When he was only 17, Steve Yedlin showed Rian Johnson how to load a film camera. At the time, Johnson was only 18 himself, a freshman at USC’s film school. Yedlin was still a high school senior, but they both had volunteered to work on the same student film, the start of a bond that has spanned their entire careers. Yedlin was director of photography for Johnson’s feature debut, Brick, and went on to lens his friend’s entire filmography. So when Johnson signed on to write and direct Star Wars: The Last Jedi, there was no question who would be behind the camera.
After Johnson delivered his script, Yedlin dove right in to craft the visuals, although as he puts it, a lot of it was already there on the page. “Rian is a master of the entire cinematic language, so his narrative and thematic script stuff isn’t really separate from the visuals,” Yedlin says. “It’s not like he’s got this story and he’s waiting for the visuals to be applied to it. He has already laid the groundwork for the work we’re about to do. So all of our prep time can be spent discussing how we make the most beautiful, evocative visual version of this thing that we already know, as opposed to us spiraling to figure out what that thing is.” As the two go scene by scene, it’s mainly Yedlin asking questions and the two bouncing ideas back and forth. “I might have an idea to change something or an idea for something if he doesn’t have a specific idea yet. But a lot of times, it’s me asking him things like, ‘Do you see this light streaming in as hard light or soft?’ Depending on the situation and how integral it is to the story, he might say, ‘Do whatever you think is going to look better.’ Or if it has something to do with the story on a major thematic level, he’s going to instantly have an answer for me.” Yedlin won’t go as far as to say he and Johnson have a telepathic connection, but they do have a mutual understanding. If Johnson references an obscure film, there’s a good bet Yedlin knows what he means and how to incorporate his thought into the scene they’re discussing. The duo spent time before the Last Jedi shoot viewing 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back—the original trilogy’s middle chapter, just as their own movie is the middle chapter of this new trilogy. They used it as a visual reference, although it was more for inspiration rather for specific visuals and cues. “We absorbed the aesthetics, but at the end of the day we had to go make our own movie.”
Yedlin is a self-described nerd about his work, clearly downplaying the impact he’s had on cinematography over the past decade plus. He is a proud boundary pusher, eager to tackle the next challenge that awaits his profession—and film in general. Famous for challenging the still ongoing debate between moviemakers who prefer to shoot on film stock and those who prefer digital, Yedlin’s brain works in a way where that aspect of the argument doesn’t much interest him. He operates at a different level, reasoning that since digital is so cost effective and will one day be the preferred method of the industry he loves, how can people in his profession make that look more like classic film? His website is full of side-by-side tests where he is searching for just that answer. If you’re on Twitter, he has most of them under the hashtag #BoringFilmStuff. It’s a fascinating look into the mind of one of the world’s best cinematographers, one who is doing anything but resting on his success.
This window into Yedlin is crucial to understanding the way he works. By the time he and Johnson arrived to roll the cameras, the majority of their work had been done because they are both all about preparation, which is key to a movie of this magnitude. “There’s no research you can do like, How do you work on a big movie,” Yedlin laughs. “It’s all the same stuff, but there’s so much prep and research for the fine-grain stuff. I go down such a rabbit hole into figuring things out in advance. So when we’re shooting, we’re doing way less and things are simpler than they are on so many other big-budget sets. We’re not fiddling to find out how to get what we want out of the light. That work is done. I just point the camera and set my light meter. Not everyone has to do it this way, but I do that nerdy technical stuff and get that figured out specifically so we don’t have to deal with it when we’re doing what we love, which is making pretty pictures.”
Yedlin’s tech-savvy ways resulted in him convincing Johnson to use SkyPanels, an LED lighting system that can be programmed to change color and contrast. “I’ve never used LEDs extensively, and we not only used them extensively, we used them in some ways that I don’t think anybody else has in terms of interactive lighting and mapping out exactly how to get certain colors out of them. And that all came from the prep.” Where the LEDs were put to the best use is in the myriad fighting scenes where the camera would be close on an actor in a cockpit and the lighting around them had to represent the battle that was being waged outside the character’s vehicle. When those scenes are filmed, it’s usually an actor in a physical cockpit surrounded by greenscreen that will later represent any number of locations, everything from the blackness of space to the bright white landscape of the salt planet Crait. Yedlin’s LEDs would reflect various aspects of the battle, resulting in realistic lighting on the actor’s face as a blast came in or an explosion went off. It’s a subtle choice but one with a lasting effect. “We could really get fast-moving, interactive lighting on the actor, whether it’s a barrel roll they do in their vehicle or a laser bolt going by or flying through an explosion or whatever. We basically mapped out all the chromaticity coordinates for the SkyPanels so we could control them completely manually. We didn’t use any of their presets—we literally just built the colors but made sure we knew exactly how every color was going to come out.”
