Tour de force

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a great adventure was created. Nick Smurthwaite visits Star Wars’ more terrestrial incarnation

Both from a commercial and technical viewpoint, the whole Star Wars phenomenon made a huge impact on late 20th century pop culture. Even before the original trilogy – Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) – was re-released three years ago, the films had made $1.3bn (£800m) at the box office, and a further $3bn (£1.9bn) in spin-off merchandise.

Nobody would have guessed in 1976, when director George Lucas first showed a rough cut of his project to a group of fellow film-makers (including Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma) that it was to become one of the biggest success stories in cinema history. To that select audience, it must have appeared simplistic, wooden, cliché-bound and, to cap it all, Lucas had inserted aerial dogfight clips from old movies to stand in for the as-yet-unfinished special effects. Only Spielberg saw its potential. Admiring its innocence and naivety, he recognised that Lucas had created a genre classic that would strike a chord with sci-fi buffs the world over.

The narrative may have been little more than a crude distillation of all the sci-fi action adventures he’d ever read (plus a few tips he’d picked up from Kurosawa, Fritz Lang and David Lean), but Lucas had had the good sense to assemble a creative team to give it an identity all its own. “I’m a visual film-maker,” he has been quoted as saying. “I tend to focus on character as it is created through editing and light, not stories.”

Colin Cantwell from 2001: A Space Odyssey was hired to design the spacecraft models. Veteran illustrator Ralph McQuarrie made a series of paintings which were to set the visual tone for the film, and Alex Tavoularis produced preliminary storyboard sketches of the early scripts. The script called for a large number of miniature and optical effects. At the time no commercial facility had the equipment or the inclination to accomplish what Star Wars required – remember this is 1975 – which is how the now-renowned Industrial Light & Magic came into being.

This was a bunch of young techno-geeks brought together in a warehouse in the San Fernando Valley, miles from Hollywood in space and spirit. Their aim was to marry state-of-the-art computer technology with traditional film effects, many of which had been almost forgotten after the big studios phased out their special effects departments because of the pre-eminence of realism and location shooting in the 1960s.

Technicians and artists worked side by side round the clock. There was no dress code, no specified working hours, and no job demarcation. Designers built models, model-makers ran cameras, camera operators worked computers.

Though lacking experience in traditional film crafts, this new generation knew the power and range of computers and how to apply them to screen effects. Their mentor, special effects supervisor John Dykstra, had previously worked on an experimental film using a computer to control a movie camera. Using this idea of “motion control”, the ILM team was able to make spaceships streak across the screen at unprecedented speed, free of the jerkiness of former processes. They were also able to plan levels of action and perfectly synchronise them, adding engine glows and running lights.

Employing as many as 75 people, ILM executed 360 separate special effects, accounting for half the running time of the original Star Wars. All nine sound stages at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood – this was a transatlantic enterprise – were used to house production designer John Barry’s planets, starships, caves, control rooms, and the network of sinister corridors that made up the evil Death Star. For the rebel hangar sequence, the unit moved to Shepperton Studios, which contains the largest sound stage in Europe.

At the time, of course, Lucas and his team felt they were engaged in ground-breaking work, but such has been the development in digital technology over the past 20 years that Lucas felt increasingly dissatisfied with the effects he achieved in the original trilogy – hence his desire to revamp them in the mid-1990s.

Film-making used to be the stringing together of images made coherent by the editing process. Now, says Lucas, it’s more like painting. “The advantages of digital imaging are awesome. You can have complete control, like an artist does. I was able to go through (the films) and do things I wanted to do back then, but wasn’t able to because of time, money and technology. Now you can actually change each frame to give it more unity, more clarity and more symmetry.”

On The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, the aim was to make the film look as good 20 years on as people remembered it. The trick was to make sure they improved the visuals without changing them. The most ambitious undertaking was to revamp Cloud City, where Han Solo and Princess Leia seek refuge from their Imperial tormentors. Computer technology was applied to enliven Ralph MacQuarrie’s original floating metropolis, creating the heavenly dreamscape Lucas had always imagined.

Art director George Hull used 3D computer graphics to add some architectural details – elevators, monuments, traffic, bridges – finding his inspiration largely from Ridley Scott’s cult futuristic thriller, Blade Runner. The biggest challenge in adding computer graphic effects to 15-year-old camera-created shots was making the new elements appear as though they had featured in the original footage. The team tried always to make it look seamless, so that only the architects of those changes, plus a handful of Star Wars anoraks, would actually spot the difference.

With the arrival of last year’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, the benefits of digital imaging were only too apparent, and no doubt the two further “prequels” expected over the next three to four years will take the technology to new heights. Lucas has positioned himself at the cutting edge of technological innovation. Film is on the way out, he maintains. The future is digital.

The Art of Star Wars is at the Barbican Centre, London, EC2, from 13 April to 3 September

The Art of Star Wars

How do you create an exhibition that has to satisfy an age catchment from six to 60? This was the dilemma facing the curator and designer of The Art of Star Wars.

‘There are the loyal fans of the original trilogy which dates back to the 1970s, and then there is a whole new generation of younger fans who are hooked on it following last year’s release of the latest adventure,’ says Jane Livermore of event and exhibition consultancy Shelton Fleming. Not only that but every minute detail of the design and presentation had to be approved by Lucasfilms, the San Francisco-based company which produces, promotes and protects the Star Wars franchise.

Livermore has spent ten months working closely with the Barbican show’s curator, cultural historian Conrad Bodman, striving to strike a balance between the academic, the sensual and the interactive. ‘One of the key priorities was not allowing the environment to overwhelm the exhibits. We have some quite delicate stuff here like models and paintings, and it would be easy to lose the effect of such things if we’d gone all out to create a Star Wars-type environment.’ Livermore and Bodman decided to go for minimal, to let the exhibits speak for themselves, while attempting ‘to convey references to the films in a subtle way’, says Bodman.

The exhibition covers a 1500m2 space over two floors, and is divided into eight or nine clearly defined installations, including sound, artwork, visual effects, costumes and creatures. In addition to costumes from the original trilogy – Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker et al – there are two of Queen Amidala’s exquisite gowns from the new film. The child-friendly interactive elements include creature masks you can try on, a Podracer you can sit in, complete with full sound effects, and a three-eyed animatronic creature from the latest episode. For younger visitors, the biggest thrill will probably be the sight of a full-size model of Anakin’s Podracer from Episode 1, suspended from the ceiling and appearing to be in motion.

For Bodman, the exhibition is about giving the creative talents behind the Star Wars phenomenon a platform. ‘In all the hype surrounding these films, they are the ones who tend to be under-represented, yet they play such a vital role in their success. This is an opportunity to appreciate their work at close hand.’

Two of the creatives represented in the show, Ian McCaig and Lorne Peterson, will be talking about their work at a special event at the Barbican on Friday 15 April.

The exhibition moves on from the Barbican to the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford in the autumn, before embarking on a four-city European tour.

Latest articles