once you’ve got that, you’ve knocked off one and a half pages. So you’re still making your page count. But you’re doing it in a way where you’re getting it almost in one shot.

Stettler: And he’s confident enough in his craft to know that single method of shooting the scene doesn’t also need to have the backup of the traditional way of shooting. For safety, for example.

Anderson: Exactly. And I think it’s so true what you just said. A lot of times directors will shoot stuff for safety. J.J. is such a brave filmmaker, and he’s got the courage of his convictions. And they’re always dynamic, exciting moving shots. It’s hard to go wrong if you’ve got a good cast, they’re nailing their lines, and the camera is in the right place at the right time.

Stettler: Yeah, and it translates to the screen very well in terms of the way emotions are translated to the audience. The camera moves actually reinforce what the characters are feeling, or what the audience should be feeling about what’s happening.

Anderson: Yes, it almost feels like you’re along for the ride. Where you’re not just an observer.

Colin Anderson, SOC (Camera Operator/Steadicam Operator, A-Cam–left), Serge Nafa (1st AC, A-Cam–right) on The Rise of Skywalker. Photo: Dan Mindel, ASC

Stettler: I really experienced that, for the first time in a narrative film, when I saw “The Rise of Skywalker”. There was a camera move, and I felt like I was almost in a ride in an amusement park. Like one of those rides where you’re on a motion control seat and you’re looking at a screen and they’re trying to make you feel like you’re moving through an environment. It felt like I was actually moving through the scene in this film. And I’ve never experienced that before. And I wasn’t viewing it in any kind of IMAX presentation or a 3D or 4D theater, where it was a result of anything other than the camera movement.

Anderson: Right. And it’s a very interesting comparison, because there’s another director that has had an enormous influence on my career, which is Paul Thomas Anderson. And he is the polar opposite to J.J. And I think they’re both phenomenal filmmakers in their own right, both of them at the top of their game, and yet they couldn’t be more different. Paul won’t move the camera, Paul will let a three-page dialogue scene play out in a wide shot.

Stettler: Which is interesting because in that sense, what you were just describing, they both do. They don’t shoot traditional coverage. They feel they know how to approach a scene where they can let it all play out in one shot or just a few.

Anderson: Exactly. And I mentioned before that J.J. is so brave with the way he shoots and commits to one shot that just develops and develops and develops, but Paul is also incredibly brave. Because he’s not doing anything, he’ll let the camera just sit there. How many directors out there would say, “Oh, no, I need a close-up. I need an over-the-shoulder.” Where Paul is like, “No”. And it’s also a testament to his actors. And the script, how it’s been delivered.

Stettler: His movies also lend themselves a bit better to being shot that way.

Anderson: Absolutely. Where you just sit there and you watch and listen. And I find it so compelling.

Stettler: Well, that style is a little more what someone might call ‘classical’ filmmaking. The way the camera moves very slowly, very precisely, and somewhat seldomly. And if you look back at the original “Star Wars” films, they were shot very classically. They were not pioneering any sort of camera movement, except, of course in the space battles. But what J.J. has done with his films is a totally different approach to the camera movement. And yet he’s spoken about how he wanted to capture the feeling of those original films, and he’s doing it not through the camera movement. So were there any discussions back on “The Force Awakens” and on this film about moving the camera in any specific way because it’s a “Star Wars” film? Or–?

Anderson: No, no, definitely not. I did two Star Trek movies with him and it was the same thing. So I don’t think it had anything to do with Star Wars and any style that he was particularly looking for. I think it’s just J.J.’s style. Mission Impossible III, the two Star Treks, Star Wars–the camera doesn’t stop. As I said earlier, he’s so challenging to work for as an operator. You have to use every ounce of your skill just trying to stay up with him. He’s done stuff with me where he loves shaking the camera, where he’s got this high-frequency shake that he does with his hands on the film magazine. And I think the first time he did it to me was on the first Star Trek. On Steadicam, I might add, and that’s sacrilege, by the way, touching the Steadicam is a total no, no. I’d be doing shots and J.J. would be standing next to me with his hand on the magazine shaking it like crazy and I was using every ounce of my strength just to keep the actors in the box. But that’s just J.J.

