The Real History That Inspired “Star Wars”

The Real History That Inspired “Star Wars”


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When George Lucas developed the storyline for “Star Wars” and crafted his heroes and villains, he tapped into elements of theology, mysticism and mythology as well as his knowledge of classic films. And befitting a story set a “long time ago,” real-life history also played a central role in shaping the filmmaker’s space opera.

“I love history, so while the psychological basis of ‘Star Wars’ is mythological, the political and social bases are historical,” Lucas told the Boston Globe in a 2005 interview. In fact, the filmmaker is such a history buff that he collaborated in the publication of the 2013 book “Star Wars and History,” which was edited by history professors Nancy R. Reagin and Janice Liedl. Written by a dozen leading historians and reviewed and confirmed by Lucas, “Star Wars and History” identifies the numerous real-life figures and events that inspired the science-fiction franchise, including the following:

Nazi Germany
There’s nothing subtle about this historical allusion in “Star Wars.” After all, the elite assault forces fanatically devoted to the Galactic Empire share a common name with the paramilitary fighters who defended the Nazi Party—stormtroopers. The Imperial officers’ uniforms and even Darth Vader’s helmet resemble those worn by German Army members in World War II, and the gradual rise of Palpatine from chancellor to emperor mirrored Adolf Hitler’s similar political ascent from chancellor to dictator. The Empire wasn’t the only side in “Star Wars” that cribbed Nazi imagery, however. The final scene of the original 1977 “Star Wars” in which Princess Leia awards medals to Rebel heroes Luke Skywalker and Han Solo while soldiers stood at attention echoed the massive Nazi rallies in Nuremberg captured in Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.”

Richard Nixon
Although there are parallels between Emperor Palpatine and dictators such as Hitler and Napoleon Bonaparte, the direct inspiration for the saga’s evil antagonist was actually an American president. According to J.W. Rinzler’s “The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,” when asked if Emperor Palpatine was a Jedi during a 1981 story conference, Lucas responded, “No, he was a politician. Richard M. Nixon was his name. He subverted the senate and finally took over and became an imperial guy and he was really evil. But he pretended to be a really nice guy.” In a 2005 interview published in the Chicago Tribune, Lucas said he originally conceived “Star Wars” as a reaction to Nixon’s presidency. “It was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away.”

Vietnam War
The guerilla war waged by the Rebel Alliance against the Galactic Empire mirrored the battle between an insurgent force and a global superpower that was playing out in Vietnam as Lucas wrote “Star Wars”. The filmmaker, who was originally set to direct to the Vietnam War film “Apocalypse Now” in the early 1970s before moving on to “Star Wars,” said in an audio commentary on the 2004 re-release of “Return of the Jedi” that the Viet Cong served as his inspiration for the furry forest-dwelling Ewoks, who were able to defeat a vastly superior opponent in spite of their primitive weapons. As William J. Astore writes in “Star Wars and History,” both the Viet Cong and Ewoks were well-served by their “superior knowledge of the local terrain and an ability to blend into that terrain.”

Ancient Rome
The political institutions of “Star Wars”—such as the Senate, Republic and Empire—and the pseudo-Latin names of characters such as chancellors Valorum and Palpatine echo those of ancient Rome. As Tony Keen notes in “Star Wars and History,” the architecture on the planet Naboo resembles that of imperial Rome, and the pod race in “The Phantom Menace” rivals that of the Roman chariot race seen on screen in “Ben-Hur.” The transition from the democratic Galactic Republic to the dictatorial Galactic Empire over the course of the franchise also mirrors that of ancient Rome. “It is plain that the basic structure of Lucas’s history derives from the fall of the Roman Republic and the subsequent establishment of a monarchy,” Keen writes.

Knights Templar
While the elite Jedi—who guard peace and justice in the Galactic Republic—bear similarities to Japanese samurai and Shaolin monks, they also echo the medieval monastic military order of the Knights Templar. The Templars, writes Terrance MacMullan in “Star Wars and History,” “were esteemed above other knights for their austerity, devotion, and moral purity. Like the Jedi, they practiced individual poverty within a military-monastic order that commanded great material resources.” A 12-member council of elders headed by a grand master governed both the Jedi and the Templars, and Jedi clothing even resembled the hooded white robes worn by the Christian warrior-monks who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Much like the Great Jedi Purge ordered by Chancellor Palpatine in “Revenge of the Sith,” France’s King Philip IV annihilated the Knights Templar after arresting hundreds of them on October 13, 1307, and subsequently torturing and executing them for heresy.

Cold War
The tense relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, with the threat of nuclear annihilation lurking in the background, was hardly history when “Star Wars” first premiered in 1977. The threat to the planet posed by nuclear weapons was encapsulated on screen in the ultimate weapon of mass destruction—the Death Star—which destroyed Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan, a blue orb that closely resembled Earth. “Star Wars” itself entered the realm of Cold War history after it was adopted by the media in the 1980s as a nickname for President Ronald Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, which would have used lasers to defend the United States against incoming nuclear missiles.


Star Wars sources and analogues

The Star Wars science fiction media franchise is acknowledged to have been inspired by many sources. These include southern and eastern Asian religions, Qigong, philosophy, classical mythology, Roman history, Zoroastrianism, parts of the Abrahamic religions, Confucianism, Shintō and Taoism, and countless cinematic precursors. Creator George Lucas stated "Most of the spiritual reality in the movie[s] is based on a synthesis of all religions. A synthesis through history the way man has perceived the unknown and the great mystery and tried to deal with that or dealing with it". [1]

Lucas has also said that chivalry, knighthood, paladinism and related institutions in feudal societies inspired some concepts in the Star Wars movies, most notably the Jedi Knights. The work of the mythologist Joseph Campbell, especially his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, directly influenced Lucas, [2] and is what drove him to create the "modern myth" of Star Wars. The natural flow of energy known as the Force is believed to have originated from the concept of qi/chi/ki, "the all-pervading vital energy of the universe".

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Star Wars, The History Channel premiered a two-hour event covering the entire Star Wars saga entitled Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed. Featuring interviews from the likes of Stephen Colbert, Newt Gingrich, Nancy Pelosi, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Peter Jackson, acclaimed scholars and others, the program delved further into the Heroic Epic concept and the influences of mythology and other motifs that were important in making Star Wars. Subjects include sins of the father and redeeming the father, coming of age, exiting the ordinary world and others.


The Long Road to &aposA New Hope&apos

Lucas and Kurtz shopped around a 12-page treatment of Star Wars to various Hollywood studios. United Artists turned them down. So did Universal. However, 20th Century Fox, encouraged by the early buzz from Graffiti, decided to give the duo some money to flesh out the script.

But going from a rough outline to a final script would take years. In fact, early drafts of Star Wars would be unrecognizable to even die-hard fans: Luke Skywalker is a grizzled old general, Han Solo is a frog-like alien, there’s a main character named Kane Starkiller and the dark side of the force is called “the Bogan.” 

Lucas struggled to rein in his space epic. The story was too dense, tonally imbalanced and its elaborate scenes would be prohibitively expensive to shoot. His friend and mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, expressed misgivings about early drafts. Even Lucas’ partner Kurtz described the second draft as “gobbledygook.”

