The original “Star Wars” movies were game-changers in terms of special effects and Hollywood wizardry, yet when George Lucas made the 1977 first film, there were no effects houses that could conjure the images and scenes he had in his mind. So he created his own.
Name a favorite movie, or a huge blockbuster from the past four decades, and Industrial Light & Magic probably worked on it. The new six-episode Disney+ docuseries “Light & Magic” (streaming now) – featuring interviews with Lucas, Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams and other luminaries – chronicles the history of ILM and the many films it jazzed up along the way. If you loved the imploding house in “Poltergeist,” the flying bikes of “E.T.,” the face-melting Nazis of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the dinos in “Jurassic Park,” you can pretty much thank ILM.
While the series tracks the company’s revolutions in digital cinema, the most entertaining bits are the analog ones, as problem-solving artists MacGyver’ed various solutions for scenes and crafted hugely original moments in the first “Star Wars” trilogy.
Here are five things you may not know about the making of Lucas’ galaxy far, far away:
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Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon earned the inelegant nickname ‘The Pork Burger’
Han Solo needed his own spaceship, but Lucas didn’t love the original design because it looked too much like something on the “Space: 1999” TV series. He sent Joe Johnston from the ILM art department home to come up with something right away. Dealing with a mental block, Johnston looked in his kitchen and saw a stack of dirty dishes. He thought about putting two together, which would make a flying saucer, “but you can give it direction by putting an engine in the back.” The Rebel ships were supposed to be hot rods, so Johnston put the cockpit on the left driver’s side, but then switched it to the right because he didn’t want it to look like an American car. (The Falcon also garnered an early nickname: “The Pork Burger.”)
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The Mos Eisley cantina where Luke Skywalker meets Han was filled late in the game
Lucas filmed the Mos Eisley Cantina sequence (where Luke Skywalker meets Han for the first time) in England in 1976. The director wanted it more crowded with odd characters, though, so they did reshoots where Lucas told stop-motion animators to make as many space aliens as they could in six weeks. Lucas chose designs for 12 more colorful creatures and ILM artists brought them to life not just on paper but also by becoming the aliens, wearing masks and costumes in the scene.
The AT-AT in ‘Empire Strikes Back’ was envisioned as a steel dinosaur
The Battle of Hoth at the beginning of “The Empire Strikes Back” was influenced by the 1938 Russian film “Alexander Nevsky,” and filmmakers made a deal with the Norwegian army to borrow six tanks and gussy them up as treaded Imperial vehicles attacking the Rebel base. When that idea was nixed, Johnston saw an illustration in a U.S. Steel brochure with a four-legged truck walking through the woods in the snow. He decided to create an anthropomorphic military vehicle and the mighty Imperial Walkers were born, imagined as a metal version of a Baluchitherium with a cockpit on the neck and gun ports for eyes.
The Rancor in ‘Return of the Jedi’ went from Godzilla costume to high-end puppet
The opening of “Return of the Jedi” took audiences to Jabba the Hutt’s palace, where Luke has to face the giant Rancor monster. The beast was initially imagined as a stop-motion animated character that was “a cross between a bear and a potato,” says ILM creature guru Phil Tippett, but then Lucas wanted it to be “the best Godzilla costume ever.” So a Rancor outfit was built for someone to stomp around in and destroy stuff. When that didn’t work, the monster finally wound up being a puppet, where Tippett manned the head and two other artists were responsible for the hands and feet.
Weird things like potatoes and chewing gum made it into George Lucas’ coolest space battles
In “Empire,” when the heroes in the Millennium Falcon head into a dangerous asteroid field to escape an Imperial Star Destroyer, the asteroid models in the background were supplemented by potatoes put on a rig and shot against a blue screen. And in “Return of the Jedi” during the Rebel ships’ attack on the Death Star, visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston says he included his tennis shoe in the scene, as well as yogurt containers and wads of gum “that represent fleets of ships in the background that you can’t really tell what’s going on.”