Star Wars is a worldwide phenomenon today and one of the biggest franchises in history, so it's difficult to imagine that when the film was being produced hardly anyone, at times not even the director, had faith in it.
We think this fact is more inspirational that any number of cat posters that urge you to "hang in there," or even the "Daily Reason To Be Happy" Tumblr. C'mon. If George freaking Lucas had doubts about Star freaking Wars, then you can feel a little more optimistic that your passion project/ Etsy shop/ English midterm will turn out a-okay.
Before Star Wars, Lucas had only directed two other feature length films. The first was THX-1138, an experimental dystopian science fiction film released in 1971. Never heard of it? Yeah, didn't think so. The second was American Graffiti in 1973, which was a tale about hot rodding in Northern California in early 1960's… and about how awesome doo-wop music is.
Both films have tenuous connections to Star Wars. THX is science fiction but of a different vein, and American Graffiti draws from Lucas's childhood love of cars similarly to how Star Wars draws from the films Lucas loved as a child. However, that's where the connections end.
As a director and screenwriter, Lucas created a patchwork world, combining pieces of the cinema that influenced him. The opening text crawl and the fantastical space ships were inspired by 1930's serials like Flash Gordon. The lightsaber duels and wipe transitions are taken from Akira Kurosawa's Japanese historical period films. Luke and Leia's daring escape from the Death Star is from an Errol Flynn swashbuckling adventure. The Mos Eisley Cantina is a western saloon plus gritty Muppets. Even C-3PO has its origins in Maria's robot double from Metropolis.
None of this is to say that Lucas's vision wasn't original, but in creating an original style, Lucas drew from the films he loved, and his stylistic choices reflect this. Basically, Lucas was doing what Quentin Tarantino would do a couple of decades later—take from existing work and make it his very, very own.
Star Wars also demonstrated Lucas's love of pushing the technology of cinema forward, a goal that would become of the focus of his entrepreneurial and producer career at Lucasfilm Ltd.
Lucas had to fight to make Star Wars in the way he envisioned it—or to get it made at all, for that matter.
The director is famous for not wanting studio executives to mess with his films, having become upset over the changes Warner Bros made to THX and Universal to American Graffiti (source). With 20th Century Fox footing the bill, Lucas had to fight tooth and nail in order to not bend to their (sometimes weird) requests.
Mark Hamill notes an oddball example:
Some of the thinking from the suits, as they call them, was so strange. We were in our fifteenth day of shooting, and I'd read over somebody's shoulder and I'd see a missive that said, "Can't you put some pants on the Wookiee? (Source)
While fighting meddling execs, Lucas also dealt with production setbacks on basically every front. The on-site production in Tunisia was hampered by massive rainstorms on the first day of shooting and the sheer amount of work led to doubts among the crew (source). Industrial Light and Magic were so far behind schedule on the special effects that only one special effect shot was finished by the time live action wrapped up.
(To be fair to ILM, they had to invent the techniques and equipment they were using to film.)
Despite the numerous, super-stressful trials, Lucas was able to complete Star Wars, and it became the highest grossing film at that time and was nominated for ten Oscars, bringing home seven of the little golden men. Not too shabby for a science fiction film that was prophesized to be dead at the box office.
The success of Star Wars didn't lead George Lucas to become an independent filmmaker, and he wouldn't direct another film until The Phantom Menace in 1999. Between that time, Lucas took up producing and entrepreneurial efforts, ironically becoming the studio exec he had always battled against.
Since its release, Lucas edited and tweaked the film to be more inline with his vision. The first chances appeared in the 1981 re-release of the film, and Lucas made minor-to-major changes for the film's various home releases. The most drastic and controversial of these revisions came in 1997 when Lucas re-re-released the entire Star Wars trilogy into theaters under "the Special Editions" label.
In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Lucas reincorporated entire scenes lifted from the editing room floor, including a confrontation between Han and Jabba the Hutt and a reunion between Luke and his childhood friend Briggs Darklighter.
Lucas also added digital effects to the film, some incidental, others completely altering scenes. The most controversial of these came in the Mos Eisley Cantina when Han Solo was confronted by the bounty hunter Greedo. In the 1977 cut, Han Solo shoots Greedo from under the table without giving the bounty hunter warning or a chance to fight back. In the Special Editions, Greedo shoots first and Han's blast is in self-defense. Displeasure with this change led to the famous proclamation by fans that "Han Shot First."
Pro-tip: never, ever enrage die-hard Star Wars fans. It doesn't end well.
Star Wars is one of Disney's largest franchises, so it's hard to imagine today that the empire started as the passion project of this single dude. That guy, one George Lucas by name, saw the original Star Wars from script to screen as the director, producer, and even screenwriter.