But with each round, the story improved. In the second draft, published in 1975, Luke Skywalker is a farm boy, not an older general, and Darth Vader is the menacing man in black we’re familiar with today. The third draft introduced Obi-Wan Kenobi and played up the tension between Leia and Han Solo.ꂬknowledging that he had trouble writing dialogue, Lucas brought in help from writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (although the director rewrote most of their changes). For Lucas, Star Wars was finally coming into focus. On January 1, 1976, he finished the fourth draft of the script, the one eventually used when production began in Tunisia on March 25, 1976.

Lucas and Kurtz originally budgeted $18 million for the film. Fox offered them $7.5 million. Eager to begin shooting, they took the offer and the rest was history.

Released in 1977, Star Wars ushered in a new era of movie-making with its special effects, fantastical world-building and engrossing blend of myth and fairy tale. Although the final budget was $11 million, the film grossed more than $513 million worldwide during its original release, setting the stage for a franchise that would span decades and create generations of fans across the world𠅊ll connected by a common love for a galaxy far, far away. 


Star Wars: The Real, Bloodthirsty Samurai Who Inspired Darth Vader

Infamous warlord Date Masamune's appearance and life story shares a lot of parallels with Star Wars' Darth Vader.

It is well known that George Lucas drew inspiration for Star Wars from the samurai culture of feudal Japan, but it turns out he had a specific historical figure in mind for the basis of Darth Vader. The most famous villain in cinema history shares a lot in common with one of the most iconic and fearsome warlords in Japanese history, Date Masamune.

Date Masamune was inspirational for the creation of Darth Vader through not only his distinguishable black armor, but also his life story and complicated reputation as being both charitable and vengeful. Masamune rose through the ranks of feudal Japan to become one of the most powerful warlords in the country, much like the rise of Vader to the ruler of the galaxy.

Lucas was heavily inspired by samurai culture and eastern religions for his spiritual warriors, the Jedi, and the formidable Sith Lords. He was a huge fan of prominent Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, who made a film called Kagemusha, which Lucas was an executive producer on. Most notably, Vader's helmet can be traced back to samurai gear, especially Masamune's iconic black armor. Masamune wore a rimmed helmet with an extended shield around the back and sides of his head, much like the helmet Vader is known for. The earliest sketches of Vader from Ralph McQuarrie are eerily reminiscent of Masamune in his full body armor, making the connection undeniable.

Date Masamune's almost mythic life also provides several parallels to the infamous Star Wars villain. Masamune was born in 1576. The eldest son of a feudal lord over the Tohoku Region of Japan, Masamune lost vision in his right eye as a child after contracting smallpox, similar to how Anakin lost many of his limbs and bodily faculties in the battle of Mustafar. Masamune was abandoned by his mother because of his vision impairment, making him a less suitable heir to the family throne. Anakin also grew up with only one parent, although it was his mother who stayed to raise him.

Masamune was born into political instability in Japan and participated in military campaigns with his father from an early age. He became a ruthless warrior and a capable leader of his family clan, succeeding his father, and surely proving an inspiration for the meteoritic rise of Anakin to Jedi Knight and eventually Sith Lord. Masamune's ferocity enabled him to rise to power but also concerned fellow lords who feared his ambitions. This conflict is seen in Anakin's story as well, as Anakin's impressive abilities made him a great Jedi, but also were fuelled by deep-seated anger that worried the Jedi Council.

Masamune had an imposing reputation among other feudal lords, and he did not take well to traitors. One group of insurgent samurai kidnapped Masamune's father, prompting a swift retaliation from Masamune's army. When Masamune caught up to the fleeing kidnappers before they crossed a river into their domain, his father ordered Masamune's troops to fire on the kidnappers. They obeyed and squashed the rebellion, along with killing Masamune's father. As punishment for the murder of his father, Masamune killed the family member of all of the men involved in the kidnapping. This sounds hauntingly familiar to how Anakin killed all of the Tusken Raiders after they abducted and caused the death of his mother, Shmi.

Masamune went onto become the most powerful warlord in Northern Japan, but his bloody conquests on the battlefield were also accompanied by charitable deeds he executed while in power. Masamune built up Japan's marine infrastructure with Western technology that he enthusiastically accepted. He also facilitated the spread of Christianity and supported one of the only diplomatic missions in feudal Japan the first Japanese seafaring expedition to circumnavigate the world. Both Masamune and Vader built a flourishing empire based on technological advancement and severe leadership that inspired obedience.

The parallels between Date Masamune and Darth Vader are uncanny. Lucas was not only inspired by the samurai's formidable war attire, but also by his remarkable and hard-fought life. It seems only fitting that the most fearsome Sith in the galaxy is based on an equally imposing figure in Japanese history, who has exalted himself into pop culture. The Force is certainly strong with Masamune.


The Amazing Stories, Art, and History Found in ‘Star Wars and the Power of Costume’

Standing before a row of Queen Amidala’s gowns is like peeking behind the curtain before a couture runway show. Hand-smocked velvet gives way to gossamer silk chiffon substantial grosgrains mingle with fine filigrees and a playful feathered cape. Some look a tad bit uncomfortable — one gown actually calls for the wearer to straddle a car battery to illuminate a series of globes at its rigid base — while others are just plain covetable, but each has the unmistakable air of royalty.

Here, among a hand-picked collection of cinematic wonder, curators behind the touring exhibit “Rebel, Jedi, Princess, Queen: Star Wars and the Power of Costume,” tell the story of the creative process from eclectic inspirations to physical manifestation. StarWars.com visited the exhibit during its final days in New York City, with an eye towards its November 13 opening at the Denver Art Museum.

In dressing the inhabitants of a galaxy far, far away, costume designers evoke mythological heroes and real-life astronauts, Eastern royalty, and pre-Raphaelite models. Breathing life into George Lucas’ vision, conceptualized by artists such as Ralph McQuarrie and Iain McCaig, then designed by the likes of John Mollo and Trisha Biggar, required international travels to find perfect fabrics.

Sometimes even their lunch became fodder for a dazzling headdress. As the story goes, Biggar and her team were taking a break from working on the prequels one day and eating abalone. “They’re looking at these shells and, after they were done with their lunch, they had the waiter put them in a doggie bag,” says Saul Sopoci Drake, the exhibitions developer behind the show. “Those particular shells ended up in Queen Jamilla’s crown.”

Jamilla’s full regalia is one of about 70 pieces, including the armored bodies of bounty hunters and droids, the monk-like robes of the Jedi and Sith, and the iconic looks of the classic films.

Craftsmanship and artistry

Drake, of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and Laela French, director of archives for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art at Skywalker Ranch , worked together to cull from the thousands painstakingly preserved pieces to brilliantly illuminate the creative undertaking and the intricacies of each costume. For the marriage of Anakin and Padmé, costume designer Biggar stayed up all night before the shoot to pearl the wedding gown, which had already been fashioned from a 20th century antique Italian lace bedspread and embellished with over 300 yards of French knit braid.

