Monday, 8 June 2015

A long time ago in Guildford... memories of Star Wars

It all depends on your imagination; if you weren't a kid in the seventies you'll need to be able to put on your percepto-hat for this one. I was born in 1967 and by the age of seven I was into all things escapist – from cowboy shows to cartoons I loved the fantasy world beyond ours; it shaped my play and fired my imagination. I read books avidly and watched the old sci-fi flicks on the telly. Older sophisticates might have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey or Silent Running, maybe even George Lucas' THX-1138. Not me; you wouldn't see these on tv for a fair while yet and for me Planet of the Apes and Forbidden Planet were the excitement of the day. From my place on the floor in front of that old wooden-laminate box, with it's curved glass and clicky buttons I'd sit, caught up in the strange worlds that were so far removed from Shoreham beach. Afterwards, I'd charge about with my friends and we'd re-enact the films in our own little way, with sticks for ray guns and whatever toys we had that fitted the scenes we were creating. Until 1977. Until Star Wars.
I can't recall when I first heard the buzzing; radio ads, tv spots or word of mouth. All I remember is by the time Star Wars premiered we'd moved to Surrey and, for me, a new school. The rage at the time were the Topps cards; I had a few and so did my best mate Fergus. Swapping doubles was the national pastime across school playgrounds and, of course, quickly banned by teachers. Kids who fell afoul of the authorities on this found their treasured cards confiscated and only returned at the end of term. No wonder it caught on. The cards themselves showed a glamorous and weird galaxy with heroes and villains. Right off we learnt the names 'Chewbacca' and 'Artoo' and the showoffs tried to imply they'd actually seen the film itself. Everything was Star Wars to us kids then. It was January 1978 when my friend Fergus, his Mum and little me queued for ages to get into the Odeon Guildford. (Sadly now demolished) 

 ABOVE: The Odeon Guildford
BELOW: The most famous cinema of all; Mann's Chinese Theater. Amazingly, 20th Century Fox struggled to find cinemas willing to screen Star Wars...

We were there what seemed for hours – and probably was. We filed in to a vast, dim auditorium and settled down – although in my case that meant I just quietened down a bit. And then, the curtains opened...

 A long time ago in a galaxy far
far away...

The music blasts out from the very start, a fanfare and then the Star Wars theme, the Star Wars title recedes into a vast field of stars, an old-style text crawl follows outlining the story so far. This retro theme carries through the whole film and is a bold move; doubtless studio execs scratched their heads at the deliberate references to old science fiction serials in a futuristic film. (I know, technically its historical). The camera drops down to reveal the gigantic arc of the planet Tatooine, its moons hanging in space. All at once, a space ship zooms down into frame close to the planet, dazzling laser beams flying between it – and the gigantic shape that follows. Filling the screen completely, the Imperial Cruiser is overwhelming, its lasers more than a match for the lightly armed fugitive. A blast cripples the small ship and inside a trio of droids are stumbling through the doomed vessel, armed rebels running past, determined to repel boarders... but where did all this come from? - this whole galaxy at war, with its rogues, heroes and heroines of flesh and metal?. It came from California.
ABOVE: George Lucas on-set with Alec Guiness
George Walton Lucas, Jr entered our galaxy on May 14th 1944 in the town of Modesto, California. A keen amateur racer, he raced minicars before a serious crash ended his interest in competition. Turning to film, he attended the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts alongside contemporaries including John Milius (– who would write dialogue for Dirty Harry, Apocalypse Now and wrote and directed Conan the Barbarian (1982)) and became friends with fellow student Steven Spielberg. Diabetes exempted him from Army service in Vietnam and he re-enrolled at USC as a Graduate Student to produce Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 4EB, a 1967 science-fiction short that later provided the basis for 1971's THX-1138. The films depict a man's attempt to escape a faceless government which controls and scrutinises it's citizens with computers and technology. (You could film a sequel in any British town without changing a thing.)
George Lucas with Anthony Daniels and Alec Guinness

