Trilogy Redefines Special Effects Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

George Lucas created a blockbuster science-fiction series with special effects that set the standard for an entire industry. The trilogy had multiple impacts on popular culture, including an increase in the number of science-fiction films.

Summary of Event

George Lucas earned enough money from his critically successful film American Graffiti (1973) American Graffiti (film) to produce Star Wars, the first installment of his science-fiction trilogy, which was released across the United States on May 25, 1977. Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];George Lucas[Lucas] Star Wars, in turn, was such a phenomenally successful film at the box office that Lucas had the money to expand the fantasy into The Empire Strikes Back Empire Strikes Back, The (film) (released May 21, 1980) and Return of the Jedi Return of the Jedi (film) (released May 25, 1983). Extraordinary as the first movie was, the second and third were even more so; in making the sequels, Lucas could concentrate huge financial resources through his subsidiary company devoted to special-effects production, Industrial Light and Magic. Industrial Light and Magic Located north of San Francisco, Industrial Light and Magic was the material origin of the three motion pictures that extended the limits of sound and visual effects. Special effects, motion pictures Special effects, motion pictures Lucas, George Kershner, Irvin Marquand, Richard Hamill, Mark Ford, Harrison Guinness, Alec

Star Wars captures attention with its mixture of several film genres, including Westerns and romances as well as science fiction. It honors the American search for new frontiers as Luke Skywalker searches through galaxies to save a beautiful princess and find his father. The fantasy of the story suggests mythic themes of the widest dimensions, from political to religious levels of significance. Pitting powers of rebellious light and imperial darkness against each other, Star Wars echoes medieval European stories of knights learning to fulfill divine destinies: Thus Skywalker learns to control the mysterious “Force” because he learns to subordinate his will to it. The film is filled with adventures of flight and pursuit, near disaster and triumphant escape, leading to cosmic celebration with a triumvirate of heroes who have saved the universe.





Like the weekend serials of earlier decades, the Star Wars trilogy was built on episodes in which the heroes are nearly destroyed before achieving miraculous triumphs. Instead of cliff-hanging perils, however, there are astronomical dangers and asteroidal threats; spaceships and star-scooters replace stagecoaches and horses, as characters zoom through space at light speed. By location shooting on deserts and frozen wastes, the films create bizarre scenic effects to suggest alien worlds for cosmic battles. Most effective, however, are studio-shot episodes, remarkably constructed sets, and scenes created by computer-assisted electronic and photographic technology.

For an appreciation of what huge profits could do to elaborate visual experience in movies, consider the transformation of the “Cantina” scene in Star Wars into the “Monster Rally” scene in Return of the Jedi. In the earlier scene, which evoked barroom settings from countless Western films, there were only a few monstrous creatures to view; in the later one, there were more than eighty creatures that took fifteen artists more than a year to construct. These creatures were made with painstaking detail, as molded masks for human actors or puppets for single hands or several persons. Indeed, some ten puppeteers, several mime artists, more than forty-two extras, eighteen principals, and ninety crew members were required to produce this one scene.

Shooting the scene took a month, but more impressive was the making of the figure of the chief monster, Jabba the Hut. This giant puppet was a complex machine requiring several operators for its various bodily parts. The puppet of Jabba took three months to build, weighed more than two thousand pounds, and cost half a million dollars. Equally impressive are the figures associated with the short episode of the barge battle in which the power of Jabba is destroyed. Constructed in an Arizona desert by a hundred workers, the two-hundred-foot-long, eighty-foot-high barge took four months to build—and less than five minutes to blow apart.

To make the scene work, however, live-action shots were mixed with special electronic and photographic effects, which are the glory of the trilogy. Return of the Jedi alone included more than five hundred shots of special effects; such scenes made up 15 percent of the film. From laser swords to electric charges, these films mix flashing, glowing lights of brilliant coloring with buzzing, crackling sounds to create high-energy effects. The overwhelming presence of machinery extends to robots and to human beings who depend on machines; most intriguing is the breathing device that sustains the life of archvillain Darth Vader. Some effects, such as the breathing of Vader and the richly resonating voice of actor James Earl Jones, are sound tricks, and some are visual achievements of state-of-the-art computers and highly trained technicians.

Using techniques long established—some since as far back as the early twentieth century silent films of Georges Méliès—the artists and technicians of Industrial Light and Magic choreographed intricately composed space battles, such as the attack on the nuclear reactor at the center of the colossal Death Star spacecraft, and they arranged layers of illusion to produce the richly textured celebration scenes in the edenic Valley of the Ewoks. The attack on the Death Star required hours of drawings for the scene’s storyboard, followed by careful designing of meticulously detailed models; the models were then photographed by computer-controlled robot cameras programmed according to the storyboard sketches. The effects supervisor at Industrial Light and Magic, Ken Ralston, directed the work of many technicians to bring all the elements together for the complex space battles in Return of the Jedi; the film’s battle scenes involved more than sixty separate spaceships photographed on 170 rolls of film.