The exhibit gives fans a chance to get within reach (but not too close — no touching) to examine Biggar’s handiwork. “When you see them up close, you can really appreciate the details and craftsmanship and artistry,” Drake says. “There was so much time and effort and detail. Some are works of art. Others are fashion statements.”

Take, for example, Amidala’s vast wardrobe, equal parts haute couture and cultural homage. The character had so many costume changes over three films that some gowns that took months to create but were on screen for mere seconds. Among Drake’s favorites is a senate gown that boasts an opulent Mongolian-inspired head piece, which along with everything else in the show must travel in a carefully-packed custom crate. “On a symbolic level, when you look at this headdress, this person isn’t digging ditches. She’s the queen of some people,” he says. Those nonverbal cues, in this case a nod to Tibetan royalty’s court regalia at the turn of the century, imbue many characters with a clear purpose as soon as they walk onscreen. “Truly on a symbolic level there are some powerful things at play here.”

‘The ultimate bad guy’

The open air platforms where many of the costumes are perched has been a gift to passionate cosplayers. On occasion, Drake has also fielded their requests for behind-the-scenes knowledge. Before packing up the show in New York City in September, he was tasked with measuring part of Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan Kenobi robe for a man who was building his own Jedi garb and couldn’t quite perfect the belt. “It’s a testament to the veracity of the fan base,” Drake says. “You have really passionate fans who live and breathe this stuff.”

Amidala’s gowns, specifically, are staggering in number and splendor. Up close, one can study the brocade lining sumptuous bell sleeves, fine collars made from clustered seed beads, and the feathers and rosettes adorning ensembles with delicate precision. In contrast, Jedi and Sith robes appear deceptively simple, like the humble trappings of monks. But up close one can see the way fabric layers allowed Sith apprentice Darth Maul’s tunic to fan out in choreographed splendor, or examine the finely tooled leather gauntlets of Mirialan Jedi Luminara Unduli.

It was important for Drake to trace back the cultural influences that combined to make pieces at once familiar and wholly unique. George Lucas’ own library at Skywalker Ranch encompasses a vast reference material collection. “This library rivals some university libraries in terms of depth and breadth,” Drake says. “All of these costumes in one way or another are somewhat familiar to us. We’ve seen aspects of them in cultural and world history.”


Japanese kimono stylings are a recurring theme, in the outer shells of royal attire and the under dressings of the humble Jedi robes. The orange jumpsuits of the real-life Mercury 7 astronauts influenced the uniforms of the Rebel pilots, while the Empire takes fashion cues from Nazi Germany. Even the unforgettable bikini worn by Princess Leia at Jabba’s palace owes its inspiration to other slave girls portrayed on the silver screen.

While fewer in number, pieces from the original trilogy stand out as culture touchstones of a more understated simplicity compared to the big-budget prequel finery. Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia’s white floor-length dress, cinched with a silver belt, is elegantly simple and surprisingly diminutive. Darth Vader’s chest plate was originally little more than a painted wood block, Drake says. “It’s so interesting to see the details on the classic costumes,” he adds. “Literally they’re bits and pieces of wood.” But on screen, movie magic and symbolism coalesce. “Even before you hear him talk or breathe, you know he’s the ultimate bad guy.”

Trooper abuse

As it turns out, Mark Hamill actually was a little short for a stormtrooper. His armor had to be specially made to fit his frame, French says, and the helmet he wore was catalogued in the archive. But other authentic stormtrooper costumes are harder to come by nearly 40 years after the original film’s debut.

Drake managed to secure a Return of the Jedi -vintage set of armor for the show, complete with scrapes, grime, and cracks. Only 50 stormtroopers were molded for A New Hope , and many of those were reused for the sequel. But they were completely recast and revised for Jedi with taller, skinnier helmets, French says. “My suspicion is they just didn’t survive the abuse and use” from the previous two films.

“During the time period when they were shooting some of these films…they weren’t thinking about keeping this stuff for a museum exhibit in 2016,” Drake says. “Even though the armor is made to look and sound like metal, it’s basically plastic. It’s really beat up. You can tell that the actor’s been rolling around in the dirt. He’s getting dented, cracked, the whole nine yards. It really gives you an appreciation of what the archive does to preserve some of this stuff.”

The impressive collection spans the entire seven-film franchise, debuting some pieces from Star Wars: The Force Awakens before the movie had even premiered.


The most central characters’ costumes are represented, including iconic creatures, like the sculpted fiberglass, vac-formed plastic, and aluminum droids and Chewbacca’s yak and mohair coat, a reminder of Peter Mayhew’s towering stature. Friction has rubbed some of the shine from C-3PO’s golden joints and some dings and scrapes are apparent on his counterpart’s veneer. A simple sketch shows how Kenny Baker hunkered down in R2-D2, a leg planted on either side to allow for motion, but Drake likes to examine the droid’s internal workings for himself when he tears down the exhibit to transport it to the next tour stop.

300 extra pieces

Not everything was crafted specifically for the original films or necessarily retained, French notes. Luke’s white tunic and tall boots from his first scenes as a simple farm boy on Tatooine are a notable omission. “We wish we had it, but we don’t,” she says. The same goes for the yellow jacket he donned during the medal ceremony in the finale of A New Hope, which seems to have come from and been returned to Bermans & Nathans, a London costume rental shop.

When it was time to shoot the prequels, French was on set to oversee a more comprehensive system of archiving and cataloguing. Every costume was saved, she says, as well as other bits that went into the creation of the wardrobe.


About 300 extra pieces from the archive will be specially delivered for the show’s run in Denver. Each venue — the exhibit debuted in Seattle before spending nearly a year in New York City — has a chance to style it as its own, Drake and French say. For the art museum crowd, that means an even more in-depth look at the process of costume creation. “They’re recreating that feeling of the studio,” French says, including costume patterns, test swatches Biggar used to play around with silk screening on chiffon and even the screens themselves, etched with Naboo symbology. “It’s like when you get to see an artist’s studio and their palette,” French says. “We have some of that messy — but really interesting — process and it’s beautiful.”

Star Wars and the Power of Costume” will be on display in Denver from November 13, 2016, through April 2, 2017, before continuing on to other yet-to-be-announced locations around the globe. French notes this stop will be the farthest west the exhibit is planning to open in the United States.

Kristin Baver is a writer and all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Follow her on Twitter @KristinBaver.


The Real Force Behind ‘Star Wars’: How George Lucas Built an Empire

The $20 billion in merchandise sold through the film series reveals the resonance of a simple good-versus-evil story -- and the mastermind brushstrokes of the filmmaker.

Alex Ben Block

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Star Wars homages certainly have had a storied history. There are Seth Green’s Robot Chicken specials, the recent Christmas episode of Glee, the “Blue Harvest” episode of Family Guy, even Mel Brooks’ 1987 spoof Spaceballs. And then there was this year’s Super Bowl, where Volkswagen debuted a 30-second commercial entitled “The Dog Strikes Back” featuring a pooch inspired by a new 2012 VW Beetle to get into shape. The commercial cuts to the Cantina scene from the original Star Wars, filled with characters from the movie — including Darth Vader — arguing over which ad is best. This on the heels of the automaker’s mid-January teaser, “The Bark Side,” that showed a group of dogs barking Star Wars‘ Imperial March music.

