This is a continuation of a conversation with camera operator Colin Anderson, SOC. Click for Part 1 or Part 2 of the interview. And look for episode 1 of the Art of the Shot podcast to hear the full conversation. Available now on your favorite podcast platform.
Derek Stettler: So were there any other camera technologies or any unique applications of new technologies that were utilized on this film to captures things?
Colin Anderson: Absolutely not. Earlier you asked if we went into the film looking at particular styles, and I will say one of the things we did do is we tried to keep it as old school as possible. Obviously, we use Technocranes, and Steadicam, and cable cams, but apart from that and dollies and handheld, no special camera technology. Though we did do some drone work in Jordan. We shot in Jordan for about four or five weeks.
Stettler: Were those drones holding film cameras?
Anderson: Yes. Everything was shot on film. There was some helicopter work for some of the aerial plates. But drones don’t really feel like particularly high tech equipment anymore, do they? They’re pretty ubiquitous in the business.
Stettler: Yeah. In fact, I would argue that the helicopter shots feel more high tech because of the way helicopters move over landscapes. It has a different scale to it. It feels more expensive, honestly.
Anderson: Yes. And I do have to say, before anyone calls me out on this, when I say J.J. doesn’t really use gimbals, the desert speeder sequence in The Rise of Skywalker were on motion rigs. We needed them to be able to turn and bank. We’d still do the banking in camera, but they also had a certain amount of bankability, if that’s a word. So the speeders did have the ability to swing left and right and to spin around. So we did all of that work off of dollies and Technocrane. So while the Technocrane was flying around the speeders in one direction, the speeders might be turning in the other direction. Because there was a Libra head on the Technocrane, we did have Dutching ability. J.J. loves to do that. So while I’m doing pan and tilt, J.J. will be standing next to me on the third axis, and he’ll be rolling the camera.
Stettler: So he literally co-operates with you.
Anderson: Exactly. So he’ll be standing right next to me, he’ll be on the third axis.
Stettler: And he does it, not even the cinematographer or another operator?
Anderson: Yeah, that’s always J.J. He always does the third axis. And it’s wonderful to be right next to him, because he’s sometimes giving a little running commentary on what’s going to happen, and as the operator panning and tilting, it’s awesome to be able to be right next to him, having him narrate in your ear. Anyway, I think it was quite an exciting sequence in the film, and when you consider that those were hard mounted on motion rigs spinning around–
Stettler: Yeah, I was going ask, were those indoors? Because I could imagine another way they would do it, to put a gimbal rig like that with the set on some sort of vehicle and then drive it through the desert.
Anderson: Yes, they could move up and down rails, but we’d only do that just to reposition them for various reasons for sun or shade, but we shot that all outdoors in the desert in Jordan. And the reason for shooting outdoors was that we wanted the natural light to be on them instead of shooting inside.
Stettler: It certainly looks real, but they weren’t actually physically moving through space?
Anderson: No, they were pretty much planted. I think they were on a piece of track about 30 feet long, but to get the impression that they were flying past the camera, the actual camera on the Technocrane would do those moves, where the camera would swing fast towards them and then spin around them and do a 180.
Stettler: And then the rest is also visual effects making the background look like it’s moving.
Stettler: Make sense, and then way safer for the actors not to be moving, suddenly accelerating and decelerating.
Anderson: Yes, way safer. And even though they weren’t traveling at high speed, the actors were anchored in, because these speeders did have the ability to tilt and roll.
Stettler: I recall on the third film shot, “Return of the Jedi”, they did an interesting technique with the Steadicam moving through the forest, shooting at a slow shutter speed and low frame rate, and then playing it back at 24 fps to make it look like they’re racing through the forest with motion blur and everything, while still doing it very safely. Were any kind of interesting techniques like that utilized on this film? Star Wars has always been in some way pioneering something, even with the prequels, they premiered shooting digitally.
Anderson: No, I can’t think of anything we did that was new or groundbreaking or anything like that.
