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5 Technical Breakthroughs in Star Wars that Changed Movies Forever

by | December 6, 2017 | Comments

The Star Wars movies aren’t just about swooping space battles, cool-looking aliens, and beloved droids, but let’s be honest — a large part of the saga’s immense appeal has always rested on its awesome special effects. We decided to go back to the beginning and take a look at just a few of the many ways in which Star Wars‘ visual thrills helped redefine special effects — and whether or not you’re a fan, this list makes it clear that our modern moviegoing experience owes a number of debts to what happened in George Lucas’ long-ago, faraway galaxy.


Dykstraflex

Dykstraflex
(Photo by Lucasfilm Ltd.)

Much has been made in recent years of George Lucas’ oft-stated wish to return to “experimental films” after making his Star Wars fortune, but from a technical standpoint, Lucas’ popcorn space opera was one of the more experimental efforts in modern moviemaking — and the Dykstraflex might be the best example of how he used a small army of talented outsiders to create the technology needed to suit his vision. A computer-controlled motion camera apparatus that piggybacked old VistaVision cameras onto an ungainly array of hardwired circuits, the Dykstraflex — named for lead developer John Dykstra, who worked alongside a team that included engineers Alvah J. Miller and Jerry Jeffress — allowed Lucas the ability to precisely replicate the repeated camera movements necessary to create Star Wars’ eye-popping space battles, while adding an incredible (and previously unattainable) freedom of movement along multiple visual axes. While enabling a crucial component of the movie’s signature aesthetic, Dykstraflex also acted as a gateway into far greater innovations by serving as the first major project out of Lucas’ next business venture: Industrial Light & Magic.


3-D computer animation

Star-Wars-3d

Through ILM, Lucas would ultimately become indirectly responsible for ushering in the CG era that’s essentially revolutionized special effects in general — and although computer graphics were already starting to come into their own before he took us long, long ago to a galaxy far, far away, it was Star Wars that gave audiences their first extended look at 3D wireframe animation in action. Of course, it all looks fairly quaint now, but at the time, the sequence — glimpsed during the scene showing Rebel pilots getting some last-minute training before their attack on the Death Star — was thoroughly state-of-the-art, and added to the movie’s futuristic feel while showing sci-fi fans early advances in technology already brought to bear on 1973’s Westworld and its sequel, 1976’s Futureworld. It would take years for computers to fully harness the FX power we take for granted today, but by the end of the ‘70s, computer-generated images had already started popping up in a wider array of sci-fi movies (including The Black Hole and Alien), and in the ‘80s, the CGI revolution really got rolling — largely through the efforts of Industrial Light & Magic engineers.


Go Motion

Star-Wars-Tauntaun
(Photo by Lucasfilm Ltd.)

Early stop-motion animation gave film fans some of their most thrilling glimpses of the fantastic and otherworldly during the pre-CG era, but those sequences also always had an unnatural, herky-jerky feel — something animators attempted to combat for decades by artificially adding motion blur through a variety of methods that ran the gamut from smearing petroleum jelly on the lens to simply bumping their models before capturing a shot. None of the above were good enough for Lucas, and when mapping out the Tauntaun sequence and Hoth battle in The Empire Strikes Back, ILM engineers developed go motion — a technique that uses computer-controlled rod puppets captured during multiple passes with the camera in order to create a facsimile of natural movement. Practical stop-motion would shortly be supplanted by CGI, but go motion helped build a bridge to the modern effects era; in fact, Steven Spielberg contemplated using it for Jurassic Park before opting to gamble on the newer technology instead.


THX

We tend to think about the visual side of things when we talk about Star Wars or Industrial Light & Magic, but George Lucas’ original trilogy also brought us an important audio innovation: THX, the quality assurance system that was introduced for Return of the Jedi and has since become an industry-wide standard for studios striving to offer audiences a listening experience as close as possible to the filmmaker’s vision. It’s easy to be cynical about physical modifications alleged to improve your night out at the movies, but in THX’s case, there’s actually a lot going on; in order to obtain certification, theaters undergo a top-to-bottom acoustic optimization that includes everything from a floating floor to baffled walls and a perforated screen. When you see the THX logo come up on the screen, you know you’re in for a meticulously recreated audio experience — starting with that trademark “Deep Note” audio logo that plays along with it.


The Blue Screen

Star-Wars---Blue-Screen
(Photo by Lucasfilm Ltd.)