What Star Wars has to do with selling cute German imports is not entirely clear. But the tie-in of Star Wars to Volkswagen’s advertising is: The ads immediately went viral (as does virtually anything Star Wars), thus not only promoting the new Beetle but also the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, in theaters Feb. 10 in a new 3D conversion.

Of course, the Volkswagen vignette is just one drop in the story of the most successful Hollywood marketing franchise in history. A 35-year-long tale, it began with the 1977 original, now called Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope. Last year alone, the franchise raked in $3 billion in licensing revenue (the next most profitable licensed movie merchandise is that of Cars). From light sabers sold at Target to the more than 1.5 million devotees who have subscribed to the online role-playing game Star Wars: The Old Republic since December to every little Yoda who shows up to your door on Halloween, Star Wars is as ubiquitous as ever. “The great achievement of Star Wars had been to take a moribund genre in science fiction and restore it to popularity,” says Toby Miller, social scientist and chair of Media and Cultural Studies at UC Riverside. “George Lucas took a genre that looked cheesy and made it look like a high-concept movie by investing in new ideas, technologies and people. Finally, the story and imagery have been the stars rather than the actors.”

Indeed, Star Wars‘ fundamental tale of good versus evil set against the backdrop of a dysfunctional father-son relationship contains themes that resonate with viewers of any age. Ask anyone with children: What once was a game of cowboys and Indians on pre-Star Wars playgrounds has morphed in the post-Lucas era into moral battles involving characters now easily purchased. Over the span of Star Wars‘ lifetime, $20 billion and counting of licensed goods has been sold, this on top of the $4.4 billion in tickets and $3.8 billion in home entertainment products. With an ever-renewing fan base, Cartoon Network has a ratings behemoth in its animated hit Clone Wars (2.2?million daily viewers), which has spawned new characters and toys (including female alien Padme Amidala and a young Obi-Wan). Just in its partnership with Lego, Star Wars propelled the faltering toy brand to new heights and more than 15 million units sold of the Lego Star Wars video game.

But how has Lucas, who has only become a more complicated figure in the past two decades, kept this most enduring and lucrative of entertainment empires going? Call it a question of focus — on story over stuff. “I’m just the movie guy. The branding and the licensing and that sort of thing, it’s fun,” says Lucas. “I like that there’s lots of great toys and funny T-shirts and really great gadgets and things that are fun. &hellip But at the same time, my main focus is on just making the movie. I haven’t seen the VW commercial, although I saw the first one and thought it was extremely funny.”

It all began modestly. After his success with American Graffiti in 1973, Lucas wanted to make a Western set in outer space to refresh the genre. He was turned down by several studios but found a champion in Alan Ladd Jr., then running 20th Century Fox — even though most of the other Fox executives and the company board didn’t agree. Fox let Lucas pass up an additional $500,000 directing fee in return for keeping licensing and merchandising rights for himself — a decision that would cost the studio billions.

Beginning with the second episode, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas took full ownership and control. He would never work in the Hollywood mainstream again, choosing to base himself away from the madness in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he had grown up.

Lucas expanded his special-effects department into Industrial Light & Magic, which became a key partner to moviemakers in need of state-of-the-art effects. His Skywalker Sound provided a range of technical services. Over the years, he had computer divisions (one of which was spun off into Pixar), book imprints and other ventures, as he made movies including the hit Indiana Jones series.

While the movies have been lucrative, it is the licensing and merchandising that has brought a bonanza. Even Lucas was unprepared for the huge instant success of Star Wars in 1977, driven in part by a series of comic books released as a setup to the theatrical experience. Lucas had sold toy-merchandising rights to his movie to Kenner (then a division of cereal maker General Foods) in advance of the opening for a flat fee of $100,000 after another company turned him down. However, Kenner wasn’t ready for the explosion of interest, either.

Unable to meet the demand by Christmas 1977, Kenner sold an “Early Bird Certificate Package,” which included a kind of I.O.U. that could be redeemed later for four Star Wars action figures (Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and R2-D2), a display stand, stickers and a Star Wars fan club membership card. In 1978, Kenner brought out four more action figures from the movie’s Cantina scene, and soon after that the line grew to 20 items. By the end of 1978, Kenner had sold more than 40 million of the figures for gross sales of more than $100 million.

For the release of Empire Strikes Back, Lucasfilm and Kenner were ready, doing mail promotions and adding figures including Boba Fett. That was the beginning of the era of TV-driven marketing tied to a movie, according to Derryl DePriest, vp global brand management for Hasbro, which acquired Kenner in 1991 and later Galoob, another early Star Wars toy licensee: “That’s been the lasting legacy of Star Wars. The impact it has had on really big event-style merchandising.”

Today Star Wars is consistently among the top five licensed toy brands, bringing in retail sales of more than $3 billion in 2011. “It truly is incredible for any property to remain a top seller within licensed merchandise for such a long time,” says Anita Frazier, industry analyst for NPD Group, which tracks licensing. In 1999, as part of a drive to relicense Star Wars timed to the launch of the second trilogy of movies, Lucas agreed to a construction-toy license with Lego. It was the first time the Danish company had licensed any movie or TV show. “We felt this was something we could re-create for a fantastic Lego experience,” says Jill Wilfert, Lego’s vp global licensing and marketing. “It has wildly exceeded everyone’s expectations.”

Since Howard Roffman became head of licensing in 1986, Lucasfilm has operated with a group of fewer than three dozen employees who do everything from track in exacting detail every story arc and character in the Star Wars universe, to ensuring quality standards are met. Lucas does not get personally involved in that oversight, but the buck still stops with him on every major decision. “We don’t put out anything there is not a consumer demand for,” says Roffman. “George doesn’t want to damage the reputation of Star Wars in any way in the retail marketplace.”

Lucas keeps a tight rein on his world but isn’t a micromanager, according to Jim Gianopulos, co-chairman and co-CEO of 20th Century Fox, which has released all six of the Star Wars movies in North America, and is distributor for Lucasfilm’s 3D rereleases.

“He gets involved he’s the ultimate arbiter,” says Gianopulos. “Obviously, he has many people he respects and trusts, or they wouldn’t be working for him. But ultimately George has been the creator and custodian of the greatest franchise in movie history. In the end, everything flows back to George. He will just know whether it’s right or wrong when he sees it.”

Steven Ekstract, group publisher of License! Global magazine, credits the merchandising and licensing for keeping fans involved between movies. “It keeps kids engaged between movies and TV seasons,” he says. “Star Wars is consistently the number-one-selling boys’ toy in the world, year after year, even when there are no new films.” Naturally, merchandise is part of the promotion of the new Phantom Menace: At AMC theaters, ticket buyers will find a Lego feature area, pod-racer 3D glasses, demonstrations of a new Xbox Kinect game and free Hasbro Star Wars Fighter Pods.

