The History Behind Star Wars’ Special Effects

Check out this article, which describes in loving detail how George Lucas created his bombshell blockbuster in 1977:

Millennium Falcon

The Real Aerial Battles That Inspired Star Wars

Born one year before the end of World War II, George Lucas turned a boyhood fascination into a space epic.

By Cory Graff

AIR & SPACE MAGAZINE
OCTOBER 2020

In early 1977, director George Lucas invited some of his friends and associates to view a rough cut of his latest project. It was a kids’ movie that in one early draft had sagged under the title Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode One: The Star Wars. The crowd he’d summoned to his Bay Area home were at least outwardly just like him: Filmmakers with major successes under their belts though not one of them was yet 35 years old. They included screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who’d worked with Lucas on his 1973 smash American Graffiti, and directors John Milius, Brian De Palma, and Steven Spielberg.

When the lights came up, there was embarrassed silence. The movie was long, poorly acted, and staggeringly weird. Lucas was stung by his peers’ feedback. De Palma, who’d just had his first big hit with the 1975 Stephen King adaptation Carrie and would go on to make blockbusters like The Untouchables and the first Mission: Impossible, was particularly brutal, poking fun at Princess Leia’s hair and the frequent references to “The Force.” He also mocked the muffled voice of Darth Vader, whose dialogue had not yet been menacingly dubbed by James Earl Jones (to the chagrin of actor David Prowse, who played the towering villain on camera), and howled at the movie’s tedious six-paragraph opening crawl (later slimmed down, with De Palma’s help, to three). While no one else was as acerbic as De Palma or as optimistic as Spielberg, there was a clear consensus that Star Wars needed a lot of work before its Memorial Day weekend 1977 release date.

It didn’t help that the rough cut had incomplete sound effects, lacked the musical score that would eventually win an Academy Award for composer John Williams, and was slathered in grease pencil streaks to take the place of laser fire. In fact, nearly all the special effects were unfinished. The climactic space battle, wherein dozens of screaming (yes, in space, but don’t worry about it) fighters shoot it out over a gigantic Imperial space station the Rebel Alliance is trying to destroy, had so many placeholder shots it was nearly impossible to follow.

To assemble this primitive cut, Lucas had recorded hours of wartime newsreel and movie footage on videotape, transferred the snippets onto 16mm film, and dropped the vintage shots into the movie in place of the missing scenes of space fighters. The effect was confounding. “So one second you’re with the Wookiee in the spaceship and the next you’re in The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” recalled Huyck in an interview years later. “It was like, ‘George, what-is-going-on?’”

Over a group lunch after the screening, De Palma scoffed that Star Wars was good for only eight to 10 million dollars, but Spielberg predicted the film would gross 100 million. “And I’ll tell you why,” he said to the gathering. “It has a marvelous innocence and naiveté to it, which is George, and people will love it.”

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