Star Wars: Rogue One – How Great Filmmaking Created a Terrifying Death Star

Great photography, sound, and editing turned Star Wars: Rogue One's Death Star into a true force of nature.

The behind-the-scenes story of 1977’s Star Wars is one of the most written-about in cinema history. It takes in a young director with a space fantasy concept in his head that some of his collaborators couldn’t quite grasp; a difficult shoot and a studio uncertain about the film’s prospects. And then there was its fraught editing process, in which the film was stripped back down and built back up again following a lukewarm reception to its pedestrian rough cut.

This latter stage in Star Wars making was recently covered in this superb YouTube video, which explores how George Lucas’ then-wife, Marcia – already an Oscar-winning editor – set about reworking the film’s plot in the editing room. Marcia Lucas and co-editors Richard Chew and Paul Hirsch worked frantically yet ingeniously, paring back scenes that bogged down the story and generally tightening up the pace and flow.

As RocketJump’s video itself points out, Star Wars was a film saved, to a certain extent, in its edit; George may have had a head full of romantic ideas and exotic space ships, but it was through its editing that his saga found clarity and purpose.

One of the editors’ biggest contributions came in the third act. As originally conceived by Lucas, the film would have ended with the Rebels’ daring raid on the Death Star. What the editors came up with, though, was the addition of a ticking clock: rather than simply hanging in space like a big, vulnerable bauble, the Death Star is on the cusp of firing its weapons on Yavin IV, the site of the Rebels’ base. It turns what could have been a repetitive scene of aerial bombardment into a last-gasp fight for survival.

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Nearly 40 years later, Star Wars prequel Rogue One went through a difficult production of its own: after the initial shoot headed up by director Gareth Edwards, writer-director Tony Gilroy was brought in to rewrite the script and oversee the reshoots. Evidence of how late these changes were in production can be seen in Rogue Ones trailers: numerous scenes in the promos were no longer present by the time the final cut appeared in cinemas. Toys based on the likeness of Felicity Jones’ heroine Jyn Erso appeared in the shops with the name Sergeant Erso emblazoned on them – suggesting the character had a more overt military background than the abandoned insurgent introduced in the finished film.

While reworking a movie so extensively right through post-production can be full of pitfalls, as something like Justice League proved, Rogue One remained remarkably coherent: a lean, downbeat story about the theft of the Death Star’s plans. Making Rogue One may have been difficult, but it appears, at least from the outside, as though everyone involved pulled together to make the prequel work as well as it could. 

Once again, editing proved to be Star Wars secret weapon – particularly, for this writer, in the sequences involving the Death Star and its destructive power.

Most people who went to see Rogue One in 2016 would have done so with an eye on the past: they already know that the Rebels manage to pilfer the plans to the Empire’s battle station, and they’re well aware of the fate awaiting both the Death Star and the villain who provides over it, Grand Moff Tarkin. What Rogue One does, however, is not only flesh out a one-line bit of Star Wars lore into larger story, but also help turn the Death Star into a far more menacing entity than it was in 1977.

When George Lucas had the Death Star blow up the planet Alderaan in A New Hope, he (not unreasonably) dialled down the shock and horror: as that Earth-like world exploded into atoms, our thoughts weren’t with the millions incinerated on its surface, but with Leia, who watches the event unfold in wide-eyed disbelief. One critic once cynically suggested that the scene where Artoo’s stunned by a Jawa and falls over like an over-laden dustbin elicits a more visceral response than the destruction of a whole planet; the critic wasn’t necessarily wrong, but then, dwelling on genocide wouldn’t have felt quite right in what’s essentially a giant space fairy tale. 

Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One, meanwhile, starts us on a war footing right from the first few scenes. Classic long shots of exotic landscapes are joined by handheld cameras that duck into market places and bustling crowds. When a skirmish breaks out on Jedha, the tone’s one part George Lucas to two parts Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. Giving the Death Star a greater sense of power and menace is, therefore, perfect for Edwards’ grimier, harder-edged spin-off.