After he made the second Star Wars trilogy, which ended in 2005 with Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, Lucas swore he was done. But the sale of merchandise and continuing interest showed him there was more to do, this time with a new generation. So he expanded the story back a thousand years to create a prequel that became The Clone Wars. First mentioned in Phantom Menace in 1999, it has grown into a whole new world of Star Wars. What started as a theatrical release in 2008 has truly found its place as an animated series on Cartoon Network, where it has been the top-rated show for boys for four years.

Lucas currently is working on a comedic take on Star Wars for another animated series and a live-action TV series (though he laments that he has yet to figure out how to do visual effects on a TV-show budget). Still, it sends a chill through the empire when Lucas says he may not be minding the store forever. He is even more central to the face and focus of his business than his friend Steve Jobs was to Apple. But lately Lucas has been bandying about the word “retirement” — or at least his idea of what that means.

With a personal fortune Forbes estimated at $3.2 billion in 2011, Lucas says he is “having a great time. I’ve got one daughter in martial arts, one daughter who is a writer — which is sort of another version of martial arts — and my son is in college. So things are good.”

But first he has to work on the script for Indiana Jones 5, finish the expansion of an animation studio in Singapore, oversee a new season of Clone Wars and ready the 3D rerelease of Episode II for 2013.

Whether anyone else will be able to follow his recipe seems unlikely. “What you are talking about here is the marrying of the genius of the product with the brilliance of the original creative endeavor,” says Jon Dolgen, former chairman and CEO of Viacom Entertainment Group. “You can have hard work, diligence and creative control — but pick another movie and I don’t know that you would end up in the same place.”


‘The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)’

In the movies: In the original trilogy, this theme follows the villainous Darth Vader in the prequels, it presages the dark fate of Anakin Skywalker. (Spoiler for the few strangers to “Star Wars”: Anakin and Vader are the same person.) The music is always a cue to the audience that evil is afoot.

In classical music: The march’s underlying rhythm recalls another celestial score: Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” The subjects of Holst’s suite, however, are more mythological than astronomical. “Mars,” which resembles Darth Vader’s march, is subtitled “The Bringer of War.” This wouldn’t be the only time “Mars” inspired a film composer Hans Zimmer nearly quoted it directly in “Gladiator.”


6 The Senate Of Rome

The senate was one of the biggest plot points in the prequel trilogy. It was dominated around the fall of a republic, with Revenge of the Sith in particular showing how Palpatine could bend the senate to his will.

The senate was largely inspired by the Roman Senate, but connections to the German political system in Weimar Republic of the 1920s can also be seen in Palpatine’s rise to power that mirrored Hitler’s, with both dictators even holding the title of ‘chancellor.’


Holograms

When you're trapped in the tractor beam of an Imperial Star Destroyer and facing certain doom, there's no better way of sending a mayday message than via hologram. But while specially designed glasses have been used to create the illusion of 3D images for decades, free-standing holographic videos have been hard to reproduce.

In recent years, an old stage trick invented by John Pepper in the 19th century to give the illusion of a ghostlike apparition on stage has been revived, most notably to seemingly resurrect deceased rapper Tupac Shakur at the Coachella music festival in 2012. The method relies on a superthin sheet of foil hung at a 45-degree angle from the stage that is invisible to the naked eye but reflects images from a projector. The trick gives the illusion of a 3D image but only if you are standing in front of it.

Closer to the mark is the Voxiebox "swept surface volumetric display" made by Voxon, the result of a merger between two groups of Australian and American inventors. 3D models are sliced into hundreds of horizontal cross sections before a superfast projector beams them onto a flat screen that rapidly moves up and down. The human eye blends these projections together to create a 3D image that can move and be viewed from any angle, just like during Princess Leia's message to Obi-Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope."


How the Abandoned ‘Star Wars’ Expanded Universe Inspired ‘Force Awakens’

Meet Jacen Solo, Kyle Katarn and the other characters who paved the way for Kylo Ren, Finn and the new movie heroes.

Graeme McMillan

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[Warning: This story contains plot details from Star Wars: The Force Awakens that could be considered spoilers. Read further at your own risk.]

Fans of the Star Wars Expanded Universe &mdash the spinoff novels and comic books that were pushed out of canon last year &mdash might have found Star Wars: The Force Awakens an even more nostalgic experience than the majority of viewers, thanks to a number of “new” concepts in the movie calling back to ideas that were explored in the EU a long time ago.

Those involved in the new movies have previously said that the Expanded Universe is “not off-limits” when it comes to inspiration for the newly established Star Wars canon, and here are some ways in which The Force Awakens proved that to be true.

Kylo Ren Is Jacen Solo

The son of Han Solo and Leia Organa who turned to the Dark Side after being trained by Luke Skywalker? That not only describes Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren , but also Jacen Solo, one of three children of Han and Leia in the Expanded Universe chronology. Jacen was at the heart of many EU stories, including the Young Jedi Knights YA prose series &mdash which, as the name suggests, centered around Luke’s class of new Jedi &mdash and the later Legacy of the Force series, which tells the story of his transformation into Darth Caedus , a Sith Lord at odds with his family and ultimately killed by his twin sister, Jaina . (Also worth noting: Kylo Ren’s birth name was Ben, after Ben Kenobi . In the Expanded Universe, Ben is the son of Luke Skywalker.)

Luke Is A Terrible Teacher In Every Timeline

As can be seen above, Luke’s attempts to rebuild the Jedi Order have unfortunate effects in both the canonical Star Wars saga and the Expanded Universe. He was, however, far luckier in the EU, where Jacen managed to go rogue without pushing Luke into exile as a result. Indeed, in the EU timeline, Luke did succeed in his mission, with the Jedi once again rising to prominence throughout the galaxy with Luke as its leader. In both new canon and the Expanded Universe, Yavin IV &mdash the moon that was the home for the Rebel Alliance in the original Star Wars movie &mdash became the home base for the new Jedi Order it remains to be seen if Luke returns there in Star Wars: Episode VIII to try again.

Starkiller Base Is the Sun Crusher (And Is Also Named After Luke Skywalker)

Starkiller Base &mdash the planet-sized weapon that the First Order control in The Force Awakens &mdash is far from a new concept in Star Wars lore it is, after all, a bigger (and more destructive) Death Star at heart. No surprise, then, that something along these lines has popped up in the Expanded Universe. The difference is the Sun Crusher, the threat at the heart of the Jedi Academy prose trilogy, was the size of a regular star fighter … but still contained the capability to destroy star systems, albeit by destroying the sun and leaving the surrounding planets to collapse in the aftermath.

The name of the Force Awakens base is also all over the EU &mdash it’s the codename of Darth Vader’s apprentice in the Force Unleashed video games and tie-in stories, as well as a starship, a (separate, unrelated) destructive weapon and one of Luke’s childhood friends on Tatooine. Why does it appear so often? Because it was an earlier version of Luke Skywalker’s name in one of George Lucas’ first drafts of the Star Wars screenplay.