Stettler: And the effect makes it feel like you’re in a very dangerous situation where you are fighting forces of nature that are trying to shake the camera because that’s what’s happening in the environment. So the effect ends up working.

Anderson: Yeah. He’s old school in so many ways, he loves to do things in-camera as much as possible. It sounds silly to say that, because some of his movies are so visual effects-heavy. But there’s so many things that we do that are in-camera. For example, and we still do it to this day, the Millennium Falcon or the Enterprise or whatever spaceship we happen to be on, when they do a hard bank to the left, we will Dutch the camera to the right. 90% of these things are not on gimbals, it’s all poor man’s process. And that’s all got to be coordinated with the cast. So if everyone’s in the cockpit of the Falcon and you’re doing a hard turn, it’s: 3… 2… 1… Turn! And the actors all lean one way and the camera Dutch’s the other way, and it looks like you’re in a massive turn.

Stettler: Wow. So the spaceships themselves are not a set built on a gimbal? Interesting, because that’s how they tend to do these things on big-budget films. Is there a reason that isn’t done on these films?

Anderson: Number one, J.J. loves to do that kind of stuff, and he does it so well. I defy anyone to look at any of his films and say, “Oh, that set’s not on a gimbal!” I think he gets a kick out of it. And it’s obviously a huge cost-saving way of doing things, when you’ve just got a set planted on the ground. It’s so exciting to be around someone like that, he’s always like five steps ahead of everyone else. He comes up with these things and it just works so well, these little tricks that he has.

Stettler: And part of what makes those things actually work, what sells them, is the camera movement. Because otherwise, not doing it on a gimble just looks fake.

Anderson: Yes, it has to be coordinated and the camera has got to be in sync with the actors. But when you get it, it’s just wonderful and you feel like you’re there.

Stettler: So do you recall how the shooting schedule progressed on this film? How many shoot days did it take to film everything?

Anderson: It had to be close to 100 days. I don’t think we went over, though we did do a little bit of additional photography in the middle of 2019 back in London, just pickups and additional scenes. It was about two weeks of that. And then a little bit of reshooting here in L.A.

Stettler: So that brings up a question of secrecy, especially with this being the final film in the franchise and the massive secrecy that goes along with that. How much of the film did you know about? Did you ever see the script? And can you talk about any particularly interesting security measures that were taken?

Anderson: Yes, the security was enormous. As you can imagine. I did get to read the script. Some people weren’t allowed to read the script, but being the camera operator, I was lucky enough to read it. We were sequestered in a room and it was all on a tablet, we had to hand in our cell phone and even if you had to leave the room to go to the bathroom, you’d have to check in your tablet again, and then re-sign it out again. Everything was in code. Actors’ names were in code, sets were in code, locations were in code. And it got pretty difficult at times to work out what you’re doing, all the names were changed. Having seen the film now, there’s some stuff that I see now and I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s what that was, that’s what we did that day!’ Because often you’re shooting a shot and you don’t quite know how it’s going to fit into the big picture. There was a special department for sides, which was actually run by Dan Mindel’s daughter and another lady–probably one of the most stressful jobs on the entire film–you know, if anything got out it would be a disaster. So they were signed out in the morning, and then you had to sign them back in in the evening. They were all watermarked with our names on them and printed on red paper so they couldn’t be photocopied. There was a whole security department monitoring all the social media sites as well, making sure no one was taking a picture and posting anything.

Stettler: As far as I know, nothing got out.

Anderson: No, I don’t think so. We were shooting some big scenes at Pinewood like the giant lightsaber battle on the Death Star in the waves–

Stettler: Was that shot with a wave tank?

Anderson: Yes, it was in a tank. Obviously, the ocean is CG, but we had about 14 giant water cannons that were firing thousands of gallons of water at a time over the actors. But we had giant blue screens up for two reasons. One of the reasons was that we were going to put in all the waves afterwards, but also for privacy, so no one could see in.

