For Star Wars, George Lucas assembled a team of technicians to produce its needed special effects. To head the endeavor, Lucas chose special effects designer, John Dykstra. Lucas also created his own visual effects company, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) in 1975.
Colin Cantwell, a concept artist on 2001: A Space Odyssey (and other films) designed the X-Wing Fighter (an earlier version of which is handled by Luke Skywalker as he converses with C-3PO), the Y-Wing Fighter, the Twin Ion Engine (TIE) fighters, the Star Destroyer, the Jawa’s sandcrawler, the Tantive IV (Princess Leia’s Blockade Runner), and the Death Star.
Cantwell’s earlier designs for the X-Wing called for the ship to be a literal X with a snubbed cockpit. The more streamlined version utilized a dragster body and wings which could support an actual engine. The first version measured almost three feet long and was carved from wood. The wings and engine were made from tank and plane model kits.
The front portion of the Y-Wing Fighter was also made from plane and tank models, as well as the rounded pieces from a Legg’s pantyhose container. The design reminded model-maker, Paul Huston (who worked on the film) of a 1957 Thunderbird and a P38 fuselage fighter-plane of World War II.
For the TIE Fighters, the concept began as a ball connected to two larger wings by a spindly strut. Alterations were made to make the ship look more like a battle vehicle and less like one made for pleasure flying. Details for the ship were carved from wood or plastic and molded. Unlike other ships, they were not “kit-bashed,” or made from model parts.
To create a specialized version of the TIE Fighter, one used by Darth Vader, the round cockpit with the octagonal front window was kept. Carved in wood, molded in plastic, its wings were folded and made distinctive from the other TIE Fighters.
Cantwell’s original design for the Death Star was a silver sphere with smaller domes on its surface. Silver would have been much harder to shoot against a blue background and would not have adhered to Lucas’ directive of everything having a worn, “lived-in” feel. Instead, it was made as it appeared in the film and a matte grayish-white paint applied. This allowed for the model to be backlight against a black (and blue screen) matte background.
For the final battle scene, some of the X-Wing and TIE Fighters were molded in foam and rigged with small charges, which were detonated by remote. They were filmed, exploding, against a blue screen or one of black velvet. The background made it easier to capture the explosive effect, one often washed out by “blue spill” or harsh external lighting.
The pieces of the Death Star to be filmed up-close were part of large-scale miniature models. They were all created in different scales for various camera angles. A larger version of the gun tower, for instance, would be made smaller for the fly-by sequences and larger for the scenes in which it would be seen firing at enemy vessels.
Having also designed the landspeeder, Cantwell’s original design was round with a blocked front and fins at the back. The only aspect of the original design to translate to the final film was its color scheme. Because the speeder had to be practical, an alternate version had to be built to accommodate four of the film’s cast. This would be used for the wider shots while a mounted version was used for the closer ones.
Joe Johnson, effects illustrator and designer, created the Millennium Falcon. His first model was scrapped, as it was deemed too much like the ships from Space:1999. Time constraints brought the entire team together in order to complete construction on the finished model, which weighed almost one hundred pounds. It was mounted on a post made from a two-foot, five inch pipe. For comparison, the smaller X-Wing and TIE Fighters had three-fourths inch mounting rods.
Thirty-three different robotic characters were made for Star Wars. Each had to be able to move on their own and exhibit distinctive personalities. Kenny Baker, actor and operator of R2-D2, inhabited the compact shell of the droid, except for those scenes requiring movement. Those would be filmed with a shell operated by sophisticated remote controls.
For the chess scene, each of the creatures on the board is an actual wire and clay model, like the ones Ray Harryhausen used in his films. ILM then animated the models in much the same way Harryhausen did but with different photography techniques and more sophisticated compositing methods. Where it took Harryhausen weeks, sometimes months to complete his work, it took the team at ILM a few days to finish the scene.
One of the biggest innovations in Star Wars came from model-builder, Lorne Peterson. The models were put together with five-minute epoxy, requiring each piece to be taped together for the epoxy to dry. The drying process, as the name implies, took around five minutes to dry to completion. After observing this process, Peterson brought in a substance called Eastman 9-10 (an early form of Super-Glue), which took less time and dried faster. This saved the model-building team hours of waiting for epoxy to dry.
Dykstra created a computer-controlled camera system to capture movement of static models. Named Dykstraflex, this new system changed how spaceships (and space battles) were shot. Static models could be shot against a blue screen with the camera moving around them, giving the models the illusion of movement. Other objects, filmed in the same manner, could be composited together to make the finished shot appear to have been all one piece. An example of this is the climatic ending scene where the different X-Wing Fighters are seen flying alongside one another while explosions tear apart portions of the Death Star.
Because Lucas did not like working with actual film, Lucas tasked ILM to come up with other ways to work in the medium. As a result, they created a four-projector-head optical printer, a devise capable of transmitting different images onto a single piece of film to create a unified shot. ILM’s version improved the quality and precision of said captured images.