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Indeed, those earlier scenes on Jedha do much to establish the horror of what happens next. Unlike Alderaan, which in A New Hope was little more than a background flourish, Jedha is shown in intimate detail. We get a sense that it’s a busy melting pot of different races and religions; the vast statues bespeak its long history, while the sudden bursts of violence provide a clear link to real war-torn locations on planet Earth.

All of that history and culture is exterminated in an instant by Director Krennic (a brilliantly callous Ben Mendelsohn) and his newly-completed Death Star. Rather than destroy the planet, Krennic and Tarkin launch a test firing, which unleashes a destructive beam that’s closer in power to a large nuclear warhead. This means that, rather than Jedha vanishing in a sterile flash of sparks, as seen in Star Wars, its ancient city is instead ripped apart in slow motion by a rising column of fire.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z79nF8m49FA

On the planet’s surface, we get the sight of falling debris from the central characters’ perspective, but then Edwards and his collaborators do something less commonly seen in mainstream action films. The scene cuts to a long shot of the devastating explosion rising up across the horizon, and the camera tilts back as the fire and debris reaches up, up, up into the darkness of space. And what do we hear in the background?

Silence.

On the Death Star, Krennic and his officers stand in front of the monitor, watching as the circle of destruction widens across the planet surface. There’s a coldness, a matter-of-factness, to their reaction that is both unexpected and oddly disturbing. The parallels between Jedha and a real nuclear weapons test – Hiroshima and Nagasaki – are obvious. In this moment, the realisation dawns that the Empire has wiped out hundreds of thousands of people – and millennia of irreplaceable history – simply on a whim. 

As Gareth Edwards told us himself back in 2016:

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I feel like scale is relative. There’s that phrase, “If one person dies, it’s a tragedy. When a million people die, it’s a statistic.” It’s like that on a visual level; if you want to make people feel something, you’ve got to be with one character, or people you care about. If you’re experiencing it too objectively, you don’t really care.

It’s in this scene, and the destruction of the holy city, that I’d argue this ethos is at its most powerful. Through the cutting between ground-level intimacy and long-shots, deafening noise and almost complete silence, all capped off by that stunning tilt of the camera, that drives home the Death Star’s dreadful power. It’s a valuable sequence dramatically, too, since it establishes how dangerous the Empire’s weapon is; we get the pay-off in the third act, as the battle station’s eye-like bulk looms over Scarriff. We pretty much know that, from that point on, anyone on the planet surface is doomed.

To see just how differently a similar event can be handled by another filmmaker, it’s worth revisiting the Starkiller firing sequence in JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens. In many respects, there’s nothing at all wrong with it: the Starkiller base looses off its beams of red-hot death, which slice through the Hosnian Prime system, wiping out a bunch of planets all at once. In theory, this should be a much more horrifying sequence than the Jedha scene in Rogue One, given the sheer scale of the destruction. And yet the sensation evoked by these exploding planets is closer to A New Hope: we get a couple of brief shots of horrified faces on one of the planets, then a cut to an effects shot of an explosion in space, accompanied by John Williams’ rising score. It looks good, it sounds good, but it’s the cinematic equivalent of a statistic rather than a tragedy. 

The collaborative, complex nature of blockbuster filmmaking – especially on something as big as Star Wars – means it’s difficult to say who we have to thank for that moment in Rogue One. It’s possible that Edwards himself called the shots from beginning to end, arguing for the lack of sound, the precise framing of the long-shot of debris reaching into space, and so on. Or, equally if not more likely, it was a whole bunch of people all pitching in ideas to create a singular moment.

For some, the Death Star test above Jedha is just another sequence to munch their popcorn to, and that’s fine – one of the things that’s good about Star Wars movies is that they’re so accessible for viewers of just about any age or cinematic persuasion. But for this writer, there’s something quite ingenious about the technical precision at work here. The direction, framing, sound and editing turn what might have been a bland escape sequence – or worse, a flashy yet forgettable special effect – into an unforgettable moment. It’s a moment that heightens the drama, but also cuts to the heart of the Empire’s particular kind of villainy: the kind of callousness and disregard for human life that could press a button, extinguish thousands of lives, and then remark at how beautiful it all looks.

Even after repeat viewings, it still brings a shiver down the spine.