With a new trilogy of films on the way, interest in Star Wars has never been greater. The original film's artistic and technical innovations made a profound impact on Hollywood. After its release audiences moved away from gritty, violent thrillers like French Connection and The Godfather and moved towards fun summer blockbusters like Superman and Ghostbusters. Yet, despite breaking box office records, its artistic achievements are repeatedly scoffed at. The New Yorker’s film critic, Pauline Kael, famously criticised the film, writing “There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset.” The writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Paul Schrader, wrote “Star Wars was the film that ate the heart and soul of Hollywood. It created the big-budget comic-book mentality.”
The lack of critical praise for the Star Wars prequels has further tarnished Star Wars’ reputation. It’s important to remember that Star Wars (now known as Star Wars: A New Hope) was nominated for ten Oscars, and won six. This isn’t because it was a fun summer blockbuster that was set in space, it’s because it was (and still is) a technical and artistic triumph. It changed Hollywood because it refreshed tired styles of filmmaking. You can learn a lot about filmmaking from Star Wars, and this list acts as a guide to its cinematic achievements
The first edit of Star Wars was infamously a disaster. Scenes dragged and bored the viewer with lengthy dialogue that was filled with technobabble. This was partly because Star Wars has a lot of backstory (they eventually had to make three prequels to explain it all). Lucas fired his original editor, and replaced him with a team of editors that breezed through the exposition-heavy dialogue. Instead of lingering on complexities, everything in Star Wars moves forward with energy and gusto. There’s no hanging around, and characters leap (sometimes literally) from scene to scene.The editing in Star Wars also highlights George Lucas’ visual style. In editing, you often match similar objects when you’re ending one scene and beginning another (think of the jump cut from a bone to a spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey). George Lucas prefers to juxtapose imagery and ideas (e.g., white versus black, good versus evil). The first ever Star Wars wipe transition (where one shot moves over another shot, replacing the image as it goes) changes the setting from the dark backdrop of space to the light desertscape of Tatooine.
2. Costume design
George Lucas’ penchant for juxtaposition carries through to Star Wars’ costume design. Costumes can subtly imply themes when worn by lead characters. The good characters, Luke and Leia, both wear white while the bad character, Darth Vader, wears black. Han Solo, the morally dubious antihero, wears a mixture of the two. Aesthetically, Luke and Leia have a connection; they’re both pure in their motives and perhaps, something deeper is implied (romantically, or otherwise).
3. Aspect ratio
When presented in cinemas, Star Wars has a 2.35:1 widescreen ratio. This ratio was traditionally used for epic films, and as a result the film was photographed so that it would feel spacious and grand, like a western. The vast landscape of Tunisia (Tatooine) is portrayed as sprawling and almost never ending, much like space. The film also has a very sharp, clear image – largely because cinematographer Gilbert Taylor believed that outer-space wouldn’t be “out of focus”. As a result, much of Star Wars carries an aesthetic sense of grandeur and timelessness. When it was released in 1977 it already looked like a classic.
In many ways the simple sets used in 1977 look better than the computer generated imagery (CGI) in 2005’s Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. A large part of this is down to lighting. Real objects reflect light in a more realistic way than CGI. In an effort to light the huge (and dark) spaceship interiors, Gilbert Taylor, apparently, violently dismantled the dark Death Star sets in order to put powerful lights within the scenery. As well as successfully lighting up the oppressive set, it also allowed George Lucas to shoot from all angles without having to go through the pain of re-lighting each scene.
5. Field Size
The field size of a shot refers to the framing's distance to the subject. Star Wars doesn’t use many close-ups or extreme close ups. It also doesn’t have many extreme long shots (where a character is barely visible). Instead, George Lucas relies on long shots (which show characters’ full bodies and their surroundings), medium long shots (which almost show full bodies but feet and lower legs tend to be cut off) medium shots (which show the upper body) and medium close-ups (which show the face and shoulders, but not to the extent where the background is obscured).
The result of this is that the characters are often shown interacting together onscreen in the same shot. It quickly creates bonds and ties in a story with a substantial number of important central characters. It has the added effect of not focusing too heavily on make up, costumes and set design; the alien world is unobtrusive and unremarkable to the characters that inhabit it. The obvious exception is during the Cantina sequence; Luke walks into a strange new world and we’re presented with a montage of aliens that are weird and repulsive to the young protagonist. He’s staring at them in awe, along with the audience.
