Scene Breakdown: Empire Strikes Back part 1
This breakdown is dedicated to Irvin Kershner, who passed away on November 27th. I can’t say I am well versed at all in his work, other than RoboCop 2, which rocked my childhood socks; but he holds the distinction of directing probably my all time favorite film, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. I had not planned to touch this flick for quite a while, due to how much it intimidates me as a fan, but Kershner’s unfortunate passing necessitated it. There has been a disturbance in the Force and he will be missed.
This movie consumed my young mind. At the time I had no real knowledge of filmmaking or film editing; I was going to be a fighter pilot. The first thing that enthralled me about the Star Wars trilogy were the awesome dog fighting sequences in each of the movies, with lightsaber duels and Princess Leia following close behind.
I am doing things a little different this time around. Rather than look at just one scene, I will be looking at the editing of a larger event; that being the Hoth Battle in the first third of the film. As a kid, it was my favorite part of Empire Strikes Back and of the three films; and even today the thing I would most like to do is battle AT-ATs from a snowspeeder. This type of analysis also gives me the chance to look at a bigger picture than the past breakdowns. Rather than going from shot to shot, I can look at how the many scenes that make up this event are handled. With so many characters in different places and so much action taking place on all fronts, I really wanted to see how the editor juggled the parallel storylines. Most of my analysis is from a film editorial perspective but there will certainly be comments that deal more with directing and the other disciplines. First, I have to give credit where credit is due.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was released theatrically on May 21, 1980. The director was the late Irvin Kershner, the Film Editor was Paul Hirsch, and the Cinematographer was Peter Suschitzky. I begin the breakdown as the Imperial forces are about to attack the Rebel Base. The battle starts at the 24-minute mark and is just over 12 minutes long.
01) We start in the rebel base hangar, where Princess Leia is prepping a group of pilots. This scene is an exposition on what is about to happen with the fleeing Rebel transport ships. The scene ends on an upbeat note as the brave pilots disperse. The encouraging music changes to that of tension on the cut.
02) Now outside the base, we see 15 seconds of Rebel ground troops preparing for an invasion. As the soldiers set up their defenses, the commander scans the horizon multiple times but never picks up anything. The ominous yet quiet music compliments the nervous feeling of the rebels awaiting the attack. The last shot of the scene is of another soldier looking through binoculars and behind him is the open base hangar. It is a subtle detail but the background softens the transition to the following scene, which is inside the base. Throughout this battle there are shot decisions like this that lead us in and out of scene transitions.
03) Inside the Rebel command room, the General says, “prepare to open shields”. With a quick sound effect we cut away.
04) From above the base we see the first group of Rebel ships race towards camera. As soon as the last ship passes us and leaves frame we cut to outer space.
05) We see the Imperial Star Destroyer orbiting the planet, waiting outside the shield for fleeing Rebels. As soon as we cut to this shot, the menacing music of the Imperial March comes up. This is a quick establishing shot for the following shot inside the enemy ship.
06) On deck in the Star Destroyer, the admiral is informed of the incoming Rebel ships. If we backtrack we can see how we were led to this new perspective on the battle. We started in the rebel base and by a line of dialogue were led outside the base, where the rebel ships led us into space to see the Star Destroyer, which we went inside of. Not all the character perspective shifts during this battle have this type of development, but they happen quite a bit.
07) We cut back to the Rebel command room, where they order the Ion cannon to be fired.
08) Outside the Rebel base we see the cannon fire and the blast lead us through the next couple shots. As soon as the second beam leaves frame we cut to the shot of the Rebel ships flying towards camera. We see the beams pass the ships and as they leave frame we cut again.
09) In a new 3/4 view, the Rebel ship are now flying away from camera and the laser beams pass the ships and hit the Star Destroyer blocking their path. The next couple shots show the Rebel ships escape past the incapacitated Star Destroyer. Except for going into the Star Destroyer, this shot progression was just like the last where we follow the laser beam from ground to space.
10) We cut to the hangar in the Rebel base where pilots and ground support troops are running around. We hear an off screen intercom announce, “The first transport is away”. There is a great cheer from the rebels for their first victory. In the bustling crowd we make out one of our main characters, Luke Skywalker, who is running towards his ship. The camera follows him as he climbs up and gets into the cockpit. After a quick exchange with his gunner, they begin takeoff and lead us to another outside scene.
