Star Wars pioneered Computer Generated Imagery, in fact, Star Wars utilised visual effects long before it could even be rendered on a computer system. Star Wars has followed the growth in the visual effects journey and in several ways defined it. The sweeping, photorealistic effects that are a staple in any blockbuster today owes itself to the ground-breaking techniques Star Wars incorporated.
In 1977, a sci-fi fantasy adventure seemed a touch ambitious, space battles, sentient droids and lightsabers. With the technology at the time it certainly seemed too much with too little.
However, George Lucas was not going to allow something as trivial as the limitations of technology to alter his vision. Lucas wanted to push the envelope, he wanted to create an adventure that would blow audiences away for years. And so, began a journey...
After discovering the in-house effects department in 20th Century Fox (the studio that produced Star Wars) Lucas knew he was on his own, if he wanted his vision realised he would have to do it himself. He first approached Douglas Trumbull, the incredible mind behind the mesmerising effects that captivated audiences in 1968 in 2001 A Space Odyssey.
Trumbull however was already committed to another visionary’s project, namely Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. John Dykstra, Trumbull’s assistant was however ready to work with Lucas. The two men brought together a small team of young talent from artists to engineers
and under the roof of a small warehouse in Van Nuys, California Industrial Light and Magic was born, the visual effects company that would define the standard for visual effects, a standard that is pushed to unimaginable lengths even today.
Not only did Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) solve Lucas’ visual effects problem but it was the first time a group of visual effects artists worked together under one name to create a film. ILM had a monumental task before them, to create a space adventure that would push the boundaries of the imagination in a world that is as convincing as it is creative.
Sometimes the small, seemingly insignificant additions make all the difference.
Without the supercomputers of today this could have seemed like an impossible task, however the combined genius of ILM instead constructed a visual effects masterpiece that holds up today. Their process was simple, get as much as they could on film, if that meant building hundreds of miniatures or spending hundreds of hours moving an arm millimetres frame by frame, they would do it. It’s this hard work and commitment combined with unmatched creative skill that eventually lead to the film and eventually the saga.
A New Hope’s final battle, the destruction of the death star, remains one of cinema’s greatest climaxes, a sequence brimming with energy and action. ILM and Lucas’ steady hand at the helm are the reason this sequence lives up to this day. Without a computer to render to build CGI ships, every single ship in the sequence is filmed physically. Empire’s unbelievable battle on Hoth was filmed with stop motion miniatures, painstakingly moved inch by inch. The result is a mind-blowing display of fantasy action.
The trend continued beyond the original trilogy with impressive CGI in the prequels as well. The pod race in the Phantom Menace is one of the most gripping moments in the saga and it wouldn’t work with the seamless visual work that brings the sequence to life. There’s a reason Star Wars effects hold up and it’s not always because they have the best computers. Achieving convincing effects is often as simple as paying attention to the details. Sometimes the small, seemingly insignificant additions make all the difference.
That being said, the franchise has received its share of criticism around its visual effects especially during the prequels, yet it still remains one of the most consistent franchises in the visual effects department. More than forty years since audiences first heard of the Jedi and the Sith, more than forty years since audiences saw the lightsaber and heard the swell of John Williams’ score, Star Wars remains one of the grandest franchises in Hollywood.