Welcome back Masters and Padawans, hope your holidays were fantastic and most of the treats have digested well. If you scroll down this post finding yourself confused and panic stricken, it’s probably because you haven’t caught up on the A side of this record. To calm yourself down, check out Scene Breakdown: Empire Strikes Back part 1. For everyone else, let pop this cork and continue. Where were we?
Oh ya, AT-AT destruction. The last scene we looked at was of the rebel pilots tripping up a Walker blowing that sucker up.
21) From this quick show of celebration by the Rebels the tone turns serious again. We cut from Luke’s cockpit to the Rebel command room where Leia and the General declare that they cannot hold out much longer and must evacuate the remaining ground staff. After a minute of upward momentum for the Rebels, we are brought back down to the truth that overall the Rebels are losing this fight.
22) Staying inside the Rebel base, we transition to one of the hangars where evacuating troops pass by the ship that 2 of our main characters, Han Solo and Chewbacca, are working on. Similar to the technique used earlier, where we witnessed R2-D2 as the Walkers attached; this is a chance for the filmmakers to both progress story, with signs of the evacuation, and fill us in on what the central characters are up to. From this shot we go to another part of the hangar where R2-D2 is being loaded into another ship while the other droid C-3PO says his goodbyes.
23) We leave the interior of the base and get 20-seconds of general battle footage. Unlike the past sections where we had a pretty clear perspective of the fight and flow of momentum, this part steps back a little and looks at the overall battle and the erupting pandemonium. Walkers fire, Rebel infantry run around and fire back, Snowspeeders attack the Walkers, and the Rebels take a lot of damage.
24) From that last screenshot where you see the cockpit of the AT-AT firing in profile, we go inside the cockpit to the Imperial commander. His dialogue instigates the next plot point. Before this, the general battle footage was not furthering the story but instead getting us back into the action spirit after being inside for a bit. Here he says, “prepare to target the main power generators”, and we understand the enemy is close to breaking into the base. The stakes have risen for our Rebel heroes.
25) Now we have a 1-minute action scene with our main character, Luke. As if in response to the Imperial Commander’s directive, we cut to a shot of Luke’s Snowspeeder dropping in to make another attack run on the Walkers. As they barrel in on the Walkers, one of Luke’s wingmen is taken out and then Luke’s ship takes fire and crashes into the snow. The building, heroic music cuts out at the impact and the tone of the scene shifts. As Luke exits his downed ship, the legs of an incoming AT-AT loom. We have a change of momentum from the battle charge of the Snowspeeders to this cat and mouse game between the Walker and Luke. It is also an introduction of a new type of tension in the Battle of Hoth. Up to this point we have witnessed the shifting tides of the grand battle but now we see it on an individual level with one of our characters in direct peril. Along with the music change, the editorial style changes. Instead of long sequences of shots showing Rebels attacking or Walkers attacking, we go back and forth between Luke trying to get out of the Snowspeeder and the Walker closing in on him. Also, in terms of shot selection, the framing of the shots get tighter and tighter as the scene progresses. First we see all four of the Walker’s legs, then a closer shot of one foot come crashing down, then finally the foot rising up to come down seemingly right upon us. Just as it’s about to cover the entire frame we cut to Luke leaping free of the Snowspeeder and the foot crushes the ship.
26) Keeping up the intensity we cut to the inside of the base being damaged by Walker fire. Through a crumbling tunnel, Han Solo is making his way to Leia in the partially collapsed command room. Off screen we hear an announcement that Imperial forces have entered the base and Leia reluctantly orders a complete evacuation.
27) On cue from her order we see the infantry outside calling for a retreat and running away from the Walkers. For the next 17-seconds it is all Imperial forces putting a royal hurt on the Rebels.
28) The previous shot of the 3 Walkers chasing down fleeing Rebels leads us into the next little action scene with Luke. He is running along side one of the Walkers and uses his grapple gun to pull himself up to the belly of the Walker. Then he slashes open a section with his lightsaber and throws a grenade inside. After jumping off, we see the Walker explode from within. It is one last heroic scene for Luke to make a stand even though all hope is pretty much lost. This scene certainly could have immediately followed the scene where Luke escapes being crushed but is pushed downstream for a couple reasons. Had these two been combines the resulting scene would be pushing the 2-minute mark and up to this point we have never really been in one location for more than a minute. It would have slowed down the overall pace of the battle even though the content was fast paced action. Also, it continues changing the tide of momentum in the battle as we return to Imperial forces attacking in between time spent with Luke. Another thought on the subject is that the longer you stay with one of the many characters during a hectic event such as this, the more opportunity the audience has to forget what is going on with the other characters and become confused when we return to them.
29) The wave of perspective changes again as we enter the cockpit of the Walker. After firing on the ground troops and blasting one of the Snowspeeders out of the air, the Imperial Commander gets the Walker within range of the base and orders “maximum firepower”. We then see the base take a direct hit.
30) Now inside the base we experience the results of this barrage as the walls begin to fall in on Han, Leia, and C-3PO. Due to a blocked hallway, the group must head back and evacuate the base aboard Han’s ship. Over the next 3-minutes we have 2 variations of the cat and mouse action pursuit involving this group. It begins with them trying to get to the ship, while being chased by Darth Vader and his Stormtroopers who have just broken into the base. We will get a shot of the Han’s group running down a hallway then revert to the Imperial group in a previous room or hallway. As with the Luke and Walker scene a couple minutes ago, there is a building danger as the enemy closes in on our heroes. Just as the Stormtroopers catch up, the Rebel group reaches Han’s ship and shut the doors. Even though we are relieved that they have made it aboard, a second tension presents itself. The Stormtroopers begin setting up heavy weapons to destroy the ship. Now it is a race between them and Han as he tries to start up the ship. Both these build-ups are quite different than the style in the beginning of the Hoth battle. We move inside for a claustrophobic chase scene after being out in the open for wide mass combative situations. It is a great way to keep the battle from getting stale with repetitive forms of combat.
31) Han gets the ship started and they lift off, just in time. Here, again, the filmmakers lead us to other characters with the ship as a story vehicle. We start in a wide shot of the hanger as the ship lifts off, then we cut outside with the ship in the background flying past Luke, who is walking in the foreground. The ship flies off in the distance but we stay with Luke. He makes his way to an outside staging area, where his personal ship is waiting. The Battle for Hoth ends with him leaving the planet in his ship with R2-D2.
So this was definitely a worthwhile experiment for me. It was quite a different undertaking than the breakdowns I’ve gone through before, where I had to wear a different set of eyes when looking at the flow. It’s just going to take a little longer to train those eyes. I certainly want to do it again, but it was a little more taxing in comparison. But hell, that’s how you learn so I’m still glad to be doing these little exercises. As always, please share your thoughts in the comments section and feel free to suggest future scenes to look at. I have gotten some great ones off twitter friends recently that I’m excited to dive into.
May the force be with you.
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