Stettler: Okay. So now I want to pull up an article you wrote about “The Force Awakens” shortly after the film came out. You had written this in Camera Operator magazine. And you opened by saying: “Star Wars has created a dilemma for me, I have a sinking feeling that it will never get any better than what I experienced on this amazing production. Where to from here?” So how did the experience on this film compare to the experience on The Force Awakens? Because that was something people didn’t think would ever happen again, going back to the Star Wars universe, and you were there from the very beginning. And then now you’re there at the very end.
Anderson: Full disclosure, I was not a huge Star Wars superfan, but from the moment I got to England, you could almost touch it and taste it, the excitement was palpable. It was unbelievable. Everyone was just so incredibly amped up about reinventing the franchise. And it comes from the top, from J.J. and the producers and everyone. Everyone was so excited and happy to be there, and we all felt that we were doing something pretty significant. The atmosphere on set was just electric. Every day there was cheering and clapping and as I said in that article, it’s hard to replicate that. For The Rise of Skywalker, because there’s been so much Star Wars content after that first film, some of the gloss had sort of worn off a little bit, but there was still a wonderful atmosphere. It’s still incredible and it comes from the top, it comes from J.J. Just the kind of person he is and the kind of energy he brings to the set, his humility and humor and just his positive energy. It trickles down to everyone. So, even though there wasn’t that enormous sense of excitement, there was still a portion of that, which felt wonderful. I still think it would be hard for me to replicate anything like The Force Awakens in terms of the atmosphere.
Stettler: I’d imagine. It seems like, not even once in a lifetime, but in the history of cinema, so far it’s a unique situation.
Anderson: Yes. And I’ve done other films, which I’ve found extraordinary for various reasons. Whether it’s for the directors that you’re working with, or the actors, or cinematographers. I’ve worked with Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Bob Richardson, Martin Scorsese, Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki]. These are just extraordinary people. You just think to yourself, ‘How lucky am I to actually be on the same set as these people?!’ So even though that’s an enormous privilege, it would be hard to replicate what The Force Awakens was.
Stettler: It makes total sense. I can imagine this film would maybe come close, as this is, as far as we know, the final film in the official Star Wars saga. So what was it like on the last day of shooting?
Anderson: Poignant, sad. Just a feeling that something has passed. I think it’s always hard to say never, because ultimately these things are controlled by giant corporations and the bottom line is often the deciding factor, but as a technician, you just think to yourself, ‘What a privilege it’s been, to have been a part of that.’ This is something that’s going to live in perpetuity. To go back to my dolly grip, Gary Hymns, we’ve done so much together that we couldn’t even say goodbye to each other. We both looked at each other as they said “wrap”, and we were going to start saying. “Thank you so much, it’s been wonderful!” But we looked at each other and we both welled up and we couldn’t speak to each other. It was just like, wow, this is a passing, a chapter closing. And we’re both close to ending or coming into the twilight of our careers now. So it was a poignant moment.
Stettler: Well, it’s interesting you say that, because you see some top directors working in their late 80s. So what does a camera operator’s career longevity look like?
Anderson: [Laughs] I think you fade away into obscurity. For Steadicam, I’ve probably got about two years left in me. It is an extremely physical job. If I can do another two years, that’d be fantastic. And then maybe another three or four years of regular camera operating after that. But you never know when your career ends. It’s probably when the phone stops ringing, and that’s when you know. I look back, and I’m fortunate enough to have this Lifetime Achievement Award, and there’s nothing I would change. It’s just been absolutely extraordinary. Coming from a young South African boy, moving to Hollywood and into the major leagues, having the chance to work with the most enormously talented people across the board. No matter who you work with, there’s just some unbelievable people that you meet and to be able to be part of that and to have some small input is just fantastic.
Stettler: Yeah, I imagine it must be. I’ve heard multiple cinematographers and directors, including even Steven Spielberg, talk about how they personally believe that the job of the camera operator is the best job on set. And that’s not even their job! So as a camera operator, what is it that you personally find most meaningful and fun about the job?
