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Friday, 29 May 2015

Star Wars: The Deleted Scenes #4: Threepio takes the wheel

Threepio takes the wheel of the landspeeder in
one of 
Star Warsdeleted scenes

In our continuing look at the deleted scenes of Star Wars, we discover that See Threepio can do something useful other than talk – and we watch George Lucas grapple with the question of which bits of the story to leave out.

Aunt Beru and the blue milk

Aunt Beru fetches the blue milk in a
deleted shot from Star Wars

Before we get on to the substantial business of today’s post, I should cover a deleted ‘scene’ that is really barely a scene at all.

The Star Wars Blu-ray set includes a shot of Aunt Beru filling a pitcher of blue milk. The shot would have appeared in the movie just before the scene in which Luke comes in for dinner and tells his uncle about his suspicion that their new R2 unit might have been stolen.

It doesn’t tell us anything story-wise, so it’s really a bit of discarded footage rather than a deleted scene. But the blue milk seems to have fascinated some people, over the years, as surely as the questions of what the Jawas look like under their hoods or why those Imperial gunners didn’t shoot the escape pod. Authors in the Star Wars ‘expanded universe’ later decided that the blue milk came from banthas (good luck milking one of those) and the drink also inspired the name of the very funny Star Wars parody strip Blue Milk Special. In the universe of Star Wars, just about every detail has some kind of cult following.

See Threepio drives the landspeeder

Threepio drives the landspeeder in 
a deleted scene from Star Wars

Now we’re into a more substantial deleted scene – one that figures in the script and in the Alan Dean Foster novel

It’s the morning after Artoo Detoo left Luke’s family homestead. Just after we see Uncle Owen calling for Luke – and threatening that there will be “hell to pay” if his nephew doesn’t repair those units on the south range – we see Luke’s landspeeder travelling across the desert, with See Threepio at the wheel. 

Yes, it turns out the droid does have a practical use, other than being able to speak six million languages, of which the Lars family don’t seem to need at least 5,999,997. (They appear only to require English, bocce and the binary language of moisture vapirators.)

The neat thing about this scene is that it would have established just how self-serving See Threepio can be. As they hunt for the missing R2 unit, Luke mulls on how “Uncle Owen isn’t going to take this very well”. Threepio briefly suggests he might take the blame, and Luke welcomes the idea, saying “He’d probably only deactivate you for a day or so.”  At this, Threepio changes his mind about the whole idea: “Deactivate! Well, on the other hand if you hadn’t removed his restraining bolt….”

Lucas aimed to give his robots real personalities, and in this deleted scene we see that Threepio’s personality is very human indeed. We’ve already established that he’s a coward, but in this exchange he is prepared to see his new master get into trouble rather than him. If that doesn’t actually break one of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, it surely violates the spirit of them. Here, Threepio is considerably closer to one of the self-serving footsoldiers Tehei and Matashichi in Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, who to some extent inspired Lucas’s conception of the droids.

But amusing as the scene is, it had to go – and the main reason had nothing to do with its value as part of the story.

The landspeeder back projection: Star Wars’ least convincing special effect

The unconvincing back projection caused
this scene to be deleted from Star Wars

The main reason this scene would not have sat well in the movie is a prosaic one: The special effects were not good enough.

The scene cuts between the characters in the landspeeder and the Tatooine terrain. The shots of that terrain are fantastic. Shot from the speeder’s point of view, they are a lot like the shots of the snowscape from the snowspeeders’ angle that make my stomach lurch in The Empire Strikes Back. But the shots of Luke and Threepio in the landspeeder are not up to scratch.

In the alien world of Star Wars, the one thing that would destroy the mood for the audience more than anything else would be a sub-standard special effects shot. Yes, there might be some effects in the movie that look a little ropy if you freeze-frame them. But in the cinema, I can think of only a couple of moments that look a little wobbly, and they also involve the landspeeder. Making a real vehicle, with actors in it, look as though it was hovering above the ground was not easily accomplished in 1976-77, as this frame grab shows:

One of the weaker shots in Star Wars:
The landspeeder arrives at Mos Eisley,
with Vaseline on the camera lens obscuring
the wheels of the vehicle used on location

Star Wars used a lot of traditional, practical effects techniques alongside innovations that would change the industry. In this deleted scene, the crew used back-projection – just about the oldest trick in the book when it comes to simulating moving vehicles. It is the kind of technique that studio-bound, black and white movies used to get away with, partly because we accepted a greater degree of artificiality in those films. But in colour and widescreen, it can look glaringly phoney – and the technique was probably laid to rest with this great scene from Airplane!:

In the case of Star Wars, the back projection does not work well. It would almost certainly have been jarring – and it would have occurred to George Lucas that the whole scene could be excised without destroying the story.

What to leave out: refining the story of Star Wars

George Lucas at the time of Star Wars

Any author or film-maker has to address the key question: What should I cut? It’s the sign of a mature artist who has already dealt with the even more fundamental question: Why should I cut anything after I took all that trouble thinking it up?

George Lucas had learned a lot
about cutting scenes from his
experience with American Graffiti
George Lucas was discovering, in the editing, how to refine his story. He had learned some painful lessons in this field during the editing of American Graffiti, which came in at two hours 45 minutes long in its first cut. Lucas’s biographer Dale Pollock wrote of that experience: “The story was so interwoven that removing one or two scenes disrupted the entire flow of the film.”  He quoted Lucas as saying: “You literally can have a film that works fine at one point, and in one week you can cut it to a point where it absolutely does not work at all.”

In the case of Star Wars, Lucas was not facing the massive problem of over-length that he had faced with Graffiti, but there clearly were plenty of trims he could make without fundamentally hurting the story. The landspeeder scene is one of those. It’s the kind of scene everyone involved might have enjoyed, and which might have seemed important at the time, but which turns out to be loseable. These judgements are never a science – it might have been possible to cut or trim other scenes that we have since become used used to in the finished movie. But in looking at what was left out of Star Wars, we can see Lucas becoming a better storyteller.


John white said...

I suspect that could have made that scene work - without back projection Darren. Why not place a camera In the middle of the axis of the device which swung the speeder around, but in full, repeating 360 turns? It would have been real. And it wouldn't have to rotate fast either. To avoid repeating background features they could have picked spots on which to place it which had pretty flat horizons. Then intercut close ups to vary it and hide the cut when they shifted the whole setup to a different spot so as to get a different horizon.
It seems odd that they couldn't come up with something like this with all of their know-how and budget!

Trent I. Rankins said...

I am surprised that there are many deleted shots in Star Wars movie. I think George Lucas is a genious person. Frankly speaking, I love all related to Star Wars: films, games , books etc.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks very much for commenting!