Finn Is a Name I Haven’t Heard In a Long Time

John Boyega’s character might not have had a name before Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) gave him one, but the name “Finn” has an almost-Starkiller-like history in Star Wars mythology: in the Expanded Universe alone, there was a Sith Master with that name millennia before the events of the prequel trilogy, as well as a soldier who fought an invading force years after the events of Return of the Jedi (in the Star Wars Tales and Star Wars: Invasion comic book series, respectively), as well as characters in The Clone Wars animated series.

Similarly, Finn’s backstory parallels the Expanded Universe history for Han Solo, who was an Imperial pilot before becoming a smuggler, as well as Kyle Katarn, the lead character of the Jedi Knight videogame series who was a Stormtrooper before defecting to the Rebellion. (Like Finn, Katarn used a lightsaber at times, going on to become an instructor at the Jedi Academy.)

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A Closer Look at 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Character Mystery (Spoilers)

The First Order Is The Nagai

Unsurprisingly, the notion of the remnants of the Empire forming a new opposition to the Republic is an idea that appeared before The Force Awakens. In Expanded Universe mythology, the Empire staggered on for a decade or so after Return of the Jedi before essentially collapsing to in-fighting less than half a century later, but in Marvel’s original 1980s comic books &mdash which continued for two years after the release of Jedi, marking the first time anyone had attempted to tell a “What Happened Next” story in the series &mdash a number of Imperial forces were co-opted by a group of aliens called the Nagai. They also had a Sith Lady amongst their number, pre-dating The Clone Wars‘ Asajj Ventress by decades &mdash to torment the new Republic just as it was coming together.

In the larger Expanded Universe, the position that Supreme Commander Snoke holds in The Force Awakens &mdash that is, the leader of a post-Empire Imperial organization &mdash is taken first by Grand Admiral Thrawn, an Imperial officer with grand ambitions, and later a clone of Emperor Palpatine himself, who managed to temporarily tempt Luke Skywalker to the Dark Side of the Force. Both, as is tradition, were defeated and order was (temporarily) restored to the galaxy.

Chewbacca Is Lucky This Time Around

While Han Solo was sent to the great trash compactor in the sky during the climax of The Force Awakens, it was another Millennium Falcon pilot who died in the Expanded Universe &mdash in fact, Chewbacca was killed in the 1999 novel Vector Prime while saving the life of Han Solo’s son, strangely enough (No, not Jacen it was Anakin, Han and Leia’s youngest). His death was commemorated in a 2000 comic book series called Star Wars: Chewbacca, which told the character’s life story, introducing a new version of his wife and child from the much-maligned Star Wars Holiday Special.

Given that Han canonically had a wife pre-Leia thanks to the current Marvel comic book series, it’ll be interesting to see if Han receives a similarly revelatory comic book tribute after his death, or if that portion of his life remains the purview of future movies &mdash although any movies could easily pull as much inspiration from the character’s Expanded Universe history as The Force Awakens has managed to use for the galaxy at large.


Star Wars at 40 | Paul Huston on Making Models and History for Star Wars: A New Hope

This article is part of a special StarWars.com series in honor of Star Wars 40th anniversary today, May 25.

Paul Huston has roamed the halls of Industrial Light & Magic for more than 40 years, with the distinction of lending his artistry and leaving his mark on all eight Star Wars films so far. Huston started out on the original trilogy as a model maker and storyboard artist, returned for the Special Edition of Star Wars: A New Hope as a digital matte artist, and continued to use those skills throughout the production of the prequels and beyond. But back in August of 1975, he was just a 24-year-old kid one year out of architecture school taking a job to work with his former professor Jamie Shourt. The artist, now “66 and almost a half” recently sat down with StarWars.com to reminisce about the early days of ILM, discuss how the hot-rod aesthetic influenced the saga’s iconic ships, and explain how plastic egg packaging for a line of pantyhose helped shape the rebellion’s Y-wing fleet.

StarWars.com: Your first task was to help storyboard artist Joe Johnston put together the “bidding” storyboards that would help put a cost on the visual effects shots for A New Hope. What was it like working on the original Star Wars film in those first weeks and months?

Paul Huston: Well, it was really exciting! It was kind of a revelation to walk into a little warehouse and then have it be full of all of these really interesting drawings and blueprints, [concept artist] Ralph McQuarrie’s drawings, and Joe’s drawings. It was really something that I never imagined that I would ever be able to do. And I was nervous about being able to keep up at the level, to keep up with Joe on storyboards. And I worked really hard to do that. It was a pretty small group at that time. I think there was maybe 10 people in the place. They were just starting to hire people and just starting the model shop going and we had a little room upstairs. The art department was this little plywood-floored room with wooden doors on sawhorses for drawing tables and cinderblock and plywood walls, and it was all really pretty rough. It kind of added to the charm. The most important thing was more the work that was going on there rather than location itself.

StarWars.com: What does your office space look like now compared to, you know, a wooden door on a sawhorse?

Paul Huston: Well yeah… [Laughs] Now the [Letterman] Digital Arts Center that was built, I think they finished it in about 2005, and it was one of the most prestigious office locations in San Francisco since it opened. It’s right on the edge of the bay. You can look out and see Alcatraz. You can see the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s just a beautiful 180-degree view from the upper floors and it’s almost a park-like setting surrounded by landscaping and the Palace of Fine Arts is just to the north. It’s just spectacular. And really nothing like its beginnings for sure.

StarWars.com: Right, although, I imagine the work that’s going on inside is nothing like its beginnings either.

Paul Huston: Yeah, it’s always really what the business demands. People aren’t that interested in seeing something that they’ve seen over and over again. You can only fool them for so long until you have to change your act. So the bar is constantly being raised and then also, fortunately, so are the tools. Computers are getting faster all the time and the software is being improved constantly and directors keep coming up with incredible ideas of what they want, how they want to impress people with their vision. And it’s been that way since I started. What we were doing in 1975 was pretty advanced for the state of the art in Hollywood at the time. And to the extent that they weren’t really able to hire people from the traditional disciplines to do it. It required a lot of experimentation.

StarWars.com: You couldn’t know then that we’d still be talking about this movie 40 years later. But was there a sense inside ILM that what you were doing was cutting edge?

Paul Huston: Oh yeah. You know, at the time some of the studios had small visual effects or special effects departments, but they were pretty much using traditional, not-as-high-tech approaches in the materials and the machines they used at the time to make miniatures and make props, just partly because of the amount of miniatures that we had to make and the number of versions. For the film industry, it was unusual to use epoxies and resins and silicone castings, and we did a lot of development in that area, trying different kinds of molding techniques and techniques for the way that we would blow up the ships, how we developed the materials for blowing things up, and the materials and the processes that we used to make the exploding models. Up to that point, there had been a lot of blue screen and yellow, sodium screen shooting for matting elements together, but I think at that time just the number of shots that we had to do it was way higher that what had been attempted before. And then also the computer motion control that was kind of the heart of the whole place was really state of the art. I went to Disney and saw their motion control camera system — they had a huge room that was full of those old wheel-type, tape-drive computers to run their track and they had all kinds of stories about how the cameras would get out of control, which never really worked out well. Our system was really compact and effective and efficient and repeatable. And it was all designed and built there and everybody knew the same group of people who were building the motion control system were also building the motion control system for Douglas Trumbull for Close Encounters [of the Third Kind]. So those were the two facilities in L.A. in Hollywood and the world that were doing motion control at the time. And it was that group that did it all, designed it all, and fabricated it all. So yeah, I think it was well known within the company that we were on the edge of things.