Anderson: I’ve said this many times, and I think there’s nothing truer that can be said: camera operating is hands down the best job on set. You’re intimately involved with every aspect of making the film, you’re dealing with the director, you’re dealing with the actors, with the cinematographer, you’re front and center, creatively involved. It’s your choices that are being seen by everyone, it’s your creative choices and your artistic input. And there cannot be anything more rewarding than that. You’ve got so many moving parts in a movie, and so many people are doing so many things towards one central element, and that is the frame. And everyone’s attention is focused on what’s in the frame, and you’re controlling that. It’s such a responsibility. It’s such a privilege to be able to be the one who’s pointing the camera and making choices. The camera can be emotional at times, it can be so many things, and you’re the one that’s doing it, and what you do is going to live forever, and millions of people will be seeing your work and your choices. What can be more satisfying than that?
Stettler: Certainly. And how about working with actors? Because with the role of camera operator, you really are right there next to them when they’re doing world-class performances. So what is it like to be in the presence of them in a way that even the director isn’t privy to?
Anderson: I think there is always a relationship between the camera operator and the actors, because, as you said, you’re sitting right there with them. You’re witnessing them baring their souls. And I think they can feel that. I think we’re often their sounding boards. Often an actor will look at you and you give them a thumbs up, or a smile of encouragement or something like that. And I think they appreciate that. It’s important to be extremely respectful of them. Acting is so hard. It’s important to give them their space. You don’t want to just go chatting with them, unless they invite it. They’re often preparing or in some place in their heads for their parts. You don’t want to go talking to them about last night’s basketball game or something like that, unless it’s invited. So I think it’s important to have that respect for them, but it is an intimate relationship. And I’ve been privy to some of the most extraordinary performances ever. To watch Daniel Day-Lewis do “I drink your milkshake” or, “I’ve abandoned my child” or to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in the processing scene in The Master… the camera wasn’t moving, I was just an observer. It’s some of the most compelling stuff you can imagine, and what a privilege to sit there and have a front-row seat and be the first to see it. You can’t buy that.
Stettler: Yeah. Cinema in real life. And it doesn’t ruin your experience of watching a movie when you’ve seen it so close and personal? Are you ever jaded about what you see or not quite affected by movies the way audiences should be?
Anderson: No, not at all. I still cry in movies. I cry more than I should, I never understand why I do, but I still get caught up in them. I can never watch a movie that I’ve done the first time and enjoy it. There’s too many things going on in my head. There’s too many emotions, thinking about what we did on that day, how I messed up, you know, how I wish I’d done something differently. How cold I was, how hot I was, there’s just too much stimuli coming back at you. But then when I see the film again, the second time and the third time, I can get caught up in it and I can actually sit back and enjoy the film.
Stettler: Yeah, you have to be able to separate yourself from all your memories of the work. Otherwise you’re not able to have a clean slate to experience the film.
Anderson: Exactly. For instance, I have seen The Rise of Skywalker twice now. The first time, I came out of it and I didn’t even know what to think. I had no idea. It was impossible to almost talk about it. And then when I saw it again, I loved it. And I saw so much more of it, and I understood so much more of it just because I could watch it and absorb it.
Stettler: Did the same experience happen to you on “The Force Awakens”?
Anderson: Yes. On every film I work on.
Stettler: Okay, so it wasn’t specific to this film because of all the other meaning about it being the final film and everything else?
Anderson: No. In fact, every time I see one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, a second, third, fourth, fifth time, they get better and better for me. Because you just notice so many more things and there’s just so many nuances and subtle things that you didn’t see in the first or second viewing that you start seeing. And I think that attests to his brilliance and to his actors.
Stettler: On the topic of actors, I want to talk about Carrie Fisher. She passed away before she could complete her work for “The Last Jedi”. But in this film, she was in a lot of scenes. It was clear to me they didn’t just recycle a little bit of footage, and then find a way to have her die early on in the film because she wasn’t available to shoot anything. So how were the scenes with Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia shot?
Anderson: Well, it was all the existing footage that we shot on The Force Awakens. We had shot a ton of stuff with her on Episode VII that never made the film, but it was there. And J.J. came up with the idea of not just wasting that footage. He reworked the scenes in Episode IX, reworked dialogue scenes, reworked action scenes, to incorporate The Force Awakens footage into The Rise of Skywalker.
Stettler: Interesting, because none of it looked fake.