Along with Francis Ford Coppola, Lucas set up American Zoetrope studios to provide filmmakers with an alternative to the Hollywood studio system and way of working. Lucas has only directed six major motion pictures, but the three that established him as a major film-maker were THX-118, American Graffiti and of course, Star Wars. It was while on holiday in Hawaii, taken partly to escape any bad publicity should his space epic flop, that he met up with Spielberg and Indiana Jones was born. (Both Chewbacca and Indy have Lucas' dog to thank for aspects of their character; Indiana was an Alaskan Malamute) However, we still haven't answered the question of inspiration...

Hidden in plain sight

No other film has influenced modern culture to the extent of Star Wars – many of the phrases and words from the original and the series are commonplace. The influences are there on the screen; cities in the clouds, soft wipes from one scene to the next, the opening titles that crawl off into the distance and even Han Solo's distinctive trouser stripe. The 1930's serial Flash Gordon was the first true science-fiction serial, with it's plot of an evil Emperor battling rebellious forces for galactic domination. The heroes even infiltrate his fortress dressed as his soldiers – as in Star Wars when Han and Luke don stormtrooper armour to rescue Princess Leia from the Death Star. Lucas also drew from Kurosawa's seminal samurai film Yojimbo; a cantina scene with men bragging about how they are wanted men, a flashing blade and an arm on the ground and a character offered payment in part up front, the rest later; these will be immediately familiar to most Lucas fans. Boba Fett's rocket-pack? - an obvious guess is another serial; King of the Rocket Men. Darth Vader's helmet and armour is based on Samurai lines as are the Jedi – the name Jedi is a corruption of Jidaigeki Japanese period dramas that inspired Lucas. 

C-3PO more than partially resembles the female robot from Metropolis, the medal ceremony at the end heavily echoes Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl's breathless Nazi eulogy. There are some uncanny similarities with the Lord of the Rings stories, and Frank Herbert's Dune – but for an in-depth look at these I have to concede the master is Kristen Brennan. Check out Kristen's site at;

In Star Wars, Han Solo references 'The Kessel run' – smuggling spice. This may originate from Dune, as does the 'Sandcrawler'. The Moisture Farmers of Tatooine?; the Dew Collectors of Arrakis.
Tataouine is a town in Tunisia, Darth Vader is Lucas' approximation for 'Dark Father' – although there is a Vader in Washington. Ken Annakin was a British film director. Princess Leia is held in cell block 1138 – an obvious reference to Lucas' earlier film. I have a theory – with no evidence, that the Millenium Falcon was named to evoke the Maltese Falcon, giving the film a further echo of films from the 'Golden Age'. In short, Lucas took a range of different images and parts from a whole range of popular culture and blended them into one whole. Just as JK Rowling borrows from Tolkein and Lewis Carroll (etc etc and etc) Lucas took everything from WWII dogfight imagery (The Dambusters flying low to the target that they have to hit precisely) to Rick's Cafe in (my favourite film) Casablanca (The polyglot citizenry in a cantina are suppressed by stormtroopers) and blended it into a modern Myth. Lucas' genius for me is his use of psychology – perhaps I read too much into things, but there are some very subtle and clever things going on here at different levels to evoke and stimulate and it all works beautifully.

George Lucas spent several years writing rough drafts – the film we saw was actually shot from the fourth draft, earlier versions saw Luke Starkiller as a bearded old General, Han Solo as a green alien with gills and the Force was still light and dark sides, called 'Ashla' and 'Bogan'. Check out this site for a better idea of how things might have turned out...

The Industry of Light and Magic

One major problem would be the effects for Star Wars; in the 'Golden Age' of Hollywood, studios simply handed any effects work to their in-house departments, but by the 1970's, the studios had suffered so badly from decline the only option would be either to go to an independent facility or create one. Famously, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) was born and, in the 1980's partly to pay for an expensive divorce, Lucas sold the CGI division to the late Steve Jobs, who renamed it... Pixar. One name that is synonymous with ILM is John Dykstra. 