StarWars.com: When you were trying to get the shot of blowing something up, like the Death Star, how many models were you making for that and how many times are you able to film it?

Paul Huston: When I started, [special-effects supervisor] John Dykstra’s main emphasis was on getting storyboards for the sequence because a script has a description that can be really general or specific, but it’s not really visual. Once the storyboards are done and the director has signed off on them, those are the shots that he’s going to do, that’s how he’s going to tell the story, and that’s the progression of action.

A storyboard shows you how far the camera is away, how much it’s moving, how much detail you see, how long the shot is, if there’s different moves, all that kind of stuff feeds into the general knowledge of the crew. And they decide, or we would decide, “Well, we need this kind of miniature for this, this could be a matte painting, or this could be two or three different scales of miniature,” if you have a sequence where you’re getting closer and closer and you know you’d have the blue screen.

The blue screen at that time was not that big, what would fit in that stage in that small warehouse, and that was kind of your maximum dimension that you could build anything and shoot it in blue screen. Or some of the sets we would build on the stage and just have black curtains behind them. But the planning was all based on, you know, specifics of the shot and how long it would be and what the camera movement would be, what’s the motion blur, how much you would actually see. What the lighting might be. Whether it’s daytime or nighttime, all of that stuff determines what the technique would be and how it would be approached.

StarWars.com: How were you blowing things up back in those days? What were you using?

Paul Huston: Well, we built the initial models for stage photography and some of them we knew would be one-off models and they could just be assembled from materials and kit parts and they’d be standalone models. But we knew there were a lot where we would need to do a bunch of duplicates and then also that we’d do explosion models. At the time I started, it wasn’t really decided how we’d approach things. I think they were still even thinking if they had to do lots of models, just assemble a bunch of them. As things developed, we started molding them because it was a lot faster than doing individual assemblies, and then just from that it dawned on people that, well, we could make all these so we could cast them and then we could cast the entire model. And from that point it got a lot more complicated.

We did experiments with different kinds of explosives including acetylene gas and powder to find out how fast an explosion that we needed to get and for them to be long enough to be impressive. It turned out that the acetylene went so fast that sometimes you’d not even get one frame at 48 frames-per-second, so that one kind of went out the door. We also tried different ways of putting things together. In the explosion tests we found out the explosions are really not very powerful. It’s a big bang, but it’s not very forceful, so from that we knew that we had to make pretty fragile explosion models. Because of the size of the blue screen, they all had to be pretty small and for the explosions to look very good on a small size they had to be shot high speed with a lot of light, so then we kind of figured that all out from doing different tests. It ended up that we used a lightweight foam that mixed together, put it into a mold, and then it expands and forms a real hard outer surface against the mold surface. It’s full of air bubbles or gas bubbles inside so it’s very light and it has a hard outer skin that can be painted, but it’s very light and it’s fairly fragile. After we cast the parts and put them together we cut them in the way that they would break apart. Different explosions would have different kind of cut patterns to have them break apart in different ways.

We rented another stage that had a dirt floor and it had a different fire clearance, and it was in a different neighborhood so that they could get permission to blow things up. And while they were in the process of preparing the models there right before they’re being blown up, the pyro guy Joe Viskocil would say, “Well, let’s have one where it’s a lot more fragile than that,” or “Cut this area a lot more.” So there’s a lot of customization of it. But that was mainly the TIE fighters and the Y-wings and the X-wings.

StarWars.com: The gritty “used future” feel of the Star Wars universe has made it so accessible. For A New Hope, you were one of many model makers creating the now iconic look of the ships. Can you walk us through the process of taking the sketch of one of these ships and finding the right parts, the right media, and the right feel to create the model for the production?

Paul Huston: First, there would be a drawing, an art department sketch by Joe, and for some of the models Steve Gawley would do a three-view plan with the dimensions. I think most of the spaceship models for A New Hope were done that way. And then Joe would say, “Well, just disregard all that [Laughs] and make it better.” That was his way. He wanted people to have input and try to make things better. It was fun working that way, too. You couldn’t go wrong at all by just following what he drew, but there was freedom to make things up.

Then there would be a phase of building an armature, which at the time was various kinds of aluminum, either like a machine block of aluminum or an aluminum pipe or something that could be mounted on the blue screen pylon. When that armature was built, then we would start kind of assembling plastic parts around it that were supported by it. So, for example, the Y-wing, the armature would be a pipe from the front to the back of the center engine piece, and then a cross brace of aluminum between the two rocket engines. The engines were plastic kit parts from some rocket kit and then the front part was — remember L’eggs, the hosiery product? So the front egg shape was a L’eggs container. We just bought a bunch of those and stuck them on. That’s part of model making. Half the time you’re just trying to find something that’s already been made that is the shape that you want.

And then there’s a really long phase of adding tiny, little details from kit model parts to make the bigger shapes look like they actually do something or are connected visually to the other pieces. Part of George [Lucas]’s brief on all this stuff was to make it simple and geometric so it could be read easily and he thought those shapes were really more interesting, anyway. You know, that things weren’t too complicated, so a lot of it was basic geometric shapes modified a little bit and with a lot of small details that didn’t really change the shape, but added the feeling that there was some kind of a function that all these parts had. Like an engine would have vents and pipes going into it and the body parts would have panel lines.

StarWars.com: Was it George’s directive that if you put a pipe in it had to go somewhere adding to that authenticity?

Paul Huston: No, there wasn’t any direction. That was just something that was kind of understood. The people that were there doing it, all those guys were kind of closet hot rodders. I call it a hot-rod aesthetic, where it’s really cool to see the exhaust pipes coming out or to have a big hole in the hood so you can see the supercharger. John Dykstra had a Mini — you could eat dinner off the roof of it. To open up the hood and look at the engine, you would see polished bright, brilliant copper fuel lines and a perfectly clean air filter. Just really kind of an appreciation for mechanical art or engineering function and materials. Joe Johnston had motorcycles when he was a teenager and I had raced motorcycles for awhile. And it’s California car culture, anyway. John and Joe and Steve Gawley all went to Long Beach State for industrial design and it’s an industrial design aesthetic as well.

I think the only place I’ve ever really seen that description of how you create a mechanical look was from Syd Mead. He was describing his technique and he said that was how he went about it — you do basic geometric shapes and then add details to make it look like the things had some kind of function. I read that way after we actually did it, but it just makes sense. I think we just came upon the same technique.

And there’s an interesting aspect of it, too, that’s really abstract. Not only do you want to make it look like it has some kind of mechanical function, but you want to break up the space in interesting ways so it’s not too regular and not too chaotic. It’s kind of an abstract sculpture in a way.

StarWars.com: During those earliest phases of production, you and the rest of the art department were really taking George Lucas’ vision and Ralph McQuarrie’s concepts and turning them into something tangible. What was it like working with George and Ralph, who both seemed to have very clear visions working in accordance with each other? How did you fit into the equation and add your own creativity into the mix?