The majority of the models used in Star Wars had to be filmed against a twelve foot by twenty-two foot translucent blue screen. Anything lit against a blue screen has to have an external light source, which creates a problem for filming. While the lit portion of the model is clear and visible, the darker side often reflects blue from the screen. This is referred to as “blue spill.” A contrast range, on the model, has to be achieved to wash out blue spill. Another filming issue was a flickering effect caused by external lights reflecting on a blue screen. This flickering blurred the models, which also happened when filming them against a solid black background. Filming the models at different angles could often fix this problem but in many cases, blue spill and the flickering issue were still present.
Visual effects technician, Al Miller backlit the large blue screen area (referred to as the “big blue box”) with fluorescent lights, allowing the film crew to shoot at higher speeds without the flickering from external lights.
While most of the ships for Star Wars were cast and filmed in miniature, full-sized sets of the ships needed to be built to allow for human interaction. One of the largest sets, built on one of nine soundstages, was of the Millennium Falcon. Its interior would be shot for several of the film’s integral scenes so its details had to be precise.
When the Death Star is sighted for the first time, from the cockpit of the ship, several techniques were employed to achieve the shot. First, a model of the Death Star was photographed from different angles, lit in different ways. A still of the star field was taken. Then, the actors were filmed observing the space station, also from different angles. These different elements were then composited into the final scene with the actors delivering their dialogue. In times before, this process could have taken months, not the days it took for the ILM team on Star Wars.
It took two years, thousands of hours, and three and a half million dollars to complete the visual effects for Star Wars.
Due to its success, preproduction for The Empire Strikes Back began in 1978. The film was released in 1980.
Stop-motion animator, Phil Tippett, creator of the chess scene in Star Wars, headed the ILM animation department. For the sequel, one of the first creatures Tippett created was the horse-lizard hybrids called tauntauns. Models, along with their riders, were constructed in miniature. Utilizing stop-motion, the technicians were able to make it appear as though to the creatures moved and interacted with the actors. For close-up scenes, larger versions were made. In scenes involving Luke and Han, a puppet head on a pair of saw horses was used.
In order to get a sense of scale for the tauntauns, children were employed as extras for the scene in the hangar portion of the Rebel base. Only a few of the scenes with the tauntauns required more than one take. Exceptions were the scenes Tippett requested a second. None of the scenes, regardless of their complicated nature, required more than two.
A large miniature set of Hoth, the ice planet, was made using baking soda for its snowy surface. Miniatures of the All-Terrain Armored Transports (AT-ATs) and the All-Terrain Snow Transports (AT-STs), snowspeeders, and other vehicles were constructed. Dennis Muren, effects director of photography, helped build the giant machines. Several of them were constructed in different sizes for a variety of scenes. The largest measured around four feet tall. These were used in scenes were the machines collapse. As with the other models, details on them had to be precise.
Charlie Bailey, model maker, stated, “…they (AT-ATs) had electric clutches in the joints so they could trigger the legs to collapse on cue. Well, the thing got to be so heavy…the electric clutches just wouldn’t hold up…so we ended up hanging the guy (the AT-AT) from a rope.”
Bailey built the bodies of the machines, saying they were “tremendous,” in terms of weight. Tippett developed “go-motion,” an animation technique which uses a computer to animate different moving parts of a static model. The AT-ATs and AT-STs were animated using go-motion.
For this film, a larger version of Star Wars’ three-foot Star Destroyer was made from wood, plastic, and metal tubing. Chief model maker, Lorne Peterson had the idea to install lights all through the model to give the audience a sense of scale for the ship. Tens of thousands of fiber optics were put into the eight-foot model with the light source being a single projection lamp in its center. The lamp used Tungsten halogen bulbs, which are very hot. A compressed air system was built inside the model to keep it cool.
Darth Vader’s ship, Executor, was the command ship for the Imperial fleet. Under budget and time constraints, model makers could not use fiber optics since they reached a kind of limit for the amount they could use in the previous Star Destroyers. To circumvent the limitation, Paul Huston had the idea to etch holes into strips of brass, which were installed along the edges of the ship. Light from within would give the illusion of over two hundred and fifty thousand lights on the ship. Different people worked on portions of the strips so they had different styles in the etchings, making no two the same.
A reshoot of The Empire Strikes Back‘s ending made it necessary to rebuild portions of the medical frigate, the ship seen in the closing sequence. The ILM team used model kits and found pieces to do the rebuild and to construct a second ship. Bailey said the team worked ten to eighteen hour shifts on the rebuild and twenty four hours in a two-day span to finish the second ship.
Matte painting and rear projection were needed to place the central characters in the large window of the frigate. Available computer technology sped the process along, meaning the work was done in a few weeks instead of a few months.
It’s important to note the influence of Jean Giraud, an influential artist who created a Western comic called Blueberry with writer, Jean-Michel Charlier. Under the name, Moebius, Giraud became one of the most innovative comics artists of the 20th Century. His experimental art style, lay-outs, and other visual points drew the attention of Lucas and ILM designers. In particular, a 1976 comic called The Long Tomorrow proved to be a tremendous inspiration for the concept, creation and construction of Cloud City and its various components.
There is more to the influence of Moebius. Be here next time for our second of two articles on Star Wars!