Bunraku Star Wars: X-Wings on sticks

George Lucas's early ideas for the SFX in Star Wars were very low-tech indeed...

X-wing

As a kid, obsessed with the pioneering work of John Dykstra and his associates on A New Hope, I decided to stop doing 2D animation on my second-hand Bauer super-8 camera and move into special effects, and – I have just realised – came up with the same awful solution to spaceship movement that Lucas had proposed to a (justly) sceptical fledgling ILM three or four years earlier: just dress up in black against a black backdrop and fly the models around on black sticks.

My dad scorned this as a shoddy shortcut, and likewise did Oscar-winning effects designer Richard Edlund, as reported in a fascinating background history of ILM and the New Hope SFX at American Heritage:

Edlund recalls the day the director laid his ideas out for the team: “George initially wanted to use guys dressed in black in front of black curtains, running around carrying models on sticks, sort of like Bunraku puppet theatre, which wouldn’t have produced the results he was going for.”

It wasn’t quite as mad as it sounded given the confounding scale of the challenge, as the kind of work Lucas wanted for his film had no precedent: the graceful, slow and rotoscoped passes of 2001 would not adapt to the economies-of-scale of the sheer number of production shots for New Hope – something quicker and dirtier, but no less effective, would have to be devised. The major players in Hollywood SFX were aging custodians of techniques learnt in the 1930s, and ILM would have to innovate or abandon the project.

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The Oscar-winning Dykstraflex motion control system developed over the painful course of 18 very experimental months would ultimately provide the solution at the very last minute possible; with this as my inspiration I used the thirty-foot photographic track at my dad’s company to try my hand at motion control on Saturday mornings, but backwinding 8mm is no substitute for optical matting, and the results were experimental at best.

But there’s something of the kid in me – the one who would build a model and then zoom it round the room in a flight of imagination – that wonders what Bunraku Star Wars SFX would have been like.

Then the antipsychotics kick in, and I thank God for blue-screens and optical printers.

Star WizardsThe Den Of Geek interview: John Dykstra

Complete list of the DoG Clone Wars reviews