Updated: Feb 26, 2021
Kanan Jarrus’ relationships with different characters in Star Wars Rebels (specifically Hera and Ezra) have all been written about hundreds of times, by people who could write about it much better than I could. But one relationship that (to my knowledge) no one has written about, is his relationship to the camera (or “camera,” due to the fact that it’s animated). So, today we’ll be analyzing the cinematography of two Kanan-centric scenes all the way back in the beginning of Rebels, in Spark of Rebellion.
The basics of cinematic language are pretty easily understood by anyone who’s ever seen a movie, even if they don’t know that they understand them. That’s the fun part about film analysis- it’s about breaking down the elements of it that make you feel a certain way, dissecting how they make you feel that way, and speculating why those creative choices were made.
We’ll start with the first time we see Kanan, in Spark of Rebellion.
There’s a lot here to talk about, especially concerning the mise-en-scéne of the city and characters that inhabit it (the mise-en-scéne in Rebels would be a great thing to write about for another day), but I specifically want to talk about the angle, distance, and movement of the shot in relationship to Kanan.
If you remember the scene (and if you’re reading this, I bet you do), this first appearance of Kanan is framed through Ezra’s eyes. Ezra is high up on a building, as he often is in Season 1, and Kanan catches his attention. Ezra, though he doesn’t know or understand it, feels a call to Kanan through the Force, and he watches him just stand there for a few moments, before Kanan evidently senses himself being watched and turns around. Ezra ducks before he can see him, and Kanan doesn’t appear to think much of it after that.
It’s a rather classic set of shots (this sequence acts as the slow zoom towards Kanan is basically one long shot, intercut with shots of Ezra’s face as he considers him)- we establish a wide angle, showing not only Kanan’s full figure, but his surroundings, before coming in closer to see Kanan’s reaction to nearly noticing Ezra watching him.
A context-less analysis may say that Kanan is feeling small or being threatened. We’re looking down on him from a great distance, slowly coming closer to him. In a purely strict and classical sense, you could argue that’s what’s being conveyed. But, as with anything else, context is very important, and the interpretation of cinematography isn’t cut and dry. Not all high-angle shots are to make characters appear weak, and not all low-angle shots are to make characters appear strong, even if that’s the common practice.
While an analysis as the one above wouldn’t really be too accurate (Ezra at this point doesn’t pose a threat, he’s just more of a nuisance in his street-rat days), the fact that our first introduction to Kanan is seen through a high-angle at a distance is important.
It’s easy to dismiss this as not having a meaning, simply because we see him from Ezra’s perspective, and Ezra is high up, but it’s important to remember that choices like these (especially in animation, where limits due to weather, topography, and access to equipment do not exist) are not accidental. Ezra being on top of a building, giving us this look at Kanan both on his own and in relation to Ezra’s position, was on purpose.
It’s certainly not my place to say what the intention behind this was, or even what the definitive meaning of this is, which is both the fun part and the frustrating part of analysis. The angle could be demonstrating that Ezra is at some sort of advantage compared to Kanan in their incoming conflict with the crates, due to him being able to surprise Kanan, Zeb and Sabine. The distance could be demonstrating that Ezra, not knowing Kanan, is at an emotional distance from him, and as the camera closes in on Kanan, this bond through the Force calls to both of them, perhaps foreshadowing the close relationship they will eventually grow. It could all be a parallel to later shots in the movie where Kanan, at the bottom of the Ghost’s ramp in the air, offers to take Ezra up into the ship to escape from the Imperial pursuit, and Kanan is shot from a low-angle, while Ezra from a high-angle, reversing their roles from this first scene.
Ezra watching Kanan in this way is also the beginning of a sequence in which Ezra watches Kanan, Sabine and Ezra signal each other to begin their attempt to steal the crates. It could be used to establish Ezra’s role in the story (at this point) being of an onlooker, rather than an active participant in rebellious activities that he doesn’t serve to gain from.
Maybe it’s some combination of those four, or something else entirely. Your interpretation is your own, just as mine is my own.
As much as I’d love to analyze every single appearance of Kanan shot-by-shot, I don’t really have the time for that, and I doubt anyone would read something that long. So we’ll skip ahead (though still staying in Spark of Rebellion), to another significant moment- Kanan revealing himself as a Jedi to the galaxy.
The cinematography in this scene is classical, yet still very powerful. After Kanan’s comment to Ezra- “Kid, I’m about to let everyone in on the secret”- we see him from a low-angle shot as he climbs onto the crate he was previously hiding behind (a moment that’s debatably metaphorical enough in its own right) while being fired on by Agent Kallus and the stormtroopers.
Low-angle shots are very classically used to present a character as powerful, threatening, imposing or strong, and sometimes one or more of those at once. You can see why this type of shot would be used in this scene- Kanan is presenting himself publicly as a Jedi for the first time since he was Caleb Dume, and tapping deeply into his powers with the Force.