Paul Huston: The guiding vision was Ralph’s paintings and they had photocopies of them there in the model shop. Ralph would, occasionally, especially when he did a new one, bring it by and we would look at it. It would be on illustration board with a tissue cover and he’d roll the tissue cover back over and everyone would crowd around and “ooh” and “aah” at it for awhile. Just these very small, one-foot-wide and incredibly detailed paintings. We’d be looking at storyboards and thinking, you know, what is this part going to look like? And then Ralph would come in with a painting and you’d go, “Oh!” He had a head start on us, but then eventually he was starting to put what we were building into his paintings. I’m thinking specifically about a painting they did of a TIE fighter over the Death Star and he pretty much followed Joe’s drawing that Joe did for making the mold pieces for the Death Star.

I think Ralph did a group of paintings to help get funding, to help give people an idea of what George wanted to achieve and the direction he was going and those had a slightly different look. When were actually building the models, there were a lot of technical restraints that we had to follow that forced some changes. Like some of the concept models had really spindly parts. They were more delicate. And most of the things that we did had to be supported. You know, we’re supporting actual on-set mechanical devices that had a certain weight and size and everything, so things tended to get a bit thicker and more sturdy. Especially the Y-wing. The Y-wing had a really delicate little neck where the cockpit fuselage joined on to the main engine part. It was really thin and we had to beef that up just to make everything more sturdy. And another thing was that John Dykstra was adamant about not having curved or reflective surfaces because he was afraid that you wouldn’t be able to pull good blue screens — the blue would reflect off a curving surface and you’d always have a bad edge or areas that would get blue and then fall out of the matte. So everything became really cubic and flat-surfaced, which kind of made everyone happy anyway because it’s a lot easier to build flat-surface models than to build models with a lot of curves and compound surfaces.

StarWars.com: There had to be a lot of trial and error, especially at the beginning. Can you describe one of the biggest technical disasters of your early days of model making and, conversely, what you feel is your greatest achievement for A New Hope specifically?

Paul Huston: I think that there was just a huge amount of experience there. Even though it was new, John Dykstra worked on Silent Running. Jamie Shourt [of the optical effects unit] worked on Silent Running. [Model maker] Grant [McCune] and [camera and mechanical designer] Bill Shourt worked on Jaws. And, you know, John and Joe went to Long Beach State, where one of the classes they had for industrial designers was that you design some kind of product and then you also design the machines, or whatever the process is, that make that product. And I came from architecture school and knew the building systems and design methodologies. And then also, Jamie and John on Silent Running worked with Doug Trumbull, who had an enormous amount of experience in visual effects from starting with 2001. I think that, you know, the process of design and the process of problem solving was really strong and robust, even at that time.

The thing that stands out most to me for A New Hope was just how starting from nothing in a warehouse, how things got built up over time and also what a long time it took because there weren’t a lot of people and things were just done as they needed to be done and as money was available. Just the way the whole thing came together for me was really amazing. Very few people knew what was going on. The initial group that had come from Silent Running all knew the whole process and what the intended outcome was, but if you walk into a darkened stage with a few lights on and a blue screen, most people would have no idea what was going on.

And model makers would have their focus on model making. They wouldn’t really think about how the model was going to be photographed and we wouldn’t see 50 percent of the detail that was on it, and people in roto were doing roto work and they’d be looking at some tiny little dot of an X-wing and trying to make a matte around it and they’d have a different outlook. Somehow that all came together. And also I was a newbie then, too, and I was learning, so that part of it made a big impression on me.

In the years subsequent it seems like the biggest transition in the business has been the fact that many more people now know all about it. Like a production assistant or a producer knows all about visual effects. And in those days people didn’t really know and everything had to be explained and it just enables a much higher level of aspiration, really just a much higher level of things that you try to do and the things that you have time to do and the number of people that have ability to do a lot of different things.

Paul Huston, furthest left behind the table, with ILM’s army of model makers.

StarWars.com: You have the distinction of working on the original trilogy, the Special Editions, and the prequels, as well as so many other films outside of the franchise. Over that time, you’ve also transitioned from the model shop to digital matte painting. How has your role with ILM changed over the years and what inspired you to leave three-dimensional design for matte artistry?

Paul Huston: I became interested in illustration when I was in architecture school. I started doing storyboards and I just kind of I went from department to department just to keep working, because I wanted to stay there [at ILM] and I wanted to learn, but my initial interests were more in illustration and photography and I was always trying to get into those areas. The matte department kind of combined everything together, plus it was the only department that did everything for a shot, and I thought that was really fun. That was a great way to learn because if you’re only doing a part sometimes you never even know all the changes that things go through to finalize the shot. But in the matte department they did everything, and it also combined painting and photography and I had gotten along really well with the guys in the matte department, so I made an effort to work more and more with them. And then, when digital came along, it was just everything kind of fell into line and all the things that I could do were just all made a lot easier and faster, and my desire to kind of do everything myself — I could suddenly do it. It didn’t require a whole bunch of different people to do something. A single person could do a lot on their own. I just found an area where I could do all the things I was interested in, you know, in one area.

StarWars.com: Considering the technological advancements in the industry, do you ever find yourself nostalgic for those early days of more physical model creation?

Paul Huston: While it is interesting dealing with physical materials and processes and I occasionally miss those activities, in general they were much more difficult, costly, time consuming, unhealthy, and imposed huge limitations on what could be accomplished. The drawbacks far outweigh any nostalgia I might have. I usually refer to that period as “the bad old days.” As an artist, your passion is to realize a vision, and that is much easier these days!

StarWars.com: Looking back, what was your favorite part about working on that first film?

Paul Huston: After the first few months of chaos, and the starting phase of building and detailing the first Millennium Falcon and the hiring of some key model builders, there was a period when the model shop came together as a team and we worked together very efficiently and in harmony. New models just seemed to flow out of the shop. One in particular was the sandcrawler model that I think almost everyone in the shop had some part in building. At that stage there wasn’t much discussion as everyone knew just what to do, it seemed. It was very enjoyable to be a part of that.

StarWars.com: Did you have a favorite model that you built or is there a particular scene that stands out?

Paul Huston: I’m very proud that a model I built with Stuart Ziff was the key model in the first shot that ILM produced. That was the Death Star cannon. I also drew the storyboard for the shot earlier when working on the bidding boards in the art department with Joe Johnston.

StarWars.com: What does A New Hope mean to you 40 years later?

Paul Huston: It is an over used word, but “amazing” is how I consider the impact Star Wars has had. Nearly every big tentpole VFX blockbuster follows some part of the framework created by George Lucas with Star Wars. Not to mention the impact it had on the videogame and toy industries. It is particularly clear if one experienced the landscape of film entertainment pre-Star Wars.

So when I go to movies I can’t escape that realization and it makes me feel very humble to have been a part of it, and to marvel at the fantastic improvements that have been made to what seems now to be a simple and almost crude original realization.

Kristin Baver is a writer and all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Follow her on Twitter @KristinBaver.