“Ahsoka” Cinematographer Eric Steelberg on Lensing a Rebel Jedi’s Journey Through Time & Space
Bryan Adams, THE CREDITS
October 4, 2023
For Ahsoka cinematographer Eric Steelberg, lensing the latest live-action Star Wars series was a dream come true. Growing up in thrall to George Lucas’s original trilogy, Steelberg would find himself on set while filming the new series, surrounded by massive spaceships both practical and virtual (the latter thanks to Industrial Light & Magic’s LED immersive soundstage the Volume), astonished by his own job.
“You’re sitting there trying to figure this out and tell the story because it is a job, but then what you’re watching takes you aback. Like, I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Steelberg says.
We spoke to Steelberg about fulfilling a lifelong dream, from lightsaber duels to speeder bikes and all manner of Star Wars-styled action in between.
As a Star Wars fan, which I imagine so many of the folks working on Ahsoka are, what was it like taking on the responsibility of stepping into arguably the most storied franchise of them all?
It’s a lot of responsibility to take on. What if my fandom doesn’t translate through my work? At the same time, that amount of excitement and fear turns into healthy creative fuel.
Ahsoka has narrative overlap with The Mandalorian, but it’s a grander, more expansive story. Can you talk about the look and feel of the series?
The Mandalorian set the bar very high from what’s to be expected from a TV version of Star Wars. Your barrier for entry is already higher than I’ve ever experienced. And you’ve got the expectations of fans from the movies. I understand wanting the same level of quality. If we’re doing live-action, we’re doing live-action, and I don’t care what the budget is. All that matters is the final result. So people want those big, sprawling epic stories. They want high production value. They want a certain look. So that’s how I went into the project; we’ve all got the expectations of movie-level quality visuals, the technical expectations that were established in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi. So how do we achieve that but make it feel different?
How did you?
I started with Dave Filoni in prep about how we expand upon those expectations technically and creatively. We referenced the movies—both the originals and the more recent ones—and then it was a lot of references to Akira Kurosawa movies, which was a well-documented influence on both George Lucas and Dave. There are tonal things, letting things play out in wide shots that give it a sense of scale. That was our jumping-off point. Then, it was working with our art departments on what we could create that would show on screen in the best way possible. And this is a different story, based on the Star Wars: Rebels animated series. There are influences, even shots, taken from that. And then, for me, it’s also about how you capture that feeling of this being Star Wars?
How would you describe a shot that feels like Star Wars?
Honestly, it comes down to a kind of gut feeling because some of its editing, some of its production design, some of its framing, and some of its lighting. Also, Star Wars is always widescreen, right? And what kind of screen? It’s always anamorphic. So that’s the most basic version, the visual starting point. From there, looking at the cinematography, for me, it’s the original three movies. That’s what I grew up on. That’s what I fell in love with. I’m always thinking of parallel moments in the original movies we can reference. At the same time, those movies were made in the late 70s and early 80s, so how do you keep that very polished, formal lighting style with the expectations of a modern audience that wants energy and pace? So that was just taken on a scene-by-scene, episode-by-episode process. But overall, it’s very composed, more classically lit, there’s no handheld camera work, everything is very deliberate. Everything is very planned and very designed.