The sequence where Kanan does this is all high-angle shots, with the exception of a close-up on his face as he dodges shots from the stormtroopers, and another close-up on the moment where he clicks his lightsaber together.
These close-ups function to show us Kanan’s actions more personally. We didn’t have to be so close to his face as he casually avoids blasterfire, we didn’t have to be so close as he put his lightsaber together. Both of these actions could have been seen, albeit less closely from a medium shot, or even a wider shot like the one from the beginning of his reveal. But through the use of close-ups, attention is drawn very closely to these actions.
Kanan’s stoic determination is the focus of that first shot- we can read on his face that in this moment, he’s not doubting himself, despite the dangerous decision he’s just made. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s made up his mind. In the second shot, we get to be right there to see this defining point in Kanan’s life, when he puts his lightsaber together for combat for the first time as Kanan Jarrus. We get to watch his exact movements as he does it, and his hands and the hilt are the focus here.
By being so close for these specific instances in time, we personally connect with Kanan more than we have before at this point. Spark of Rebellion is largely showed to us from Ezra’s perspective- there are very few scenes that Ezra is not in, and when Ezra is in a scene, his actions and reactions are the focal point (and even when he isn’t in a scene, he is still important to it, such as the scene where the crew discusses rescuing him). This sequence breaks that in order to let us feel the weight of this moment in Kanan’s life, and to truly forge a connection with his character for the first time.
Ezra is present, but the sequence where Kanan reveals himself as a Jedi is entirely focused on him, from the time he climbs over the crates until the time he ignites his lightsaber (when we go back quickly to Ezra’s reaction). The only cut away from that is a view on Kallus and the stormtroopers, which is a shot right on the 180 degree line that would be about Kanan’s point of view.
(Notice the medium shot here- it’s not a particularly low-angle shot like the ones on Kanan, because with Kanan’s new reveal as a Jedi, Kallus and his forces are less of a threat. But, it still isn’t a high-angle shot, because they aren’t weak, and are still an oppositional force).
When Kanan does finally ignite his lightsaber, we get a very low-angle shot, that moves around Kanan to come closer to him.
The cinematic language here is clear- this is Kanan tapping into his power as a Jedi again, and using his lightsaber to fight for others. He’s very powerful in this scene- we already saw a lot of his abilities in Spark of Rebellion with his blaster, his ability to fight hand-to-hand, his ability to man the Ghost’s guns, and more, so when he’s holding a lightsaber- arguably one of the most powerful and certainly the most iconic of Star Wars weapons, we know that he’s even more of a threat to the Empire.
This scene is so early on in the show, but it marks a turning point in the lives of these characters. Kanan’s life, and the life of the people around him, are all changing drastically because of this moment, which is why it’s so important that the cinematic language portrays that. When our first impression of Kanan is looking down on him from a distance, having this poignant scene shoot him in a way that paints him in an imposing light is just one of the many ways that Spark of Rebellion communicates to the audience that this is a defining time for him.
An interesting part of film analysis is that when you read or write an analysis on a scene that you hadn’t really analyzed before, you learn something about what you watched and yet, on another level, you already knew it. When you watched Spark of Rebellion, you really didn’t need the things I described spelled out for you like I did here.
When you watched that slow camera movement towards Kanan, you felt the beginnings of a connection with him, both from your own point of view and Ezra’s. When you watched the low-angle shots as Kanan revealed himself as a Jedi, you felt that determination he was exuding. If you hadn’t analyzed those scenes before, you might not have really known or even thought about why (I hadn’t really thought about the cinematography here before I wrote this, myself), but that’s what analysis is for.
And cinematic language isn’t the only thing used to convey the things in these scenes. All the elements- the music, acting (in this case, a mixture of voice acting and the way that the characters are animated), the mise-en-scéne, and more- are blended together to create those emotions. But cinematic language is an important part. Can you imagine if Kanan’s reveal scene was shot from high-angles and lacked close-ups? We’d be missing the connection with Kanan we get, and it would make him seem less powerful in a scene meant to show his ability to make a difference. There’s a reason why it was shot (“shot,” I guess, since it wasn’t actually shot with a camera, but you get my meaning) and edited that way, and why it’s presented to us in the way that we watch it.
Because animated shows don’t have a physical camera used to film the shots, the cinematography of them often gets brushed aside when discussing them in favor of animation style, which is understandable- animation style can be used to convey emotions in ways that live-action media can’t. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth analyzing. Star Wars Rebels has countless beautifully composed shots, especially wide ones that get attention, but it’s always fun to look at other scenes with less dramatic cinematography, and analyze the composition of those too, especially because they can give us more insight into the characters we already know or love, and let us examine how we see them.