Anderson: Yeah, we used motion control as well, so ILM actually rotoscoped her body depending on the size of the shot that we had from The Force Awakens, and then that became a motion control shot where the camera replicated what we had originally done on set. And then we did that in the new set, and they rotoscoped her into the new shot.
Stettler: Okay, I see, so with the actors, like Daisy, just talking to a double?
Anderson: Yeah, we had a lady that was dressed up like Carrie. And sometimes we’d shoot an over-the-shoulder, where it was just the back of a body double.
Stettler: That makes sense. I’d imagine a fairly straightforward thing to do. Not very complicated.
Anderson: Very simple. Yeah.
Stettler: Very cool, and it makes sense, because none of it looked fake and it worked with the story. As a final question, I’d like to ask: how should someone who is young and wants to become a camera operator start? What would you do, in today’s landscape, if you were in that same position?
Anderson: I think it’s important to come up through the ranks. This is the route I took. To see, even though every other position in the camera department doesn’t really help you become a great operator, it’s important to come up through the ranks and, to see how other operators work and to be around them. If you’re a 1st AC, you’re right next to the operator, you’re helping set the camera up, you’re setting the head for them, and maybe rehearsing a shot while the camera operator is off doing something else. So I think you start absorbing tips and experience just by being around the camera and observing camera operators work. If you had to go straight from 2nd AC’ing to operating–and it has been done and a couple of guys that have done it have become great operators, so there’s always the exception to the rule–that’s not something I would have done. I think it’s important to go through all the steps to learn as much as you can by osmosis. Camera operating is, I feel, extremely instinctual. I can’t tell you what a good frame is or what a bad frame is.
Stettler: And yet you make them all the time!
Anderson: Well, there’s classic framing, but the way I would frame a wide shot or a close-up is not necessarily the correct way to do it. Your choice would be no better or no worse than mine. It’s just your choice. I think it’s important to look at other films and to see how they were framed, but rules are there to be broken, and there’s no such thing as absolutely right or absolutely wrong. Unless you’re cutting the heads off or messing up the eyelines. Though we often do that on purpose.
So there are rules, like, if you’re doing a close-up, where to put the eyes. But those are almost self explanatory. There’s a trillion things that you’re looking at as a camera operator. You’re looking at all the technical things, you’re looking at focus, if there’s reflections or shadows, or booms, or flags, or cables… the list is endless.
Stettler: You have to be very mindful, always.
Anderson: Extremely mindful. And then on top of that, you’ll often be asked if the shot worked. And along with a myriad of technical things that you’re looking at, you also have to make an artistic judgment on whether a shot worked or not. There’s a lot to look at. A lot of that comes with experience, and hopefully you’re working with a great 1st AC so you don’t have to worry too much about focus. These days in the digital world, you have a lot of people that can see focus, so it’s not just the camera operator, but certainly on film cameras, you have to look at focus.
Stettler: And you mentioned earlier about Dan Mindel, who you say is the dream cinematographer for a camera operator to work with. What can other cinematographers learn either from him or from you, about how to be a better collaborator for a camera operator and create the best outcome?
Anderson: I think you’ve already said the word, which I think is so important: collaborator. It’s an overused word in the business and it can sound a bit cliché at times, but there is no better word to use. It’s such a collaborative business. And Dan is the ultimate collaborator. No one can do this alone, there’s just too much going on. And there’s so many talented people on sets, for you not to be able to use them to their full extent is, I think, a massive mistake. Dan has a very close relationship with standby painters. More than any other DP that I’ve seen. He’s always getting them to take down surfaces, paint things, shine things up, wet things down, just to add texture to the frame. Dan is wonderful at that, and wonderful at giving people breaks. He’s wonderful at trusting other people. He’s so talented as a lighting cameraman, but he’s also willing to give people a chance to express themselves, which I think is so important. There’s no pressure around Dan, there’s no pressure in thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t do that because I might get into trouble.’ There’s no such thing as that with him, so you have the freedom and the peace of mind knowing that if you try something, there’s not going to be a repercussion.
Stettler: The only outcome is if it works, then it leads to a better result.
Anderson: Exactly. And if it doesn’t work, you go back to what you were doing, or you change it.
Stettler: What a great way of working!
Anderson: Couldn’t be better.