This story originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
We’re bathed in the inky blackness of space. The stars seem to sparkle as the camera tilts down, slowly, to the blue haze of a planet, its surface spanning off as far as the eye can see. John Williams’ music quietens to a murmur, allowing us just a moment to admire the serenity of the view before a ship – skinny and jagged – hurtles over the head, pursued by the sound of laser fire.
As Williams’ orchestra builds to a crescendo, another, unexpectedly huge shape looms into view. It’s our first ever glimpse of an Imperial Star Destroyer – a vast, skull-white battleship. The speed of its movement is vaguely reminiscent of a Great White shark on the hunt. Its shape recalls the tip of a spear.
For those of us too young to have seen Star Wars unfold on the screen for the first time ever in May 1977, we can only guess what it would have been like to see those opening shots for the first time. Sure, audiences had seen special effects in movies before – 2001: A Space Odyssey’s visuals were revolutionary – but Star Wars offered something else. Where A Space Odyssey was a psychedelic trip through the realms of evolving human experience as well as a trip through time and space, Star Wars was an old-fashioned tale of good and evil retold with then cutting-edge special effects.
Yet that opening shot was far more than merely a fancy special effect. Like all great cinema, it told acres of story without a word being spoken. A viewer could completely ignore the scene-setting scroll up of text and still get an idea of what Star Wars was about from that single image. The first ship, a Blockade Runner, is small and somehow ramshackle looking, its battery of huge engines strapped awkwardly to its narrow hull. The Star Destroyer, on the other hand, is gigantic and streamlined, like a huge sword honed to a fine point. It’s the perfect visual representation of the tiny rebellion pitched against the fascist might of the Empire.
Legend has it that audiences whooped and cheered when they first clapped eyes on those soaring vessels back in the 1970s. It’s arguable that the sequence helps set the tone for the entire film from both a visual and aural standpoint, bracing us for a galactic fairytale that is dramatic and faintly surreal.
What’s all the more remarkable about Star Wars’ first shot is that it was among the last to be completed.
Star Wars’ torturous path to the silver screen is well documented. The production went over schedule, over budget, and hardly anybody particularly believed in it, from the increasingly testy cast and crew to some of the producers at Fox. George Lucas spent so long rewriting the script, directing, overseeing the construction of sets and miniatures and tussling with editors that he made himself ill. Meanwhile, Industrial Light & Magic was busy feeling its way through the process of making Star Wars’ effects shots, using techniques that were still relatively new at the time. The oft-told story is that ILM spent months producing four effects sequences which Lucas ultimately rejected, leaving the fledgling team with six months and half of their allotted $2 million budget left to create the movie’s 300-or-so VFX shots.
Towards the end of those six months, however, ILM began to find its feet. John Dykstra’s use of computer-controlled motion cameras allowed for the precise compositing of multiple miniature effects shots, resulting in some of the fastest and most fluid VFX sequences yet seen. But as the release deadline loomed, Star Wars’ opening sequence still hadn’t been filmed. George Lucas knew what he wanted it to look like, alright, and indeed, artist Joe Johnston recalls that it was one of the first storyboards he drew when he was hired for the production in 1976.
“There was a script,” Johnston told Star Wars Insider in 2012. “I don’t really remember working from the script, but I recall sitting down with [John] Dykstra and having meetings, going over storyboards and shots. We were really just tossing ideas back and forth. […] That whole opening sequence was really George’s idea; he knew exactly how he wanted it to work. I’m sure he must have played that sequence in his head 100 times, because when he was describing it, he knew precisely what it wanted it to look like.”
The big question was, how to execute this immensely complicated sequence? With time running out, visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund was growing increasingly nervous.
“We just kept talking about it and talking about it,” Edlund said, in Ian Failes’ book, Masters Of FX. “Initially, George was thinking we’d build a big model and truck the camera over it. But we didn’t have enough track to do that. We were getting toward the end of production and we didn’t have that opening shot and I just started worrying about it.”
In order to create the illusion of a vast Star Destroyer, modelmaker Grant McCune encrusted the underside of the three-foot-long ship with dozens of tiny pieces of plastic – otherwise known as greebles, which give small objects the impression of scale. The fleeing Tantive IV Blockade runner, on the other hand, was built a mere four inches long, which just shows how successful ILM were in making the ships look like real, working craft.
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When it came to filming the shot, meanwhile, Edlund made a very simple bit of technology – that is, a straightened paperclip – go a long way.
“I stuck the tiny Blockade Runner model on the underside of the Star Destroyer with a paperclip that was straightened out,” Edlund explained. “Then we had this 24mm lens that could go incredibly close to these models. I could tilt the lens and hold horizontal focus very well. I could basically scrape the surface of the model with the lens – the lens actually touched the surface of the model at a couple of points during the shot.”
When Edlund reviewed the footage the next day, he and his team were astounded at how effective the shot was. Indeed, this late success must have come as a huge relief, since Edlund rightly predicted that he’d just completed the most important part of the film.
“We were dumbfounded the next day,” Edlund said; “it was just amazing how well it worked. My thinking was that this is probably the most important shot of the movie – if we don’t grab the audience with the beginning shot of the movie we’re in trouble.”
Joe Johnston, who’d been instrumental in visualizing George Lucas’ ideas, agrees that its sense of scale and weight was what sold Star Wars to an unfamiliar audience:
“It was such a great way to start a film and it caught the audience off-guard. Everybody thought, Oh, here’s a nice starfield and here’s a nice little planet. What’s going to happen? Is there going to be a nice little ship that comes in slowly. People were expecting a 2001 shot and then… it’s like the Indians attacking a stagecoach in space. That was a good example of forcing people to look at something: this gigantic thing coming overhead with very strong perspective lines. It was just a good design.”
The Star Destroyer opening to Star Wars was so effective that it would, of course, be riffed on over and over again at the start of every film that followed, from the probes descending to Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back to the First Order Star Destroyers in The Force Awakens.
More than 40 years later, the after-effects of Star Wars’ classic opening shot are still being felt.