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In the midst of ‘Wars,’ special effects come of age

Star Wars

Star Wars. Circa 1977.

Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty

Star Wars marks the opening salvo of what could become a pitched battle of special effects — as well as a watershed in the nature of special effects itself. It has effortlessly outstripped the classic 2001 in terms of opticals, miniatures and miscellaneous amazement — even a brief comparison of the show-stopping “Blue Danube” sequence in 2001 and the final dogfight in Star Wars underscores just how far the technology has evolved.

2001 was itself a landmark: the first giant step past the era when stars were clearly painted on a background and the sparks from a rocket’s exhaust inevitably fell toward the bottom of the frame. Yet, while 2001 was a stunning achievement for 1968, it involved, in all, only 35 special-effects shots — all virtual set pieces — as compared to 365 for Star Wars. And Star Wars actually cost half a million dollars less to produce. Had 2001‘s techniques been used on Star Wars, it would have taken at least ten years to complete — if it could have been done at all.

Appropriately, 30-year-old John Dykstra, the special photographic effects supervisor for Star Wars, received much of his basic training working with Doug Trumbull — the special-effects wizard responsible for 2001. And, in fact, the next big special-effects film, to be released late this year, will be a project of Trumbull’s — Steven Spielberg’s $18 million Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film about man’s first face-to-face encounter with extraterrestrials that will almost certainly offer some legendary special effects of its own.

Past that, the $20 million production of Superman, due next summer, includes footage on the planet Krypton and is predicted to be no special-effects slackard itself. During Christmas of 1978, Walt Disney Productions is scheduled to present a $10 million epic called Space Station One, which reportedly involves a mile-long space station in imminent danger of falling into a black hole. Two more studios are collaborating on a “big” new version of the Fifties classic When Worlds Collide — and yet another is remaking The Thing. And finally, Paramount’s new Star Trek television series — due to appear next spring — will reportedly cost more to produce than any other hour-long show on the air today.

Cost, in fact, will likely make the sci-fi/special-effects trend an unusually self-limiting one by Hollywood standards. It’s simply too expensive a genre to drive totally into the ground. Already Paramount’s special-effects unit — which also produces material for other studios — has had so many requests for help on sci-fi projects that most have been turned down.

But even so, the future looks bright for special-effects fanciers. Special effects is the area of filmmaking that incorporates the widest range of science and technology — from optics and the chemistry of film emulsions to mechanical engineering, physics and electronics. And so it is also the area most affected by scientific progress — and Star Wars is a perfect example.

The film is, of course, filled with remarkable effects achieved through the clever use of existing technology. An example that comes to mind immediately is the use of videotape images, printed onto film, to yield the holographic look on both Artoo Detoo’s projected image of Princess Leia and the monster figures used as pieces in the chess game aboard Han Solo’s ship. Or the use of foam to construct the miniature spacecraft used in some explosions to give a slower, longer-burning effect (some of the explosions were also shot upside down to approximate the look of detonation under zero-G).

Even the most traditional effects clearly worked. One SF fanzine has already bubbled enthusiastically that the starring robots — See Threepio and Artoo Detoo — “are not men in robot suits” (for the most part they were) and that the gigantic sand crawler in the desert scenes was really four stories tall (it was not).

But Star Wars‘ real contribution to special-effects technology was something altogether new: a fundamentally different way of shooting the kind of deep-space action characterized by both 2001‘s “Blue Danube” sequence and the Star Wars dogfights.

Each of Star Wars‘ special-effects shots required the use of from two to 12 individual elements — ranging from spacecraft models to animated laser beams — separately photographed and then added together, one atop the next, to finally create the total scene. In all, 3838 individual elements were required for those 365 scenes.

Sandwiching together planets, stars and stationary spacecraft is tricky enough, but by no means particularly new. In the case of moving spacecraft, however — especially two or more spacecraft moving relative to one another — the problem becomes far more complex.

The rebel X-wing fighter one sees swooping and soaring in Star Wars was actually standing perfectly still, attached solidly to a plastic pylon during the shooting. It was the camera that moved, in such a fashion as to create the illusion of spacecraft motion. If one wanted two moving spacecraft — to add, say, an Empire fighter dogging the X-wing’s tail — it was necessary to film the Empire fighter separately, moving the camera differently, and then put the two films together to make a single coordinated scene (not to mention adding stars, planets, animated laser fire, etc).

There was yet another challenge, however: suppose you also wanted the camera’s point of view to change during the course of the shot. In traditional filmmaking, pans and tilts and dolly shots are used regularly. But in a situation like the deep-space battle scenes — where the camera was already moving to lend the appearance of motion to the stationary spacecraft miniatures — adding yet another component of camera movement is complex indeed. And when there were two or more moving spacecraft in the scene to begin with, that meant that while the camera moved separately to simulate motion during each individual spacecraft shot, it also had to retain, intact and exact, frame by frame, the components of what was to appear as its own motion — so that when the composite scene was assembled, the shifting points of view matched identically.

This was the most difficult problem solved by the Star Wars group. And, almost predictably, the immediate mind behind those complex camera moves was a computer. Properly programmed, and feeding instructions to a set of electric motors, the computer led the camera through an intricate series of maneuvers — and remembered frame by frame, just what it had done and then repeated, with any necessary variations thrown in.

The result was that in Star Wars, for the first time, director George Lucas could not only place the camera where he wanted it in space — but could actually move it around, just like a director in real time.

The opening scene of Star Wars was an exuberant announcement of filmmaking’s new capabilities. Once the printed prologue runs off against the stars, the camera — apparently suspended in mid-space — leisurely tilts down from the black sky to survey the curving edge of the planet Tatooine, as if it had been there all along. Moments later, a rebel space cruiser roars up from the bottom of the frame, closely pursued by an Empire warship, lasers firing. And then both vessels plummet, scale diminishing rapidly, toward the surface of the planet.

While running no more than a minute or so, this is a scene guaranteed to make special-effects people fall off their chairs. And the rest of the audience — the people who don’t know a multielement matched-move matte shot from an explosion enhancement — can’t help but love it too. But for a different reason: suddenly they are part of the story, sucked out of their seats and right into that galaxy far, far away. And sooner or later they may even stop noticing the elegant technologic details of the special-effects work altogether.

And perhaps that should be the aim of special effects in science fiction — to stop being “special,” and to operate in natural conjunction with the story. Past a dull imagination, there’s nothing more cramping in science fiction than a narrative either limited or dictated by its medium. And, in that sense, Star Wars represents an impressive coming-of-age — and that roving camera in deep space becomes an apt metaphor.

Don’t get me wrong — as a special-effects enthusiast, I still want to be dazzled, and on occasion, mind-boggled. I’m curious to see where we’ll go from here. Until now, directors have had to tailor their imaginations to fit existing technology: but if the present trend continues, perhaps the day will come when the capabilities of special effects become so outrageous that directors will have to stretch their imaginations in order to even use them.


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