Whereas his previous film, American Graffiti, was a callback to Lucas' past growing up in Northern California, Star Wars started as a callback to the films Lucas enjoyed while he was growing up. His original inspirations were science fiction serial films of the 1930s, such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. In these films, courageous youths would battle evil empires and engage in fantastical adventures that usually resulted in a rescued damsel. Sound familiar?
As the story progressed, other Lucas favorites began to creep into the script. Japanese warrior movies influenced the Jedi, westerns gave us the famous Mos Eisley Cantina, and swashbucklers shaped the adventure. All of these genres "jumbled together in George's notes with all sorts of themes and techniques" (source).
However, the #1 greatest inspiration came from Lucas' study of mythology:
With Star Wars I consciously set about to re-create myths and the classic mythological motifs. I wanted to use those motifs to deal with issues that exist today. The more research I did, the more I realized that the issues are the same ones that existed 3,000 years ago. That we haven't come very far emotionally. (Source)
Lucas points to Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a major influence, specifically the idea of the monomyth, a core narrative structure that all the heroic myths of the world follow. Lucas took Campbell's narrative structure and outlined his Star Wars script to it beat-for-beat.
The result was a script that was too large and too complicated for a single movie, so he decided to take the first third of the film and make it into a movie and save the remaining two-thirds for another day… and another box-office bonanza.
Lucas shopped a treatment around and found that nobody wanted his space story. Universal and United Artist passed on the film. Even Alan Ladd Jr., the Fox executive who ultimately backed Star Wars, didn't understand the pitch.
As Lucas remembers it,
I was fortunate there was one guy in the film business back when. He said, "You know, I don't understand your films. I don't understand your script. But I think you're a talented guy, and I'm going to invest in you." That was Alan Ladd Jr. at Fox. And that's how I got Star Wars made. (Source)
After the original Star Wars, Lucas would shift from being a writer and director to being a producer and entrepreneur. While he has a story credit on The Empire Strikes Back and a writing credit on The Return of the Jedi, other writers helped Lucas draft both those scripts—Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan for Empire and Kasdan again for Jedi.
As a producer, Lucas would continue to devise story concepts and write drafts, but he handed most of the screenplay writing responsibilities to others. For example, Kasdan wrote the script for Raiders of the Lost Ark while Bob Dolman penned Willow… but Lucas conceived of both story concepts. Lucas remained the mastermind, even as other people took up the labor of creation.
Lucas wouldn't return to exclusively writing screenplays for films he would direct until he undertook the Star Wars prequels, two decades after the first Star Wars film.
George Lucas is famous for wanting complete control over his directed films, so it makes sense that he would use his own production company for Star Wars. Given Lucas' history with the film industry, this decision was for the best—after all, it gave us Star Wars. 'Nuff said.
In 1971, Lucas directed THX-1138 and presented it to Warner Bros. under Francis Ford Coppola's production company, American Zoetrope. THX was a feature-length expansion of Lucas' 15-minute experiment film. Lacking faith in the project, Warner Bros cut five minutes from the film and hardly supported its theatrical run.
Deciding he wanted more control over his films moving forward, Lucas created Lucasfilm Ltd., and the first project that was completed by the brand new film studio was American Graffiti. Lucas was able to produce his next film under the production company, a little phenomenon called Star Wars. As the writer, director and producer, Lucas lessened the number of people he had to report to.
Under the Luscasfilm Ltd. banner, Lucas founded Industrial Light and Magic in 1975 and laid the foundation for what would become Skywalker Sound that same year. Both divisions won Academy Awards for their work on Star Wars, taking Best Visual Effects and Best Sound in 1978.
They totally deserved it. Visuals aside, who can forget the swoosh sound of the lightsabers or the Big Bad Wolf-esque huffing of Darth Vader? That is some sound magic, right there.
After the success of Star Wars, Lucas shifted from directing to producing, and Lucasfilm Ltd. became his base of operations. Between then and the company's acquisition by Disney in 2012, Lucasfilm branded itself by having a hand in creating some of the most popular and influential films in cinematic history.
Like what, you ask?
The company produced all of the Star Wars sequels and prequels as well as other films that Lucas wanted to see made. After Lucas pitched the idea of Indiana Jones to Steven Spielberg, the two filmmakers joined forces to see the film made and used Lucasfilm Ltd. as the production company for it and its three sequels. Lucasfilm Ltd. also produced Willow (1988), the David Bowie extravaganza Labyrinth (1986), and Howard the Duck (1986)—that last one proving that everybody has an off day.