11) Returning to the horizon shot of the icy battlefield, we see dark specks off in the distance. The Rebel infantry gets into their trenches and we cut to a POV of the officer’s binoculars. In it we see a group of large Imperial AT-AT armored vehicles. Over the loud rumble of their movement the officer starts to relay the news to the base. His message is the transition that leads us inside the base.
12) Now inside we hear the rest of the message over the intercom, “we have spotted Imperial Walkers on the first ridge”. In this new shot we see another character, the droid R2-D2, with snow falling down on him from the vibrations of the Walkers. This little shot gives us a bridge from the outside to the following montage of pilots leaving the hangar in their snowspeeders. The audio leads us from the events taking place outside and initiates the action inside while we catch up with one of the main characters passing through. In a hectic action scene such as this, these little bridges help in keeping track of where the characters are while propelling the plot.
13) We cut back outside to the first real shot of the incoming Walkers. They begin to fire on the base and as the first laser beam leaves left of frame we cut to the rebel troops taking damage. If you notice throughout this battle both on Hoth and in space, the Rebels are always attacking from the left and the Imperials are always attacking from the right.
14) As the ground troops are being ravaged, we move to the air, inside Luke’s Snowspeeder and he relays that air support is on its way. We see the Snowspeeders for the first time from the outside as they fly over the ground forces and approach the Walkers. We spend 35-seconds in aerial combat. The camera is always focused on a snowspeeder or inside the cockpit looking out.
15) To transition back to the ground battle, the editor cuts to a shot of the Walkers from the ground with the Snowspeeders flying past. It still has the flight elements but instead of following the Snowspeeders it is focused on the Walkers. From this transitional shot, we begin to see more of the Rebel ground forces taking fire and then more shots of Walkers firing. At this point the tide of battle is changing back to the Imperials. We started off with Walkers attacking, then the Snowspeeders flew in and attacked, and it is back to the Walkers’ next push for 11 seconds.
16) Here we have another character perspective shift like the one earlier in space. From a wide shot of one of the Walkers, we go to a brand new shot of the cockpit of the Walker. The first sign that this is initiating a change of pace is that it is a much closer framing than anything we have seen so far, and the second sign is that its eyeline is much closer to the camera than any of the shots so far. From this shot we get to move inside of the Walker to view the battle from the Imperial commander’s perspective. At this point the Walkers have the upper hand so it makes sense to be inside with them. Now we have a 3 shot transition back to Luke’s Snowspeeder. It starts inside the Walker’s POV as Luke flies toward it, then cuts to outside the Walker where you see the Snowspeeder streak by, then finishes back in the Cockpit with Luke.
17) Luke lets us know that the Walker’s armor is too strong for blasters. The tide of battle changes again with the perspective change back to the Rebel pilots as Luke suggests they use their tow cables to trip the walkers. But as he goes in to attempt it, his gunner is taken out by incoming fire.
18) Again we transition away from the moving aerial shots to a static ground shot of the Walkers. For the next 10 seconds we have another collection of shots of the Rebels taking fire.
19) Now we initiate another perspective shift to the adversaries with a new close up of one of the Rebel’s laser cannons. Interesting that, like what happened before in space, we will be following a laser blast. The cannon fires and then we cut to a new shot of the Walkers with the beam hitting one. As with the last time we shifted to the Imperial perspective, the eyeline of the Walkers in this second shot is much closer that usual. We return to the POV from within the Walker as Darth Vader contacts the commander. He informs Vader that they have reached the Rebel’s main power generators.
20) Here we have an inconsistent hard cut to another aspect of the battle, back in the air with the Rebel Snowspeeders. Luke informs another pilot, Wedge, that he has lost his gunner and that Wedge must take a shot. Wedge wraps up the Walker’s legs in his tow cable and trips it. Once it has fallen and is immobilized the fighters are able to blow it up. This aerial attack takes almost a full minute and is the longest part of the battle so far. After numerous perspective shifts lasting in the 15-second range, we spend the most time on the first, big Rebel victory in the Hoth Battle.
This seems to be a good spot to separate the breakdown. The first Walker is down and it looks like the tide has shifted to the Rebels at last. But it’s not over yet. Catch the thrilling finale as soon as I can get it finished. As always, please add more insight in the comment section below. May the force be with you!
Check out the rest of this analysis at Scene Breakdown: Empire Strikes Back part 2