Out of all the effects innovations that came out of Star Wars, it’s the original’s quantum leap in bluescreen composite shot technology that might be the most important. Developed in the ‘50s by effects pioneer Petro Vlahos, bluescreen allowed filmmakers to exert a finer degree of control while combining separately shot footage of actors and backgrounds, resulting in a picture whose comparatively seamless realism dwarfed the capabilities of the often hokey rear-projection standard — but still wasn’t quite up to snuff in terms of pulling off the sort of brilliantly crisp matte imagery seen in Star Wars’ space battles. Lucas’ team compensated in any number of ways, overhauling the process by fashioning a portable transmission screen and wiring direct-current fluorescent tubes that could light their models without flickering. The striking results proved that special effects — theretofore often treated as an afterthought and forced to fight for a small slice of a picture’s budget — could actually help drive blockbuster grosses. For better and for worse, that spark ignited the effects wars that largely define our tentpole-driven era.

  • MatteObject

    Of course, this was back when movie studios were happy to pay for R&D rather than the “screw it, just throw something together” mentality that permeates the industry these days.

    • Jack Dee

      lol. You do know the entire Star Wars trilogy is a rip-off of things before it- Japanese movies, Lord of the Rings books, pretty much every sci-fi author of the time.

      This takes nothing away from George Lucas, b/c he is brilliant, but EVERYONE steals and borrows from other artists. Some are just very lazy about it, but don’t go around bragging like SW was something original.

      • MatteObject

        … and that pertains to the TECHNICAL side of film making (which is what the article is about), how, exactly?

        Did I miss an explanation of chroma keying in The Hobbit? Was Sauron THX certified?

      • Star Wars was very original, it just was based on the mythological generalizations of Joseph Campbell.

    • Like the Groundhog Phil

      Actually, it’s the exact opposite. If studios were so happy to pay for R&D, Lucas wouldn’t have had to start his own.

      • MatteObject

        All of which is still ultimately paid for by the client, which is the movie studio funding the film, albeit indirectly.

        These days, they don’t want to do that, they don’t want to spend time on development, they don’t want to spend time on research they just want to throw a movie at the visual effects vendor and have them put explosions and dinosaurs in in the least amount of time possible.

        • MightyFooda

          No visual effects companies existed by then. The only reason he got any many was from the clout from American Graffiti. They were going to chock Star Wars up as a loss and wait for him to make the next traditional hit. They couldn’t have given two fucks about Lucas doing R&D on his own.

          • MatteObject

            No studio has ever said “here’s a ton of money, go build a visual effects house”, but they have said “we want this to happen, figure it out, how much will it cost?”…

            … these days, however, they say “we want this to happen, figure it out, no we’re not paying for it”.

            Which is why CGI continues to look worse as time goes on, the studios aren’t interested in making it look better, they’re only interested in making it cheaper.

          • Cgi is pretty cool.

  • HealthyAmerican

    Most of this technology was well in use by the time Star Wars came along. Can we please not credit Lucas with what he did not do?

    • Christopher F.

      Lucas was a lot like Blizzard (the World of Warcraft guys). He didn’t do anything new, he took what other people were doing and polished the hell out of it.

      • ChefJeff789

        ^This. Lucas and the entire ILM crew do deserve a lot of credit for advancing film technology considerably. If nothing else, Star Wars is one of the most visible and wide-reaching films in history, so it exposed more of the world to what might be possible in film. Even if you outright dislike Star Wars, ILM should be commended for having the balls to use so many bleeding edge techniques together in a single film.

    • Like the Groundhog Phil

      Right. I guess movies had sound and color at this point, so Lucas didn’t invent anything.

    • alissa914

      Let’s not forget that if Howard the Duck didn’t flop so badly, he wouldn’t have had to sell what is now known today as Pixar….. he may be a bad director now but it’s nice to see someone try to push the envelope a bit.

      • HealthyAmerican

        Yeah, but if not him, then someone else. These developments were inevitable, and again, most of it was already in use. He can be credited for one, maybe two things that he used but did not himself actually create.

  • Cyber Slammer
  • Mike g

    Why is Kunta Kinte in the new Star Wars?

  • Call me Snake

    if you’re gonna mention Go-Motion you have to mention Phil Tippett, one of the guys who invented it!

  • My favorite THX parody: https://youtu.be/hByt1KkiwgM

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