The Empire Strikes Back‘s Cloud City guard ships were rounded, sleek ships without a lot of the mechanical detailing and sharp angles of ships in the first half of the film. Giraud’s drawings for The Long Tomorrow depicted similar ships. Model shop foreman, Steve Gawley did the surface detailing and painting. The orange paint used for the “cloud cars” would be complimentary for the bright blue skies used as backgrounds for Cloud City. The same orange would even stand out against the warmer tones in other parts of the film.
Marc Thorpe, model maker and animatronics designer, brought in his own sculptures for the buildings of Cloud City. ILM technicians then created their own versions of the sculptures, then assembled on a single table for filming. This ensured Cloud City would not be a single vision but one of different styles, like the etched brass strips on Executor. Closer shots of Cloud City reveal Thorpe’s vision, at its core, but also Giraurd’s influence.
One of The Empire Strikes Back‘s more practical, and successful, effects would be a lasting member of the overall Star Wars universe. For Yoda, Lucas wanted the character to be, as he put it, “insignificant,” in terms of size and demeanor. The character needed to be “attractive, but strange” as Lucas said in a behind-the-scenes documentary. After many attempts at different looks by Frank Oz, the task fell to Stuart Freeborn, makeup and special creature technician. He had built the apes for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Freeborn asked for a week in which to come up with the character’s head and features.
“I wanted something with a little more depth,” Freeborn said. “I looked in the mirror and thought, well, something a bit amusing about my face, at least I could get that in.” He went on to say, “Now, I have to make him look intelligent.”
Freeborn put in what he referred to as “Einstein wrinkles” around the forehead and eyes. These details had to be sculpted and produced in workable foam. The deep-set eyes, the smaller mouth, and the larger ears came about from drawings and sketches by all of the different people who worked on the character. Freeborn pulled from these sources as much as he did, himself. However, the finished product would take on a very distinctive set of features.
Irvin Kershner, director for The Empire Strikes Back, recalls of Yoda, “And here was this head! And, I looked at him (Freeborn) and I looked at Yoda – and I realized what everyone was realizing and couldn’t say. It was a self-portrait of Stuart Freeborn!”
Wendy Midener Froud, designer and sculptor of the gelflings for The Dark Crystal, created the body of Yoda. The body was created from one inch sheet foam and wooden dowels for the arms and legs. The hands and feet were also molded by Froud, who is often referred to as the “mother” of the character. When it came time to animate her creation, Froud controlled the movement of the long, pointed ears.
Nick Maley, character designer, had helped create many of the characters for the cantina scene in Star Wars. Maley made the molds, skins, and skulls for the initial Yoda and a few of its replicas. For the practical Yoda, he made an enlarged version which could be worn by actor, Deep Roy. Doing this was, as Maley states, “…quicker than making animatronic legs.” A radio-controlled version was also created with supervisor, Ron Hone, and tech, Dennis Lowe. The mechanized prototype of Yoda was very problematic and kept breaking down.
Maley decided on a version which could do more than just the limited range of movement built into the prototype. With the help of another technician, he built a version which could do, “…everything they wanted it to do.” It took over sixty hours to complete this version but it would be the one seen in the initial forest scene.
Ninety technicians worked fourteen months and spent $7 million to create the effects for The Empire Strikes Back. Many of the scenes in which lasers were used or explosions occurred had to be painted into the film by way of composition. Computers did some of the work but these technicians of ILM were the ones responsible for it all.
The Empire Strikes Back was also a success, which meant a third film would begin production soon after. To coincide with the 1977 release of Star Wars, Return of the Jedi was released on May 25th, 1983.
Lucas wanted Steven Spielberg to direct but issues with the Director’s Guild made this impossible. Academy Award winner, David Lynch declined, as did David Cronenberg. With Lucas operating the B camera, from time to time, and directing some of the second unit work, Richard Marquand came on as Return of the Jedi’s director. Because of his inexperience with visual effects, Lucas kept a “conspicuous presence on set.” (Wikipedia)
As a telling commentary on capitalism, many aspects of the film relied on toy sales. Harrison Ford wanted his character to die through some sort of self-sacrifice. This is what brought him back to the film, as he was only signed for two pictures, unlike his costars. Lucas rejected the idea of his character’s death and to the idea of Luke Skywalker walking off alone at the conclusion of the picture. A happier ending for both characters would “encourage higher merchandise sales.”
Lucas consulted a child psychologist concerning the (SPOILER) declaration of parentage by the film’s antagonist. This consultation led to a scene in which Yoda confirms the declaration, facilitating the return of the little green Jedi master. Until this point, the script did not call for such a return.
