Saturday, June 02, 2018

The Cave in Real Time

Every single shot of the original "Star Wars" trilogy is shown in real time without any temporal maniuplation, with only two exceptions. The first is a single shot of Darth Vader striking down Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original “Star Wars”.

The shot is step printed, meaning the action was filmed in the standard frame rate of 24 frames per second, but in this case each frame of the shot was printed twice (hence, double-printed). The ultimate effect is slow motion, stretching a real life moment into twice its original, real-world length.

The only other use of time-distortion in the trilogy occurs in the cave sequence in “The Empire Strikes Back”, which features a dream-like encounter between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader deep underneath the Dagobah swamp planet. The entire thirteen shot sequence (not including one jump cut) was triple printed; the sequence was filmed at 24 frames per second but each frame of the sequence was printed three times, slowing down the motion to ⅓ its original speed. The slow motion effect is used as a narrative device, to disorient the audience with the surprising appearance of Vader, ultimately revealed as a nightmarish vision.

Ever since I was a kid, I wondered what the scene might have looked like in real time, and how the scene, without slow-motion, would play differently to the audience. So I created it.

view on YouTube

I removed the step printing by lifting two out of every three frames of the sequence, which was fairly trivial. The audio editing took much longer and required much more precision, since I wanted to keep as many sync sounds in the cut as possible. The edit would look pretty bizarre without the appropriate lightsaber whooshes and explosions, so it was tricky to get all of those sound cues to feel honest to the original sequence.

If the real-time sequence feels fast to you, it should! Two reasons: if you've seen the film before, the original pacing and rhythm of the sequence is burned into your brain. The slow motion is driven by the narrative, which is why it works so well. Taking away that significant visual element robs the scene of an emotional truth, which make it feel odd and rushed. Secondly, and it goes without saying, but I feel like I need to say it anyway: had the filmmakers chose to run the sequence in real time, it's a safe bet to say the length of the shots would undoubtedly had been adjusted from what you see in the final film.

To remove the step printing, I used After Effects (to give me fine control over the retiming), and used Final Cut Pro X for all the picture and sound editing.