Classic Sets and Effects Done Right
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.
A Galaxy Not So Far Away
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.