It’s difficult to overstate the impact that the Star Wars series has had on pop culture, and the number of iconic designs and moments that can be found throughout the eight films which have been released so far. From the Millennium Falcon to the AT-ATs, the spacecraft and vehicles found in the movies are instantly recognizable across the world, while characters from Yoda to Chewbacca have special places in our hearts.
This is all thanks to the hard work of a wide variety of people — not just writers, directors and actors but animators, designers, visual effects artists, and many more — who combined their ingenuity and creative expertise. It’s insightful, and often very surprising, to look back on how the Star Wars films were made and at the variety of techniques — often unconventional — through which well-known scenes were put together.
It’s also intriguing to compare the production of the original trilogy with the more tech-heavy prequels and with the recent Disney movies, which have crossed both styles as they’ve tried to bring back the worn-down, rugged look of George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away.
What’s more, it seems like the production of all these movies was a hell of a lot of fun for everyone involved. Despite being under a lot of pressure, both cast and crew always seemed to be having a good time. Those making the original trilogy can’t have known just how successful this series was going to end up, but they probably knew they were onto something good.
20. The AT-AT Models — And The Even Smaller Ones
The Battle of Hoth is one of the most iconic scenes in cinema, with the imposing sight of the Empire’s walkers relentlessly approaching the rebel base through the snow providing for an unforgettably exciting sequence. But in the days before CGI, the Empire Strikes Back effects team had to resort to a variety of techniques to bring the AT-ATs to life.
Three detailed walker models were built, before being placed on a snowy plain – actually baking powder — in front of a painted backdrop. These were then shot using stop-motion animation, with animators manually moving the models between each shot — a technique which only allowed them to shoot five seconds of film a day!
But the crew also had these tiny AT-ATs, which were used for shots looking through the glass of Luke’s speeder cockpit as he flies towards the distant walkers. Clever perspective tricks allowed these miniature machines to appear monstrous.
19. Tarkin Is Resurrected For Rogue One
Grand Moff Tarkin was an important figure in A New Hope, being the man in charge of the Death Star, and so it’s no surprise he was brought back for the recent spin-off Rogue One. But the legendary actor who played him, Peter Cushing, is no longer alive; instead of recasting, director Gareth Edwards decided to use visual effects to recreate Cushing.
The Rogue One team hired English actor Guy Henry, who you may know from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Henry was outfitted with the latest facial scanning technology so that his face could be replaced with Cushing’s during post-production.
It’s certainly an impressive technology, and allowed the character to appear just as fans saw him in 1977. However, not everyone was convinced, as the visual effects haven’t yet reached the point where they look perfectly natural. We just feel sorry for Henry, whose performance went by unrecognized.
18. The Jedi Army Assemble
It’s a sight Star Wars fans had waited years to see — the Jedi Order at its full strength, with Masters, Knights and Padawans — aliens and humans alike — assembled to fight in the Clone War which was first mentioned by Alec Guinness’ elderly Obi-Wan Kenobi.
And yet this first battle of the war doesn’t look so impressive when you take away the visual effects. The Star Wars prequels are notorious for their heavy usage of CGI, and without the many layers which were added to this, it just looks like Mace Windu and co. are assembled against a big wall of blue felt.
Nevertheless, in the finished movie, the fight in the arena of Geonosis is certainly a visually entertaining sequence, with a full-on army of battle droids surrounding the Jedi, and some giant creatures to boot. This image reminds us of the unusual process by which part of that scene was made.
17. Frank Oz Operates Puppet Yoda
The idea of having a puppet character doesn’t exactly sound like it could be convincing on screen — we all enjoy the Muppet movies, but how could one of them fit into Star Wars? And yet that’s exactly how Yoda was brought to life.
This photo shows puppeteer Frank Oz — one of the creative minds behind The Muppets and Sesame Street, as well as cult favourite films including Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal — with his hand inside the Yoda puppet, during shooting of the scene where Luke Skywalker first meets the wise old Jedi Master on the swamp planet of Dagobah. Oz also recorded the voice of the diminutive green alien, and continued to do so in the prequels.
The technique worked remarkably well, with Yoda being fondly remembered as another of the Star Wars saga’s iconic characters. And yet his appearances in later films didn’t always stick to the same technique…
16. The CGI Yoda
The Yoda puppet survived through the first prequel film, The Phantom Menace, but when Attack of the Clones came around, the script called for the Jedi Master to take part in an energetic action scene for the first time, and so a CGI upgrade was called for.
This image shows some of the complex work that went into creating Yoda in this way, as visual effects artists had to build the wireframe structure of his figure before layering textures on top. It’s a technique that works better for alien characters than it does humans, as Yoda’s non-human design kept the finished character from falling into the ‘uncanny valley’ where CGI figures don’t quite look natural enough — like Rogue One’s Tarkin.
Despite the complex work involved, many fans still prefer the style of the puppet Yoda — at least they can be relieved that even the latest special edition of The Empire Strikes Back hasn’t replaced him with CGI yet!
15. Shooting A New Hope In Tunisia
Here we can see cameras rolling on the scene where Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi look out over the town of Mos Eisley, with cast and crew unaware that the description of the alien-filled town as “a wretched hive of scum and villainy” would still be quoted by fans over forty years afterwards.