Filming for Return of the Jedi began on January 11, 1982. The earlier schedule allowed ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) much more time to utilize their $32.5 million budget to create their effects. To prevent price-gouging by service providers, and to throw off fans and the press, the film was given the name, Blue Harvest, with the tagline of Horror Beyond Imagination.
When production began, ILM began running 20 hours a day on a six-day week in order to meet their goals. These work hours were because ILM was the only company capable of using VistaVision, a higher resolution, widescreen variant of 35mm motion picture film. VistaVision was created by engineers at Paramount in 1954.
One of the earlier creatures the audience encounters is the rancor, the thing behind the gate at Jabba the Hutt’s palace. The original concept was a person in a suit but this proved too cumbersome and Lucas thought it looked too fake. After trying to sculpt the creature in clay so it could be animated with stop motion, the team decided on making it a puppet, instead. As with so many other models before it, a full body of eighteen inches was constructed from wood, foam, and wire. To create the various shots involving the rancor, a puppet with the same proportions and features of the model. The finished product would be a composite of model movements, puppetry, and some stop-motion.
The sail barge set was two hundred and eighty feet long and eighty feet high. It was one of the largest single sets to ever be constructed. It took one hundred and ten men four full months to build. In contrast, a miniature model was built which stood several inches tall and was about a foot and a half long. It would be used for long shots and composite pieces.
Jabba the Hutt was constructed in three months. It was designed to fit its two operators inside. One of the puppeteers worked an arm and one side of his mouth while another did the same for his opposite appendage. Special eyes were made and operated by remote control. The different pieces had different movements, requiring several operators. Even the tongue and tail had operators. A bladder in the model, to give the appearance of breathing, was operated by a man lying under the platform. Even the pipe the character smoked had an operator.
This creation weighed almost two thousand pounds and cost over five hundred thousand dollars to build.
Admiral Ackbar, another of the film’s more central characters, had two forms. For the wider shots, an actor wore the head as a mask. For the close-up shots, puppeteer, Tim Rose gave the Ackbar head and shoulders life. Also for these closer shots, another puppeteer operated the hands of the character. As Billy Dee Williams put it in a documentary, “The closer these creatures came to operating like people, the more people were needed to operate them.”
Return of the Jedi had the largest amount of creatures ever assembled in a film. This is hard to believe, considering the creatures present in Star Wars. However, this film had several different locations populated with aliens and creatures of all sorts. Jabba the Hutt’s palace, the sail barge, the meeting areas of the Rebel Alliance, and Endor offered all sorts of varied beings.
Bill George, model maker on Return of the Jedi, was responsible for the Imperial shuttle, Tydirium. This is the ship which carries the strike team to Endor. The main model for the shuttle was two and a half to three feet tall. According to George, it was a very complex model, complete with motorized landing gear and moving tri-fold wings which went up when it landed. Because of the weight restrictions, the wings were made of thin styrene. A smaller model was created for the scene where the shuttle accelerates into space. Even though the original model was small, the motors could not move the larger wings at a speed the cameras could capture.
A bit of trivia for Return of the Jedi, Alan Rickman auditioned for the part of Moff JerJerrod but did not get the part. Ben Kingsley was considered for the role of Emperor Palpatine. However, he was considered “too English” for the role.
A complicated bit of special effects came in the speeder-bike chase scene on Endor. The scene had been storyboarded and given to Dennis Muren to plot out. Unsure how to stage and film the scene, Muren and his team tried several different methods. One method involved building small models and dolls and filming them from a distance. Another was to film the models at a slow camera speed with newer, more compact hand-cameras. In the end, a combination of these techniques was used.
Years earlier, Garrett Brown invented a device which allowed camera operators to film while walking without the shaking effect of handheld units. Muren asked Brown for his help with the speeder-bike shoot and Brown obliged. Walking through the California Redwood forest, Brown shot his walk with a steadicam (his invention) and filmed the whole thing at one frame per second.
Actors on scaled speeder-bikes were then shot against a blue screen. Smaller models, a few inches long, complete with doll-like riders, were then photographed for long and medium shots. These models were equipped with rods and wires, allowing them to mimic the actors’ movements. They were shot with motion-control cameras at low camera speeds. They were then composited into the steadicam footage to produce a high-speed chase scene.
There were one hundred and five different shots for three minutes of film.
YouTube’s Behind-The-Scenes of Star Wars: The Original Trilogy ILM Special Effects Makers features many mini clips on these effects. It also contains a short animated episode featuring Boba Fett. This short episode is voiced by the original trilogy actors.