The company continued to create forward-thinking divisions as well. Pixar Animation Studio got its start as a Lucasfilm division before being sold in 1986 and going on to animation greatness. The theater sound system THX, which deafened moviegoers of the 90's with that awful logo and noise, was also born there. LucasArts, a now defunct video game division, created some of the medium's classics, including The Curse of Monkey Island, Star Wars: TIE Fighter, and Grim Fandango.
Industrial Light and Magic continued to innovate. Its work on Jurassic Park, Jumanji, and The Mummy helped usher in the digital effects revolution. Finally, Skywalker Sound has continued to do excellent work as evident by its sound design being nominated for an Oscar almost every year since 1980.
All in all, it's not a bad pedigree for a production company created by a man who simply wanted to do things his way.
Read or watch any history of Star Wars, and one overriding theme becomes clear: the production of the film was a living nightmare. There were technical difficulties, pressure from studio executives, problems in the editing room, and a shotgun marketing campaign. It wasn't breaking Lucas' way.
One of the more challenging aspects of the Star Wars' production was the production itself. Hey, it's difficult to build a galaxy far, far away when you only have the materials from one single planet.
Industrial Light and Magic formed in 1975, and its first project was Star Wars. Lacking pre-constructed resources from previous projects, the special effects team had to design everything from scratch, literally setting up shop as they were creating the effects.
Once the assembly line got up and running, ILM crafted more than 360 special effect shots for the film. This was a record back in 1977, compared to the 205 effects shots used in 2001, another watershed film in special effects. However, by today's standards, it isn't much.
For comparison, Avengers: Age of Ultron contains more than 3,000 visual effects shots. It's not quantity, though, it's quality… and ILM's artistry still makes for a tasty can of old-school peas.
For the space ship scenes, ILM used miniatures with then-state-of-the-art computer-controlled cameras. A Star Wars documentary explains the process:
The Falcon […] is a model. Designed and built by a Hollywood special effects house, it is photographed by a computer-controlled camera. By photographing the model against a blue screen, it will later be possible to add different backgrounds and other moving objects to the screen.
Actors were also filmed against a blue screen. For example, inside the Millennium Falcon's cockpit, the actors saw only an empty blue horizon outside the window. Outer space was filled in later.
Another great example of the crew using classic effect techniques is the scene when Obi-Wan shuts off the tractor beam's power. Since their insurance wouldn't cover dangling Alec Guinness over a sound stage build 300+ feet in the air, the filmmakers used a glass painting shot.
For this technique, an artist paints the background on glass, leaving a specifically shaped black space. The black space is then filled in with the scene filmed on the four-foot-high stage, and the two are seamlessly blended together. The optical illusion is complete, and audiences only see Obi-Wan Kenobi facing a great peril rather than an actor playing on an intricately articulated playground.
Scenes with the actors were filmed both on location and in a studio.
For the Tatooine desert scenes, the cast and crew flew to Tunisia and filmed in the Sahara Desert. Decked out in costumes or lugging heavy equipment, it was, as you can imagine, a sweaty, sweaty joy. Adding to the fun was the lack of control people have over nature… proving that on-location filming is challenging even if it ultimately pays off.
Luke's hovercraft and the twenty-five droid models weren't computer generated but actual props that the filmmakers had to make work in the desert. Poor Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker—C-3PO and R2-D2 respectively—cooked inside their robot-shaped ovens. Worse still, the crew began filming when the Sahara received its first major rainstorm in fifty years.
Although the harshness of the environment has taken its toll on the sets, they remain standing today and can still be visited by Star Wars fans.
When filming wrapped in Tunisia, the production moved to Elstree Studio in London. Inside the studio, the crew had built the sets for locations such as the Death Star and the Rebel Cruiser, taking up a total of nine sound stages to create all the locations. The Millennium Falcon took up an entire sound stage by itself.
Now, if you'll excuse us for a moment, we're going to go geek out at the idea of getting to play on a life-size Millennium Falcon. Actors have all the fun.
Star Wars was a massive success loved by audiences around the world, and ILM went on to become trailblazers in special effects. In the early 1990's, they worked on such digital effects milestones as Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park.
After seeing ILM's work with digital effects, George Lucas decided to re-release the Star Wars original trilogy in the theaters under the label the Special Editions. His experiment was to revise the movies to be more in line with his original vision, which he said he couldn't achieve with the resources and technology of 1977 but was finally possible thanks to computer graphics.
The Special Edition of Star Wars: A New Hope sported shiny new CGI, and it ranges from hardly noticeable to adding new scenes crafted entirely in a computer.