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) duel in a wave tank set on The Rise of Skywalker.

Stettler: And when you went on location in Jordan for the desert sequences, what was done in those situations for security?

Anderson: Some of the sensitive sets were covered with barriers around them to try and keep them secret. But we were so remote–there were only a couple of roads in and out–so we had security. Anyone coming in or out had to wear badges the whole time.

Stettler: On the topic of locations, were there any particular locations that were very special to you or really cool to travel to?

Anderson: Well, we didn’t have that many locations, but it looks like a lot, doesn’t it? I’d have to say that it was phenomenal going to Jordan. I’ve never been there. To go to Wadi Rum and to be there in the desert where these other epic films had been shot was pretty fantastic.

Stettler: So at the end of the film, when Rey went back to Tatooine, did you physically go to the original “Star Wars” set in Tunisia?

Anderson: Sadly, not. That was in Jordan and they went to enormous trouble to try and recreate it exactly.

Stettler: Why not just go to where the sets actually are and already probably have sand covering them and everything?

Anderson: It was such a giant crew. I think I heard that we had over 1,000 hotel rooms booked in Aqaba. We had a small city of tents and generators built out in Wadi Rum to house the base camp and all the infrastructure. And the Jordanian army was very influential in the building. So I think the production committed to Jordan, and it was cheaper to build Tatooine in Jordan than to fly the whole company to Tunisia.

Stettler: Interesting. I would think they could do maybe like a small splinter unit just to capture a few shots out there.

Anderson: On Star Wars, nothing is small.

Stettler: And what about the shots back on Skellig Island in Scotland? Did you travel there?

Anderson: We did not. So that was all recreated as a set.

Stettler: Interesting, but it makes sense considering the shots. Speaking of the sets, I noticed a few with absolutely amazing set design. Can you talk about the set that most impressed you?

Anderson: There’s so many of them. One particular set, probably the biggest set I’ve ever seen, was the Star Destroyer for the climax where the horses are galloping.

BB-8, Finn (John Boyega) and Jannah (Naomi Ackie) in The Rise of Skywalker.

Stettler: Oh, I wanted to ask about that one!

Anderson: So that was shot about two hours north of London at a place called Cardington, and it was a set built in these two incredible hangers there that were built for Zeppelins or airships in the Second World War. Absolutely giant, giant hangers, I cannot describe how many football fields you could fit into one of these hangers. Freezing cold. I think when we got there, it was 32 degrees outside and 27 degrees inside. We were ants in this place, it was so huge. Anyway, the set itself, the Star Destroyer, was probably 400 or 500 feet long, just absolutely massive. And they built a sort of rubberized track along the side of it for the horses to gallop. So you’ve got horses galloping on the inside, and then on the outside of that we had various tracking vehicles. We used a Grip Trix with a small arm built on it with a Libra head, and then another Libra hard mounted on the Grip Trix. We used the Grip Trix because it’s an electric vehicle and the acceleration is instantaneous. So for horses, you need that to start and stop with them.

Stettler: So that’s part of how you got the scale of the camera movement that really looks like it’s almost a fighter moving through space with a camera mounted on it?!

Anderson: Yeah, and a lot of that was cable cam as well. We did a lot of shots with that, swooping down close to the surface, in between the Stormtroopers and the Resistance fighters.

Stettler: And when the ship is crashing, and they’re sliding down the ship, if it wasn’t built on a gimbal, how was the effect created without gravity?

Anderson: Dutching the camera and pulling them on cables.

Stettler: That makes sense. Old school techniques. But they work and they’re cheaper.

Anderson: You wouldn’t have known that was a non-gimbal set.

Stettler: Yeah, because everything else is moving, it looks like it’s tilting.

Anderson: Point proven. [Laughs]

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Derek Stettler is a filmmaker and writer. During the summer after graduating high school, Derek discovered filmmaking as his life's passion, having since developed his sensibilities making his own short films, music videos, and commercials;…