There’s another obvious reason as to why Star Wars doesn’t have many close ups; four of the main characters aren’t capable of facial expressions (Chewbacca, Darth Vader, R2D2 and C3P0). Chewbacca and R2D2 aren’t even able to communicate in English (or any other understandable language, for that matter). Regardless, through their physical gestures and un-intelligible noises they’re capable of expressing feelings and ideas. Darth Vader and C3P0 have the added benefit of having had their voices added in post-production.
These costume-bound performers added to an interesting mix. George Lucas cast two big names in Star Wars; Alec Guinness (Ben Kenobi) and Peter Cushing (Moff Tarkin). By doing so he was allowed to cast the inexperienced Carrie Fisher (Princes Leia and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) and to a lesser extent, Harrison Ford (Han Solo). The difference between the performers is noticeable. When Luke and Leia are on-screen, there’s a frantic energy, and a sense of naivety and hope. Kenobi instantly relaxes the viewer. His scenes are much calmer and his words carry a greater sense of gravitas.
Star Wars detractors often accuse the film of offering little more than “eye candy”. It’s a flawed criticism; the film’s linear script and fiery sound effects make the narrative very easy to follow (even if your eyes are closed for the duration of the screening – try it). It’s as much ear candy as it is eye candy. More importantly, the music is intricate and meaningful. John Williams’ classical score infuses Star Wars with memorable themes, motifs and tropes that enhance and help to explain the story.
The effect of the orchestra cannot be overstated. The spine-tingling music is so powerful that it not only enhances the on-screen drama with rousing there, it also alters our perception of events and characters.
8. Sound Effects
Star Wars is famous for the innovative way that its sound effects were created: Darth Vader’s breathing was created by recording Ben Burtt breathing through a scuba regulator; the lightsaber’s hum was the feedback from a damaged TV; Chewbacca’s voice was a mixture of a dog, a lion and a walrus.
Previously, science fiction films and television programmes had used sound effects that sounded alien and strange. Ben Burtt’s masterstroke with Star Wars was using special effects that sounded familiar and “organic”. This leant a subtle sense of reality to the film. Furthermore, Ben Burrt used sound effects in an effective way that helped to tell the story. He wanted to differentiate between how the imperial and rebel spaceships sounded. This is most obvious during the assault on the Death Star. The rebel ships sound like traditional planes, the Imperial ships have a ghostly, screechy sound. Their mere sound conveys their malevolence.
9. Special Effects
Impressive models effects are nothing new. In 1968, Douglas Trumbull wowed audiences with his hyper realistic spaceships in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Star Wars revolutionised the special effects industry however, by using a computerised motion-control system known as Dykstraflex (named after its creator, John Dykstra). This new technology motorised the camera, allowing its movements to be programmable. At the touch of a button, the camera could roll, pan, tilt, swing and even change focus. More importantly, as the cameras could now be programmed, movements could easily be repeated with precision.
The speed and flexibility of the camera position allowed for dynamic camera angles. The audience was given a roller coaster experience unlike anything that they’d ever seen before in the cinema.
10. Production design
Before Alien and Bladerunner, Star Wars introduced science fiction audiences to filthy and worn out technology. Traditionally in science fiction futuristic cities, robots, and spaceships were always presented as pristine and hyper-modern. Everything in Star Wars looks old and battered. The technology itself is often reminiscent of bygones past: the weapon of choice is a sword, not a blaster; the Millennium Falcon’s gun turrets wouldn’t look out of place on a World War I bomber. Not only do these detail create a great atmosphere, George Lucas is also constantly homaging the classic adventure films that have inspired his work (like Hidden Fortress, The Dambusters etcetera).
The temptation for production designers (who supervising the construction and painting of sets), is to take great pride in their work and create something beautiful and clean. Star Wars is a great example of how the little details – scratches, smudges, dents – can create texture and history. After all, it’s not set in the future. It’s set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
Note: This article was originally published on Taste of Cinema. All images are courtesy of 20th Century Fox.