 ABOVE: John Dykstra at work
Born June 3, 1947, Long Beach, John Charles Dykstra landed a job with the legendary Charles Trumbull on the genre classic Silent Running. Trumbull had already worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey and would later provide the effects for the jaw-dropping Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Ridley Scott's visual orgasm Blade Runner. Yes, I said orgasm. Dykstra impressed Trumbull so much that when George Lucas asked him to work on Star Wars (Trumbull was already hired for CE3K) he recommended Dykstra.
ILM was set up in warehousing facilities at Van Nuys and Dykstra assembled a team to take on their first job; completing the effects shots for Star Wars. As a benchmark, 2001 had 205 effects shots at $6.5 Million of the film's budget. Star Wars would have $3.9 Million for well over 300. On reflection it's staggering that such a major production was dependant on such a set-up. OK, we all know the effects were staggering, easily among the very best and such an intrinsic part of the finished movie you simply cannot imagine it without them. Back then? - it caused panic. What turned it in Lucas' favour was simply that Dykstra had enthusiasm, technical skill and imagination – and the guts to say it could work.

ABOVE: Dennis Muren with the Death Star
BELOW: John Dykstra with the Millenium Falcon
VistaVision was invented in the '50s but dropped after less than a decade. Revolutionary, the system used a high-resolution widescreen 35mm film loaded sideways that allowed for wider and sharper images. A re-engineered VistaVision camera formed the front end of Dykstra's idea; a digital motion control camera system. Called Dykstraflex – Dykstra worked with a group of people who all helped to create the system – the idea is simple. Take a model of a spaceship. To make it appear to move dramatically around in space, without moving it at all requires the camera to move. From the perspective of the camera, its impossible to tell that the model is static – but the problem comes with background. Matting – masking areas of the film emulsion and compositing, or adding elements together requires precision. Say you want your spaceship to break left and roll away with a moving background of stars. You program the (motion control) computer to move the camera right and roll away in the opposite to the movement you require the ship to show. That set of commands is stored and precisely duplicated for the (travelling) matte and composited with the star field, which can also 'move' in any way deemed suitable. OK its relative; but that precise repetition of movements along with high speed photography changed movie effects forever.

ABOVE: Dykstra prepares an X-wing for its starring role
John Dykstra went on to create the effects for the smash-hit TV series Prattlestar Galaxative (I'm p*ssing about here, because I LOVED Battlestar – 'derivative' not being a word I used back then) ILM would go on to create on-screen magic for the Star Wars sequels, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, the CGI dinosaurs for Jurassic Park, the first CGI character for Young Sherlock Holmes, the first morphing sequence for Willow and it was two ILM employees who created Photoshop for work on The Abyss... I'm not doing the whole list, its easier to just pick your favourite film and chances are, ILM had a hand in making it.

Evolution of a Dream

Ralph Angus McQuarrie was born in Gary, Indiana on June 13, 1929 and left the World 82 years later on March 3, 2012. During his time he was wounded in Korea, studied art and designed dental equipment and worked for Boeing as a technical illustrator. All that pales into the background compared with his work for George Lucas. 

 ABOVE: Ralph McQuarrie working on a Cloud City matte painting for The Empire Strikes Back
In 1975 Lucas asked McQuarrie to produce some images to illustrate and help sell The Star Wars, his idea for a film to a studio. His designs evolved over time to become the familiar characters, ships and places of Star Wars; Darth Vader, C-3PO and R2-D2, Ben Kenobi, Chewbacca, the planet Tattooine and the moon of Yavin... and so many others. 

