In an interview with director Jon Favreau, a question about George Lucas’ pioneering special effects turned into a description of The Mandalorian’s ethos. According to Favreau, the first live-action Star Wars television show is meant to look like “not just the first film but the first act of the first film.” Now that the show has begun, the results of that ethos are clearly visible.
Going back to the source had been a common refrain of modern Star Wars stories that want to capture the magic of the Original Trilogy without copying from it too closely (as the Sequel Trilogy sometimes does) or diverting from it too far (as the Prequel Trilogy sometimes did). Regardless of what type of Star Wars story The Mandalorian ends up being, it’ll have to strike that balance without just being a re-hash of the first act of A New Hope.
George Lucas’ own inspirations for Star Wars were many: Flash Gordon, Lawrence of Arabia, Akira Kurosawa’s filmography, Westerns, and classic science fiction novels such as the works of E. E. “Doc” Smith. With those ingredients, the filmmaker created a new vision of space fantasy for the big screen. So, which elements are Favreau, exec producer Dave Filoni, and the rest of the Mandalorian team taking from Lucas’ work?
Documentary-Style Camera Work
There’s an important distinction to make here: camera work in a documentary is not intended to emphasize the realism of the scene. Instead, it makes real events more dramatic. The drama brought out by the directing, not just the realism of the subject, is key. Lucas’ desire to make a naturalistic film was not necessarily reflected in the dialogue or story, but it does come out in the technique.
Knowing he was aiming for it shows the differences between Lucas’ vision and J.J. Abrams’. Look at how much more present the camera feels in the Sequel Trilogy. The difference can be seen in Abrams’ crash zoom and propensity for shine, as well as in Rian Johnson’s symbolic imagery, which he uses to serious (Luke explaining the Force to Rey) and humorous effect (the First Order clothing iron). Both make the camera feel more intrusive than it was in A New Hope.
With different directors set to helm individual episodes, each episode may look slightly different. Episodes 1 and 2 both evoke A New Hope in their sweeping space flight scenes and wide shots that show off desert horizons. In episode 2, the colors and textures of desert mountains and canyons wouldn’t look out of place in a nature documentary.
Visual elements in front of the camera are also tuned to match A New Hope…
Earth Tones and Muted Colors
A New Hope had a clear visual distinction between characters. Heroes like Luke, Han, and Obi-Wan wore earth tones. The stark black and white of the Empire generally symbolized evil, except when it didn’t (Leia also wore white).
The Mandalorian’s main character wears bronze armor with dull red plates. This isn’t the neon fashion scene of the Prequel Trilogy’s Coruscant or the expensive black suits and dresses of the Sequel Trilogy’s Canto Bight casino. Like in the Mos Eisley cantina, earth tones mark the everyday spaces of the Star Wars universe where scoundrels can do their work.
The very first shot of The Mandalorian trailer shows bloody stormtrooper helmets on pikes, sun-bleached to the color of bone. Right away, the subject and color purposely evoke the lawless side of Star Wars.
Part of the show seems to be built around Mando acquiring more beskar pieces for his armor. The scene where a new piece is forged in episode 1 goes a bit further away from the matte color of the armor, with bright blue welding jets and the yellow fur and helmet of the blacksmith. This scene is more reminiscent of The Clone Wars, which Filoni created, and which expanded from the Original Trilogy palette into Prequel Trilogy pastels and neons.
The rounded doorways and tan walls found at one The Mandalorian‘s watering holes are definitely callbacks to the Mos Eisley cantina. The famous scene used native Tunisian architecture as the visual touchpoint for Tatooine. Interestingly enough, the rounded look, also found in science fiction of the time — from ring worlds to irising doors — is also what gives Galaxy’s Edge’s cantina its Original Trilogy feeling.
A second building, with narrow windows and walls with a vertical motif, still contains plenty of curves. What looks like a giant animal’s tusk creates the suggestion of a round aperture in front of the definitely round irising door.
Even the planet on which Mando gets stuck in episode 2, Arvala-7, looks very similar to Tatooine, with perhaps more rock than sand.
A Mix of Metal and Cloth
From Darth Vader’s cape over armor to Luke Skywalker’s metal hand, the main characters of Star Wars usually feature a mix of meta, different textures, and flowing costumes. The Mandalorian’s main character shows this in his gloves and cape, which add texture to the look of the classic armor.
The tuning-fork-shaped rifle on his back is also a notable visual element, as its stock has an organic-looking curve. This weapon, the Amban phase-pulse blaster, is inspired by the one Boba Fett held in the Star Wars Holiday Special.
Original Trilogy Aliens and Creatures
The Prequel Trilogy used over 10 years of technological development to go wilder than the Original Trilogy could with aliens. The Original Trilogy was impressive, with flying mynocks and insectoid cantina creatures capturing fans’ imaginations. But the Prequel Trilogy has a signature look to its creatures, including heavier CGI (evident in Jar Jar Binks and the flying Watto) and bright colors (like The Clone Wars’ Ahsoka Tano). The baby of Yoda’s species is a nice mix between the two, with a cartoonishly cute face, a CGI sheen, and all the charm of the practical Yoda puppets.
The Mandalorian extends its earth tones to its aliens, with a tan-skinned Quarren and a four-eyed cantina patron (also tan). The exception is the pink, winking Twi’lek in one of the trailers, but this is also a species introduced in the Original Trilogy.
There are more Original Trilogy aliens, too: early episodes include a Devaronian drinking at a cantina, Jawas walking around the desert, Trandoshan bounty hunters looking for an easy payday, and a Kubaz who hails a cab for the Mandalorian at one point! Nick Nolte’s character is an Ugnaught, one of the pig-like aliens first seen in Cloud City’s maintenance corridors in The Empire Strikes Back.
The Jawas in episode 2 could be straight from A New Hope. But the scene focuses on them in a very different way, making them antagonists in the Mando’s quest to retrieve the ship parts they stole from him.
The Lived-in Setting
Star Wars is often lauded for the lived-in quality of its galaxy. The Mandalorian’s slightly worn armor is itself an example of this: it looks functional, not decorated with lights or fins like the chrome science fiction armor from the Prequels. Jango Fett’s armor looked straight off the assembly line in Attack of the Clones, whereas the Mandalorian’s looks scuffed and Stormtrooper armor and guns look weather-beaten, the dusty and bloody helmets hanging on pikes. The production design certainly feels like the Original Trilogy.
The Classic Cantina
Perhaps the most obvious shoutouts to the first act of A New Hope are all the cantina settings. They’re a staple of the lawless corners of Star Wars, beginning with the scene where bar patrons went back to their drinks and the band started playing again after Obi-Wan cut off someone’s arm. Setting a story in a cantina might in fact be the easiest way to signal the “space Western” mode of Star Wars. The cantina is a crossroads for friends and enemies, and it seems like a good place for a bounty hunter to find his mark.
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