The sequences of A New Hope set on the Luke Skywalker’s desert world of Tatooine were shot in Tunisia, near the desert. This shoot was fraught with problems, including malfunctioning props, electronic breakdowns, and even a rare desert rainstorm. Despite this, George Lucas and his crew returned to Tunisia over twenty years later to shoot some scenes for the prequel trilogy.
The shoot must have been particularly difficult for Anthony Daniels, trapped in the metal C-3PO costume under Tunisia’s burning sun — and because it took so long for the costume to be taken off, he even had to keep it on during breaks in filming.
14. Ewoks Nab The Clapperboard
Love them or loathe them, the cute and cuddly Ewoks made a dramatic entrance into the Star Wars mythos when Return of the Jedi hit cinemas, helping the Rebel Alliance to victory with their primitive but surprisingly effective battle tactics.
Their home, the Forest Moon of Endor, was actually shot in the redwood forests of Del Norte County, California. The teddy bear-like aliens were enough of a hit with younger viewers for them to return in two made-for-TV movies and even an animated series. There was also a short, never-finished documentary called Return of the Ewok, shot during production of Return of the Jedi by its assistant director David Tomblin.
In this shot, two Ewoks — actually dwarf actors in suits — have got hold of the scene’s clapperboard. The title here, ‘Blue Harvest’, was a fake working title assigned to Episode VI during production in order to help keep shooting top secret.
13. Simon Pegg’s Force Awakens Cameo
The British comedian and actor Simon Pegg has been making a name for himself in Hollywood with recurring roles in the Star Trek and Mission: Impossible blockbuster series, but his appearance in The Force Awakens was a lot more subtle.
Pegg appears as Unkar Plutt, the ruthless trader who buys the junk Rey scavenges from Jakku’s starship graveyard. Plutt was originally going to appear later in the film, in a scene which saw him follow Rey to Maz Kanata’s castle, only to have his arm ripped off by Chewbacca, but this was cut, presumably due to being too violent.
Though Pegg’s face was covered by a mask throughout the performance, this photo proves that it was indeed him. The actor no doubt begged director JJ Abrams, who he’d worked with on both Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek, to get the role, and the lifelong Star Wars fan definitely looks happy to be in his beloved franchise.
12. Lucas Surveys His Second Death Star
The first Death Star, a battle station capable of destroying entire planets, was one of many iconic images in 1977’s A New Hope, thanks in large part to its simple but imposing design. Following up on that was a big task — both for the Empire and for George Lucas’s team.
But they managed it, and here’s the creator of the Star Wars galaxy inspecting his latest creation in one of the prop workshops. Building this model wasn’t easy, and in fact, like the battle station itself, the model wasn’t complete, with only the front half ever being made. Thankfully, a combination of this and matte paintings was all the film needed to present a convincing Death Star II.
You may also have noticed that the section of the spherical station which is still under construction is on the opposite side to how it appears in the finished film – the footage of the model was flipped.
11. C-3PO And R2-D2 Get Costume Checks
C-3PO and R2-D2 are two of the most important characters in the Star Wars saga — their constant bickering adds comic relief to the adventures, and they’re the only characters to have appeared in all eight films to date.
And in each of these, it’s been Anthony Daniels in the C-3PO suit. However, you may not realize that R2-D2 has an actor inside him too. Though the original Star Wars films also had a radio-controlled R2, it was Kenny Baker who played the droid most of the time. Baker reprised the role in the prequels, though the radio-controlled units were used much more heavily. As Baker has now sadly passed away, the role will be taken over by Jimmy Vee for the next film, The Last Jedi.
10. Revenge Of The Sith’s Model City
Despite the prequel trilogy’s reputation for relying too heavily on computer-generated imagery, a lot of good old-fashioned model making still went into creating the planets on show.
Here we can see a model maker putting the final touches to what will be a city on the planet Utapau, where Obi-Wan Kenobi travels to in Revenge of the Sith on the trail of the villainous General Grievous.
It’s an impressively detailed construction, which paid off when it came to shooting the wide shots establishing the city. These were, however, enhanced by the addition of CGI elements, such as moving ships and creatures — sometimes the best result is achieved through a combination of old methods and new.
9. Stormtroopers On The London Underground
Enforcing the will of the Galactic Empire is a tiring job, and these Stormtroopers look thoroughly worn out as they wait for their tube train home.
In reality, these are extras from last year’s Rogue One, for which the Canary Wharf underground train station in London, England was transformed into an Imperial base. These scenes were cut with other footage shot in the Maldives and at a Royal Air Force base elsewhere in England, all of which came together to create the tropical planet Scarif.
During the day, Canary Wharf is a busy station full of workers commuting in to the centre of the capital city, and so the crew only had a few hours in the middle of the night to get all the footage they needed, which may explain why these troopers look so worn out as they pose by the iconic sign.
8. Peter Mayhew Returns As Chewbacca
Another actor who’s been with the Star Wars saga since the beginning is Peter Mayhew. Though his long mane of hair may have helped, it was Mayhew’s seven-foot-three stature which landed him the role of Chewbacca, Han Solo’s furious and furry partner in crime.