For example, in the scene where the stormtroopers pick up C-3PO and R2-D2's trail, the Special Edition adds a ship taking off and troopers riding a dewback in the background. In another scene, Han Solo chases some stormtroopers down a hallway. In the original cut, there were six of 'em. In the Special Editions, a whole legion of CGI troopers is added.
More jarringly, Luke's drive into Mos Eisley is almost completely replaced with an extended CGI scene filled with ships taking off, arguing robots, and a Jawa losing control of a giraffe-horse-pig-type creature.
One final example: in a new scene added to the Special Edition, Han Solo confronts Jabba the Hutt outside the Millennium Falcon. The problem with adding this scene was that the original Jabba was filmed as a human being before being updated to a giant slug alien for Return of the Jedi. The solution was to paint over the human actor with a CGI Jabba, and the results are… bad. It just looks bad.
Star Wars fans have had mixed reactions to the CGI additions. Some accept them, and others hate them. Younger fans might not even know the difference.
Jay Sylvester, an advocate at originaltrilogy.com, had this to say on the matter:
They won an Oscar for best special effects. Some of those effects are stripped out and replaced with CGI enhancements, if you want to call them that. I think that is really disrespectful to the people who worked on those models and did those shots. (Source)
That's an interesting thought. Are the computer graphic additions a way to say that the original cut of Star Wars, a movie fans love and people worked hard on, just wasn't good enough? Or is it simply the result of an artist putting out another draft of his project?
It's a question every fan will have to answer, so we'll leave it open to you, dear Shmooper.
If for no other reason, people need to see Star Wars for its score. The film's score is so crazy-memorable that the American Film Institute lists it #1 of the 25 Greatest American Films Scores of all time.
It's become such a part of our cultural consciousness that we wager more people know the Star Wars title theme than most classical music pieces. If we asked you to hum Fur Elise, you might be stuck. But the Imperial March from Star Wars? Even a baby can do that.
The man behind the music is John Williams, and if you've seen a movie, chances are you've heard a John Williams score. Before Star Wars, Williams scored Jaws (1975), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and won an Academy Award for Fiddler on the Roof (1971). His other credits include Superman (1978), Home Alone (1990), Jurassic Park (1993), the Indiana Jones series, other Star Wars films, and much, much more. The man is prolific.
Williams tends to favor orchestral scores—in fact, Star Wars was his first time working with the London Symphony Orchestra—and his work leans toward the classical, using music to underline the emotion of the scene.
Princess Leia's Theme uses violins and light winds to convey the gentleness of the character and the hope central to her struggle against the Empire. Conversely, the Death Star's theme uses trumpets and drums—instruments associated with war and the military—for a really foreboding musical queue. When the Millennium Falcon is being dragged into the battle station, the music informs you how much they don't want to go in there.
During the chasm crossfire scene, the upbeat tempo brings the excitement as Luke and Leia fight with seemingly no escape route. Then the music swells to a triumphant crescendo as the two swing across the chasm to safety. Likewise, during Luke's Death Star trench run, the music builds in suspense as Darth Vader hunts Luke, but pauses for some uplifting strings when Luke remembers Obi-Wan's soon-to-be-patented words of wisdom.
The score also helps Star Wars live on… and not just as a relic of the 1970's. Can you imagine a disco score for the Mos Eisley Cantina or the Death Star offensive? No matter your opinion on disco that just seems… wrong.
Star Wars is the Alpha and the Omega of all fandoms. Alright, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but the film's invasion of pop culture has ensured that no product, medium or philosophy is safe from a Star Wars makeover, and its fans have greeted its imagery wherever it popped up with open wallets… um, arms.
Since 1977, the Star Wars franchise has made a whopping $12 billion in toy sales alone. (No comic, movie, or video game convention would be complete without an army of bikini-clad Princess Leias swaying their hips.)
The film has become so ubiquitous that May 4th has been dubbed Star Wars Day, and people all over the world celebrate it by chanting, "May the 4th Be With You," and clogging your social media streams with memes that were only funny the first five times you read them.
While Star Wars didn't invent fan culture, its proliferation into every facet of our culture has certainly opened the doors to a wider acceptance of fandom as a hobby and lifestyle. Basically, you can blame (or hey, thank) Star Wars for Comic-Con.
One of the hallmarks of Star Wars fandom is its sense of participatory culture. As Convergence Culture author Henry Jenkins said, "Star Wars becomes participatory culture the moment in which a kid playing with an action figure begins to make up their own story."
Star Wars fandom and its participatory culture are so far-reaching that we can't really do it justice here or even if we wrote a novel. A couple dozen authors with the goal of producing an A-Z encyclopedia on the subject might be able to pull it off… oh, wait, they did. It's called (har, har) Wookieepedia.