The Last Jedi is not the first time Yedlin worked extensively with greenscreen, since his last film was the 2015 summer blockbuster San Andreas. So he has learned to work around the unique challenge of lighting an image that’s incomplete. It’s one thing to use the sun and artificial light to craft an image. It’s more difficult if your background is nothing but a bright greenscreen meant to signify a location that will be added later. “It doesn’t affect it too much,” he says. “We just light it to be as evocative as we always would and tell the story the best we can.” The only time greenscreen is frustrating for Yedlin is when he’s working on a scene with a window. Usually whatever is outside that window—whether bright or dull—will help determine the light on a character’s face. That’s impossible to do if what’s outside the window is a greenscreen. “It’s frustrating when you can’t have light coming from where it’s supposed to be coming from because of the greenscreen. But we have a lot of tricks to navigate that, and we do a little negotiation with the visual-effects guys.”
On a megafilm like The Last Jedi, Yedlin’s work with the visual-effects team is crucial to the finished product. He needed to make sure the many computer-generated images work seamlessly with the live footage he and Johnson shot on location or on a soundstage. There is one breathtaking sequence of shots that personifies this collaboration. (Warning: spoilers ahead.) Resistance Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) decides to sacrifice herself to let the rest of her fleet get away and does so by piloting her craft at lightspeed through a series of First Order star destroyers. What follows is a quick series of images, with no sound, of a bright white light cutting through the ships. It’s like nothing seen in a Star Wars film and is predicated entirely on that bright light. However, it’s also 100 percent computer generated. Yedlin’s role in that scenario is more of a supervisor. He sits in on all the effects review sessions alongside Johnson and gives his notes on each image. “I had notes on making it look a little more dramatic, but I’m talking about subtle finessing,” he says, adding that the effects crew is mainly responsible for those beautiful images. “If we have a really clear concept of it and there’s a reason we’re lighting something a certain way, I’ll be sure to explain that to the visual-effects guys so they don’t do something incongruous—not that they would. It’s more if I’m doing something counterintuitive, I can explain that this is intentional for this particular reason.”
The film’s most stunning shot comes near the very end. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has just performed a herculean task and now sits drained, perched on a rock on an island. He looks out to the horizon and sees the twin suns of this particular galaxy at sunset. It’s striking for two reasons. First, it’s a major callback by Johnson to perhaps the most iconic shot in the entire Star Wars saga: Luke in 1977’s A New Hope, staring out at the twin suns, wondering if he will ever fulfill a life he feels he’s destined for—directed by George Lucas himself. (Lucas mirrored the image for the closing shot of 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, which featured an infant Luke.) Second, the way Yedlin plays the sun off Hamill’s weathered face is both heartbreaking and gorgeous. As with a lot of moments in Last Jedi, it’s a combination of both natural elements and visual effects. “We shot a lot of that on location in Ireland,” he recalls. “The skies are all really photographed for the most part.” But some of Hamill’s work was actually shot in England on a soundstage, though you would never know it by the finished image. That left it up to Yedlin to re-create the sunset look they found on location. “We had a very specific sunset look that we wanted on him and his face, and we had to make sure some of the sunsets we captured would match that. It’s a combination of everything. Those are a lot of real sunsets and real shadows on him, which is why I think it works.” In case there was any doubt, Yedlin smiles, quick to clarify: “Obviously the second sun is not real.”
When asked to choose what his toughest moment on set was, Yedlin mainly shrugs it off, not because he can’t pick one but because he doesn’t prefer the word choose. But he’s a man who likes being challenged, and his response is telling. “I get that posed to me, and if I answer, it sounds like I’m complaining,” he says. “To me, I love the problem-solving aspect of it. Every single scene has logistical things to figure out, like how do we make the camera move vertically through a gun turret? Every scene has stuff like that, but I love figuring it out. The whole job is problem solving. So even when that frustration sets in, it’s more of a feeling of, Oh, this is so cool. We get to figure out how to do this.”