After 22 years away from the character, Mayhew returned to the role in Revenge of the Sith, when the Clone Wars reached Chewbacca’s home planet of Kashyyyk, and here can be seen getting back into the Wookiee costume, finding it still fits him nicely. Eight Wookiee costumes were painstakingly made for this film, taking an average of 12 weeks each, with more of the big hairy aliens being added via CGI.
7. How The Opening Crawl Was Shot
With the exception of Rogue One, every Star Wars movie begins with yellow text crawling back over a black starry background — an image which sets the tone for the movie and which has become an inseparable part of Star Wars’ place in pop culture. In recent films, they’ve of course been created digitally, but the original films had to shoot theirs without the aid of computers.
While many of us might assume there was some clever compositing technique at play, the method actually used is much more straightforward — they physically made the crawls and pointed a camera at them. The crawls were printed on a glossy plate of about six feet, which the camera slowly rolled backwards over.
6. Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill Hang Out
All the footage and photos of Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and their co-stars tell us that the main cast of the Star Wars trilogy had a lot of fun filming the three movies, and were known to hang out together on and off set.
But we’ve chosen this image of Fisher and Hamill not because of anything it reveals about the production process, nor because of Carrie Fisher’s fanboy-pleasing gold bikini, but because we’re confused about just what it is that Hamill is wearing.
The floral-patterned gown isn’t exactly his usual style, nor is it practical wear for the Yuma Desert in Arizona, where the Tatooine sequences of Return of the Jedi were shot. It’s definitely not the robes you’d expect a Jedi Knight to wear. We can only assume there’s a story here which we may never find out.
5. The Phantom Menace’s Final Duel
While it opened to very high levels of fan anticipation, The Phantom Menace is generally seen as a disappointment, losing the wonder and mystique of Star Wars in favour of a boring plot about tax negotiations. But many fans did enjoy the new villain Darth Maul, played by martial artist Ray Park decked out in red and black tattoos, and the final duel between him and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
This shot shows us a new angle on the climactic moment in which Obi-Wan slices Maul in two, sending the devious Sith falling down a deep pit. It’s immediately evident that the pit wasn’t really as deep as the film made it seem, and that there was a big blue cushion not much more than a meter down for the stunt performer to land on. And that Ewan McGregor didn’t really cut a man in half. There’s probably a law against that.
4. The Model Speeder Bike
You may think that it’s only the bigger craft that were made in miniature form, but Return of the Jedi’s speeder bikes also had their own pint-sized versions, which helped to shoot the exciting sequence where Luke and Leia chase Scout Troopers through the Endor forest.
Here we can see animator Phil Tippett — him of “you had one job, Phil” infamy — operating one such model. The 30-inch long bikes were shot against blue screen, with the 12 to 15-inch riders controlled like puppets. Wind machines were used to make it look like they were moving fast.
The puppet may look obviously fake here, but we bet you never knew these were used at all. With this footage laid against a forest-shot backdrop, and intercut with shots of the actors aboard life-size speeders, you can hardly tell that models were used.
3. The Millennium Falcon On The Soundstage
Not a miniature this time, but a full size freighter. Han Solo’s ship, the Millennium Falcon, was constructed on a soundstage for the production of A New Hope. Rather than putting the ship into different sets, both sets in which it appears — the Death Star hangar and the Mos Eisley Spaceport — were built around it.
In fact, the ship was never fully constructed, and you can just about see in this image that the left hand side of the ship isn’t 100% there. Clever shooting around this, combined with the use of both smaller models and matte paintings, allowed the film to give the impression of a complete hunk of junk.
2. The Battle Droids Are Prepared
For the prequel trilogy, the Trade Federation’s battle droids replaced Imperial Stormtroopers as the main threatening army, complete with terrible aim when it comes to shooting the heroes.
Of course, humanoid robots trained to kill aren’t real (we hope), but these ones were more real than you thought. While the majority of the droids were created using CGI, this image shows that some full-size droids were actually created and operated by puppeteers to get the most believable effect in certain scenes, such as this one set in the hangars of Naboo.
The design of the battle droids was in fact inspired by the reanimated skeletons in the film Jason and the Argonauts. These skeletons were brought to life by Ray Harryhausen, a pioneer of stop-motion animation, who also inspired animation techniques seen in the original trilogy.
1. The Empire Strikes Back Cast Chill With George Lucas
Though a film set is a hectically busy place, the cast of the Star Wars movies somehow managed to find time to chill. They developed strong friendships on set – in fact, it was recently revealed that Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher even had an affair at one point.
Here, we can see Ford, Fisher and Mark Hamill in full rebel costume and hanging out with the saga’s creator George Lucas – or perhaps being briefed on the next scene. This is the set of the Rebel Alliance’s base on snowy Hoth, meaning that the photo was taken in studio during filming of the early sequences of The Empire Strikes Back. Ford in particular looks relaxed, with a pose befitting of the laid-back scoundrel Han Solo.
With crew busy at work in the background, it’s a great picture in terms of capturing what life must have been like behind the scenes of this beloved movie.