ABOVE: McQuarrie's designs and some early models
McQuarrie went on to provide the inspirational visuals for The Empire Strikes Back (In which he gets a fleeting cameo as General Pharl McQuarrie) and Return of the Jedi. The upcoming Episode VII uses some of his designs and he worked for Steven Spielberg to design the spaceships from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET. His official website can be found here;

BELOW: Storyboards showing the development of the film's look and characters. 
The sets were designed by a team under John Barry, who was to die tragically of meningitis just two weeks into filming The Empire Strikes Back. Working with set designer Roger Christian, he produced a grubby, gritty used and worn galaxy. Previous science fiction films portrayed their environments as gleaming, sparkling futures with everything looking brand-new. Christian – a Bhuddist – won an Oscar for his work on Star Wars and was nominated for Alien. His use of scrapped aircraft parts to decorate sets and create a realistic look was innovative and helped make the Millenium Falcon so iconic that it is regularly named as the best science fiction spaceship. Christian hired carpenter Bill Harmon to create the first Artoo-Detoo model from wood and a light fitting bowl. He also took blank-firing prop guns and dressed them with sights and add-ons to disguise them and invented the light-sabre handle from a camera flash handle.

What's the Score?

He's won five Oscars* – and been nominated for forty-nine. John Williams is the sound of the modern film. Born in New York in 1932, Williams is the son of Jazz percussionist Johnny Williams. 

 ABOVE: John Williams (Right) with Steven Spielberg

Williams jr attended UCLA, graduated from both the exclusive Juilliard school and the Eastman School of Music and started work at film studios as a pianist and composer, working with names such as Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein and Henry Mancini. After a long period of work in which he composed for film and tv he won his first Oscar for Fiddler on the Roof. Steven Spielberg used Williams for his early films, notably the score for his blockbusting Jaws. (As well as the unforgettable theme for the shark, he went on to compose the famous five-note signal from Close Encounters and the Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark) For Star Wars he created memorable themes that are instantly recognisable. The album is still the highest-selling classical record of all time. Williams went on to score the rest of the original trilogy as well as the later prequels.

* Fiddler on the Roof, Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., Schindler's List,

Genuine Class

Genuine Class; the most fitting anagram I've seen to date; as (Sir) Alec Guinness (1914-2000) was one of two 'established' actors brought in to flesh out and give credence to a cast of mostly unknowns. Apart from a break to join the 'Wavy Navy' – the Royal Navy Volunteer reserve , in WWII, Guinness' career was breathtaking; as a classical stage actor and in films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. If I fail at this point to mention and recommend his George Smiley in the BBC TV adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People consider me a cad and never look again at this wretched page. One of two? - the second is, of course none other than Grand Moff Tarkin...

Peter Cushing (1913-1994) is instantly recognisable from any one of a number of Hammer Horror films, usually busy trying to stake Christopher Lee (Later to become Count Dooku) or create a monster as Professor Victor Frankenstein. He played Sherlock Holmes in the 1968 BBC series and in film and Dr.Who twice. Lucas originally envisaged him playing Obi wan Kenobi. Both these fine actors add an aspect of solidity to the proceedings that give anchors to both sides of the galactic conflict.

For more on the cast, click here;
For an over view of the film, you could do worse than visit dear old Wookiepedia;
And for the true fan, here's a wonderful site with original content that you really should bookmark;

The Cantina on your bedroom floor
The toy company Kenner bought the rights to make toys tying in with the film, but they failed to see the demand and when it threatened to overwhelm them, they were forced to think outside of the box... by selling empty ones. The Early Bird Certificate was a piece of card that entitled disappointed kids everywhere to four of the still-in-production figures. There was a stand for the figures, with plastic pegs to fix them to it. My money is very few kids bothered with the stand and just made their own scenes up...
ABOVE: Giving kids the Bird
BELOW: The Force Beam was a quasi-bootleg toy that sold in huge numbers. 

