Friday, 15 July 2016

40 years on: Shooting on Star Wars ends with the film's opening scenes

Darth Vader arrives on the Rebel
blockade runner in Star Wars 

Forty years ago this Saturday 
– on July 16 1976 – George Lucas was able to call "It's a wrap" as principal photography on Star Wars finally finished. The final days of filming had been hurried, with multiple camera crews working under huge pressure. Yet they turned out to be some of the most memorable moments of the film. Episode Nothing looks at the scenes which were the last to be shot, but first in the film. 

Star Wars and the long, hot British summer of 1976

The droids dodge the crossfire during the 
opening battle in Star Wars

The summer of 1976 saw Britain in the grip of a heatwave unlike anything in recent memory. Temperatures exceeded 35°C (95 °F)a number of times. Parts of the country went without rain for 45 days. And in southern England, there were rampaging forest fires. 

Through the height of the heatwave, production of Star Wars continued. In fact, as the temperature rose, the pace of work on the film increased. The crew were under orders from Twentieth Century-Fox: Star Wars had to be finished by July 16.

Between June 29 and July 16, work on Stage 9 at Elstree Studios was focused on scenes on the Rebel blockade runner – including Leia meeting Darth Vader, C-3PO fretting about being sent to the spice mines of Kessel, Leia being stunned by the stormtroopers' weapons and Vader entering the Rebel ship.

JW Rinzler's book The Making of Star Wars quotes the production progress report for Friday, July 16: "Completion of principal photography in UK today. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher completed their roles today and will travel to Los Angeles tomorrow, Saturday July 17, 1976. George Lucas wll travel to USA on July 17. Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker also completed their roles today. The editing equipment and film will arrive in the US on July 27. Scenes remaining to be shot (in USA) are now as follows..."

The list of unfinished scenes centred on shots of R2-D2, the landspeeder and the banthas.

The reason for the hurry was that the studio was set to pull the plug on Star Wars. Shooting had fallen five weeks behind schedule and the Fox board was tired of hearing about the overruns.

Lucas added to the pressure himself when he decided another set had to be built. Originally, the opening battle was to have been shot in the part of the Rebel ship where we first see Leia handing the Death Star plans to R2-D2. But that set (which was actually the Millennium Falcon's hold, given a makeover) wouldn't do.

"Sometimes we tried to re-dress a set and use it again. But I looked at it about a week or so before shooting, and I said, I can't possibly shoot the sequence on this set," Lucas is quoted as saying in JW Rinzler's book.

"And I just realised I couldn't shoot a battle, five pages of dialogue, and all these people running around, and have it all take place in one little hallway."

Studio executive Alan Ladd Jr was still supportive of George Lucas, believing he might just be making a great movie. But as costs rose, Fox decided to give the film just one more week.

Lucas hired two more camera crews, so that three units could work simultaneously on the same sets. According to Dale Pollock's book Skywalking, production supervisor Robert Watts directed the storm troopers in battle, producer Gary Kurtz covered the droids and Lucas directed Darth Vader.
Watts recalled in the documentary Empire of Dreams: “Gary directed the second unit and I had the distinction of directing the third unit of Star Wars. My shots were things like close-ups of R2-D2’s third foot going down.” 

Kurtz has recalled that hiring extra camera crews cost more money than just allowing the film to overrun its schedule. But the crew met the deadline – and shot some classic sequences in the process.

The opening of Star Wars: an epic space battle featuring 17 people

This is all there is of the Rebellion
in the opening of Star Wars

It's a sequence everybody remembers. In the opening minutes of Star Wars, we meet C-3PO and R2-D2. We watch a hard-fought battle between Rebel crew and invading Imperial stormtroopers. We see Darth Vader for the first time – and we watch him throttle an unlucky Rebel. 

But how many people are in that all-important opening battle?

By my count, the Rebel side amounts to ten people. As for the stormtroopers, you never see more than seven of them in shot at one time.

And yet with these 17 people, Lucas constructed a classic battle.

In those hectic last days of principal photography, Lucas and his crews were filming the same action from multiple angles. And the editing gives us the sense that we've seen much more than we have.

Take a look at the opening moments of the battle, as the Rebels try to repel the initial boarding party of stormtroopers.

We see some of the Rebels' faces in close-up as they prepare for the Empire to blast its way into their ship. We cut more than once to the entrance hatch, still in tact, where they are expecting the stormtroopers to appear. Then, the entrance explodes and stormtroopers start to pour through the hole. How many stormtroopers do we think have appeared? A dozen? Twenty? Thirty? With the scene bathed in smoke, and frequent cuts between camera angles, it's hard to say. But we've gained the impression of an overwhelming military force arriving – even if there may have been no more than seven of them. 

Some of the small contingent of stormtroopers
in Star Wars' opening scenes

Freeze-frame the action and you realise that with a cast this small, many directors would have turned out a scene that looked threadbare and ludicrous. 

But this film benefited from the editing genius of George Lucas, along with his cutters Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas and Richard Chew. Through artful shooting and rapid cutting, he gives us the impression we've seen much more destruction than we really have. You have to wonder whether these scenes have such a frantic pace despite the limitations placed on Lucas during filming – or because of them. 

Combine the visuals with John Williams' score, which follows every moment closely and holds the action together, plus Ben Burtt's sound effects and you have a classic sequence created out of near-chaos on the set.

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