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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.