In addition to the figures, there was the Force Beam, a semi-bootleg lightsaber toy. Basically a torch with a coloured filter and a plastic tube, these were actually great fun (I had one) until you bent them. One thing every kid seemed to have held together by elastic bands was a partial set of Star Wars cards. Made by Topps, these came with a stick of awful gum and half my pocket money went on them. The first set had a blue border, subsequent sets featured different photos and coloured borders.
ABOVE: Original Topps cards with (centre) a US wrapper.
BELOW: The marketing people didn't stay sleeping for long.

ABOVE: Sticker sets from Topps
BELOW: The comic adaptation was a must for all my friends. (The British version was black and white)
BELOW: Toys; just a small part of the range on sale from 1978
BELOW: Also popular that summer were these T-shirt iron-ons
ABOVE: Badges, watches, Darth Vader's fighter and a set I remember well; Letraset produced a fantastic range of these scenes, with rub-on transfers that you could make your own pictures with.
ABOVE: Myth busted. For years it's been claimed Burger King only backed flops...
For a wonderful trip down memory lane, this Letraset site takes some beating;
For looks at unproduced Star Wars toys;


When you love a film you tend to watch it in detail and Star Wars gets better with each viewing; there's so much in the background and, inevitably, mistakes were made. Here's some of my favourites.

Aren't you a little tall for a Stormtrooper?;
The most famous goof of all. The control room on the Death Star and a squad of troopers marches in to secure the room. One hits his head on the doorway (And aren't these guys supposed to be clones? - surely one shouldn't be taller?)

The Millenium Stowaway;
The Falcon takes off from Mos Eisley and Han's at the wheel. Luke and Ben are strapped in around the gaming table so who's the owner of the shoulder we see briefly in the corridor behind Han?.

No Dice;
The first time we see the interior of the Falcon's cockpit is when Chewie takes his seat; there's a pair of metal dice hanging from the ceiling. Later on, these disappear (They were stolen from the set).

A Galaxy not so far, far away;
Star Wars is an immersive experience, the illusion of another Galaxy, another time is almost perfect. Almost?;
The Torture droid on the Death Star clearly shows a modern hypodermic syringe on one side.
The control room on the Death Star has fairly stylish bucket seats – but on everyday office chair castors.
As the lever is pushed to activate the Death Star's primary laser you can clearly see the console used. It's a TV production console, made by Grass Valley.
Weapons geeks may recognise the blasters used throughout the film; the Imperial blasters are based on Sterling Sub-Machine Guns, the long weapons used by the search squad on the falcon are German MG34 machine-guns from WWII and Han's blaster is a Mauser 'broomhandle' pistol.

Clunk-click before every trip;
As Han and Chewie prepare for the jump to hyperspace, Chewie isn't wearing his bandolier; as they go into hyperspace suddenly, he is.

Perhaps for artistic reasons, some of the shots of the lightsaber battle and the good guys arriving at the rebel base and the Death Star battle are flipped; look for Vader's chest plate being reversed. In the base, Han's holster on the left leg and Red Leader's microphone changes side a few times. Also, Threepio has a dent on his head which also flips from time to time.

Two places, one time;
Luke's Uncle buys R5-D4, a red-droid similar to R2-D2 from the Jawas. The droid has a bad motivator and breaks down – luke has his hand on it when a second later it's by the Sandcrawler being looked over by the Jawas. 


BELOW: Star Wars art

 BELOW: This art featured on the cover of the Sphere novelisation.

BELOW: Tom Jung's poster design in development.

 BELOW: A rejected poster design.

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STAR WARS © 1977 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. TM & © 1977 Lucasfilm Ltd. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK TM & © 1980 Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL) All rights reserved. "Twentieth Century Fox", "Fox" and their associated logos are property of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.
Lucasfilm, the Lucasfilm logo, STAR WARS and all related characters, names and indicia are trademarks of & copyright © 2012 Lucasfilm Ltd. All rights reserved. , or their respective trademark and copyright holders.

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