If there’s an unsung hero in the Star Wars universe, it is Joe Johnston. Although he is best known these days as the director of Captain America: The First Avenger, Jurassic Park III and the underrated gem The Rocketeer, Johnston originally made a name for himself while creating designs and effects for Star Wars. Like his co-workers on that picture, Johnston could not have possibly envisioned how George Lucas’ unassuming space saga would forever shape his destiny.
But it did. And for that, filmgoers everywhere should be thankful.
The ways in which Johnston’s tireless efforts helped shape the look of the original Star Wars trilogy are immeasurable — he created the initial design of Boba Fett, for example — yet his work is still overshadowed by that of late, great conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie. That should all change with the release of Star Wars Storyboards: The Original Trilogy. The latest Star Wars-themed coffee table book, this weighty tome consists almost entirely of heavily annotated storyboards of key sequences from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
More than anything, it is a showcase of exactly how much Johnston and other forgotten contributors to the mythos like artists Alex Tavoularis, Nilo Rodis-Jamero, Ivor Beddoes and Gary Myers (of which almost nothing is known about) visualized the ever-changing scripts of Lucas and company. Often, looking at their storyboards is akin to glancing upon at black-and-white stills from the completed films. Their mastery of previsualization is a huge reason why we still gasp at these films so many years later.
In his insightful and self-effacing introduction, Johnston declares “I didn’t know what a storyboard was when I started working for George Lucas.” It’s clear that he was a quick learner then, as his material dominates the book’s 348 pages. At one point, effects maven Steve Gawley comments on how Johnston once created over 40 storyboards in a single day. Johnston’s prolificity speaks to how much he understood the story Lucas was trying to tell, and the characters and environments that populated it. His sketches here serve their purpose as a guide to the filmmakers while also remarkably standing on their own as works of art.
Early in the book there is one of Johnston’s storyboards depicting Han, Chewie, Luke and Ben in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon as they approact the Death Star. It is an illustration designed to be industrial yet it is so alive. You can see the wonder in Luke’s eyes, the apprehension on Ben’s face and the greed exploding from Han. In one seemingly throwaway panel Johnston has captured the essence of each character. It is a wondrous example of how Johnston is a master of his craft and validates his comment in the intro that these movies were his film school.
Bringing the same efficiency to this book as he did to his essential making of volumes, editor J.W. Rinzler focuses primarily on the most memorable scenes from the trilogy. The downside of this is that you don’t get to see Han shooting Greedo first in storyboards from the Cantina sequence, but whatchagonnado? Instead, you’ll be treated to storyboards of completed scenes glimpsed on screen like the original Death Star assault, the Hoth battle and the speeder bike chase sharing pages with material that was storyboarded but cut out of the script before camera rolled.
Thus, readers are treated to a glimpse at an alternate version of Star Wars where Darth Vader was a much more ruthless character who utilizes Force screaming and callously rips an arm off of an especially unfortunate rebel. (The latter proving that George Lucas had a fetish for limb removal even in excised scenes). It is worth noting that this book includes never-before-seen material like McQuarrie’s visualizations for The Empire Strikes Backthat make you wonder what other great stuff is languishing in the Lucasfilm vaults.
Elsewhere, abandoned scenes are unearthed that feature Alderaan looking like an obvious Bespin prototype, Obi Wan surviving his encounter with Vader on the Death Star, Yoda acting like a dick by throwing stun globes at Luke, Jabba forcing Leia to drink and an Ewok straight up killing a stormtrooper with a blaster. It’s compelling stuff that will appeal to anyone who ever obsessed over the legendary/infamous early cut of Star Wars and excised scenes featured in the original trilogy’s novelizations. There’s a certain excitement that comes from suddenly being presented with a new perspective on the familiar, and Star Wars Storyboards: The Original Trilogy is packed with such visceral thrills.