Star Wars Cinematographer

(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired George Lucas’s iconic universe. In this edition: The documentary film stylings of cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, including Dr. Strangelove, A Hard Day’s Night, and The Omen.)

George Lucas is a big fan of documentary filmmaking. It’s really how he’s approached film from the beginning and it’s no surprise. From some of his earliest film credits, Lucas proved adept at documentary work. He filmed and directed the behind-the-scenes short Filmmaker on the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People. After that, he was a camera operator on the seminal documentary film by the Maysles Brothers, Gimme Shelter. Lucas was there, rolling film at the Altamont Speedway where a deadly altercation broke out in front of the Rolling Stones as they performed. Lucas brought this documentary style to his next two feature films, THX-1138 and American Graffiti and sought to do the same for Star Wars. 

In order to accomplish this, Lucas tried to hire a cinematographer that would be able to capture both the documentary feeling he was hoping for and the scope of visual effects he was planning. His first choice was Geoffrey Unsworth, who had previously filmed Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unsworth dropped out, though, opting instead to lens A Bridge Too Far (and then follow that up immediately with Richard Donner’s Superman.) This left Lucas to find a last minute replacement in Gilbert Taylor. 

Dr. Strangelove

Lucas went straight to another classic Kubrick cinematographer to find his replacement for Unsworth in Gilbert Taylor. Taylor provided a loose style for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb that made it feel like it could be a documentary, but also provided a lot of interesting visuals that would go on to inspire Lucas in Star Wars. In fact, it’s hard to look at the War Room in Strangelove without being reminded of the conference rooms aboard the Death Star. 

For those unfamiliar, Dr. Strangelove is a film about a crazed general who launches a nuclear war against Russia in order to commit the United States to a conflict to preserve the…purity of our precious bodily fluids. It’s an absurdist romp through the high stakes game of nuclear brinksmanship, brought to life by Stanley Kubrick and a cast that includes Peter Sellers (in three roles!), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and even the voice of Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones. 

The way Gilbert Taylor photographed Dr. Strangelove made you feel like you were a fly on the wall in very tense circumstances and heightened the suspense felt by the audience, despite the inherent absurdity of the situations and the comedy of the writing. 

It must have seemed another bonus for Lucas that, in Dr. Strangelove, Taylor was able to make sets like the War Room look full of life even though they were giant empty rooms lit impressionistically. This would give him the ability to light the spare sets of the Death Star’s control rooms. Imagine the difficulty in lighting a technical control room for dramatic scenes with nothing but black curtains everywhere.

Taylor wasn’t the biggest fan of John Barry’s production design for the Death Star and the sets caused him plenty of headaches. In numerous interviews, Taylor recounted his distaste for the Death Star sets, commenting frequently how many times he had to knock holes in the walls to put in lights so that the set wouldn’t look so bland and gray.

The magic he provided worked, though. The Death Star scenes in A New Hope were arresting in their visual quality and looked fantastic.

A Hard Day’s Night

The other film in Taylor’s filmography that George Lucas sited in wanting to pick him for the job was A Hard Day’s Night (1964). The Beatles were a world-wide phenomenon by the release of A Hard Day’s Night, which was a film the studio didn’t care if they lost money on because they were more interesting in exploiting a loophole that would allow them to distribute the soundtrack for the film. Printing Beatles records in 1964 was akin to printing money.

Taylor worked under director Richard Lester (Superman II, III) to create a world for the Beatles that was at once real and a cartoon all at the same time. The film follows a few days in the life of the band and the Beatlemania that follows them. The writer of the film followed the Beatles around for a few days and drafted a version of the script that exaggerated their qualities and provided a framework for the film. With Gilbert Taylor behind the camera, A Hard Day’s Night looked as though it could have been a documentary, despite the absurdity of many of the situations.

It was a quality that Lucas emulated for American Graffiti in some ways and wanted to bring to Star Wars. If the cinematographer could sell the realism in the fantasy, then the film would be much easier for an audience to believe and invest in. There has been much said about the “lived-in” look of the original Star Wars and how that made it such a huge hit, but often it refers to the grime of the backgrounds, but how those visuals were captured in camera sold the illusion as much as the dirt on the ships. That is directly related to this documentary style of Gilbert Taylor.

The Omen

When Geoffrey Unsworth, the original cinematographer, was forced to drop out of Star Wars and Lucas was looking for a replacement, Gilbert Taylor and his crew were hard at work on The Omen. Released in 1976, The Omen starred Gregory Peck as an American diplomat whose baby is replaced at birth by the anti-Christ. It’s a tense horror film that sometimes descends into cheesy melodrama but has survived as a classic over the years. 

Taylor brought some of those same documentary flourishes to that film as well, which could be viewed as one of his signature moves throughout his career. Of the three films we’re discussing from Taylor’s body of work that influenced Star Wars, The Omen is the only one filmed in color. Watching the film, you can see how consistent Taylor’s choice of lens and film stocks influenced Star Wars because the films have the same quality of color throughout. 

One of the deciding factors for Taylor to take the job for Star Wars, however, is that he would be able to bring over the vast majority of his camera unit from The Omen right into A New Hope. 

Diffusion

By 1976, Gilbert Taylor was as experienced in the film industry as one could get. He got his start in film back in the last of the silent days. His first Alfred Hitchcock film (as a clapper loader and second camera assistant) was Number 17 (1932). His last Alfred Hitchcock film, this time as cinematographer, was Frenzy (1972), Hitchcock’s penultimate feature film. During World War II, he served as an operational cameraman in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, documenting the devastation after bombing raids, including the infamous raid on Dresden. He and a crew of three documented news stories on the ground, including those of the concentration camps. He lensed The Dam Busters, another film that would be hugely influential on Lucas’s construction of Star Wars

While Taylor established the look of Star Wars moving forward, he and Lucas weren’t always on the same page for the cinematography of A New Hope. In fact, George Lucas wanted very diffuse, soft focus on many shots and Taylor revolted. You can still see some of those soft focus shots in the film, but Taylor worked against them. From a 2013 interview, Taylor and his wife told Slate that he told George Lucas he couldn’t do it. “Gil said, “You can’t do it, George, because you’ve got a lot of special effects to lay in, and you won’t be able to if you diffuse it.” Also, they had terrible bad weather when they got out to Tunisia, and there was no definition between the sand and the sky. Gil said if it was diffused on top of that, “George would have been absolutely fucked when it came time to do the effects.”

Coda

The work of Gilbert Taylor, both prior to Star Wars and on Star Wars itself, set a tone and visual vocabulary that lives on today in every new Star Wars film. He helped give George Lucas the look and feel of a space documentary and he might have been the only DP in 1976 capable of doing it. Despite reports of clashes between Lucas and Taylor on set, they created one of the most successful and iconic looking films in the history of cinema. Tracking the work of the cinematographer and the tastes of George Lucas back, you can see why the sensibilities of the two, even when they were at odds, harmonized into something that could create Star Wars. 

All three of Taylor’s films we’ve talked about here are worth watching. Dr. Strangelove and A Hard Day’s Night are both bonafide classics that should be watched often anyway. The Omen is a little less essential, but still worth putting your eyes on at least once. Gregory Peck gives a commanding performance and it’s a worthy early effort of Richard Donner who went on to direct Superman afterward.

All three films are available to stream on various services, some with a small rental fee.

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