The lush Ewok planet, where the last battle to destroy the armies of the empire is fought, had its origin in a high-speed scooter race through a real redwood forest in Northern California. Combining photography of models with live action against blue-screen backgrounds, the scene gives a thrilling introduction to the world of the Ewoks, small bearlike creatures. There followed the visit to the Valley of the Ewoks, which was created from the matte paintings, electronically driven optical printers, forest location shooting, and a studio set in London, where dwarf actors donned Ewok costumes. The Ewok language was the special creation of Ben Burtt, Burtt, Ben the film’s sound designer, and the musical scores of the trilogy were composed by John Williams. Williams, John

These features combined to serve a simple tale of good triumphing over evil. While there were sinister implications of political, racial, and sexual ambiguities, the basic story of the trilogy is clear and forceful for a generation that grew up with video games and home robotics. Equally forceful was the trilogy’s theme of family. The hero, deprived of a father and sister, finds both; he never shows much interest in his mother, however. These issues were not resolved until the release of prequel Episodes I-III from 1999 to 2005, which revealed the romance between Darth Vader (Anakin Skywalker) and Luke’s mother while offering even more lavish digitally produced special effects.


The Star Wars trilogy had multiple impacts on popular culture, including an increase in the number of science-fiction films. In addition, the title of the first film was appropriated by the political debate over high-technology defense systems, and various directors utilized science-fiction vehicles to engage in religious and political debates that echoed 1950’s film propaganda. In 1982, John Carpenter Carpenter, John remade the classic 1952 horror film The Thing, Thing, The (film) which contains a message about the threat of communism. Carpenter’s film shows the impact of high-technology special effects in its monster’s ability to mutate before the audience’s very eyes (an effect not possible for the earlier film). This same kind of horrifying experience was still more effectively done in the Alien trilogy (1979-1992).

Embedded in the science-fiction genre is a general debate over the uses and abuses of scientific and technological power. Nowhere could the differences be more noticeable than in a comparison of the Star Wars films with a film such as Blade Runner (1982), Blade Runner (film) a combination of detective thriller and science-fiction film that provides a cerebral answer to the Western romance of Star Wars. In addition, Blade Runner provides a religious dimension of ambiguous complexity to challenge the simpler religious fantasy of Lucas’s films. Ironically, if not deliberately, Blade Runner showcases a troubled hero played by Harrison Ford, the same actor who appears as Han Solo in the Star Wars trilogy.

It would not be accurate to say that the Star Wars trilogy commenced the renewal of mass interest in science-fiction films or high-tech special effects; such credit should be reserved for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey 2001: A Space Odyssey (film)[Two thousand one] (1968) or Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972). Silent Running (film) It would, however, be accurate to note that Lucas’s trilogy established a threshold of cinematic intensity and economic prosperity stemming from huge investments in the production of special-effects movies in the science-fiction genre. To compare earlier versions of Star Trek, either the television shows or the motion pictures, with later ones is to notice the increasing use of special effects. Other films that show the Star Wars influence include the Terminator series, the Superman films, and even the horror films of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, given that special effects dominate all, even when such films are not particularly scientific in their fictions.

In 1971, Lucas was the writer and director of THX 1138, THX 1138 (film) a science-fiction story of drug-controlled life underground in a future society in which robots police human behavior. Lucas was inspired by the success of Kubrick’s 2001, and he was supported by his association with Francis Ford Coppola Coppola, Francis Ford at the American Zoetrope Studio in San Francisco. After the series of artistic and commercial successes that began for him with American Graffiti, Lucas’s career has been oriented toward special-effects and adventure films. He produced Raiders of the Lost Ark Raiders of the Lost Ark (film) (1981) and thus played a role in the promotion of another successful series of motion pictures.

Whether he advanced, stimulated, or indeed shaped popular taste for films in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Lucas made his mark on the industry, the technology, and the subjects of American motion pictures. The setting and theme of THX 1138 anticipate those of The Terminator (1984) and Back to the Future (1985), with its mixture of science fiction and the domestic nostalgia of American Graffiti. Most emphatically, Lucas’s high-tech expression of romance, adventure, cosmic curiosity, and religious yearning in the Star Wars trilogy energized popular taste for fast-paced story action propelled by light and sound effects. Perhaps Lucas’s success also had something to do with the direction Steven Spielberg Spielberg, Steven took when he made Close Encounters of the Third Kind Close Encounters of the Third Kind (film) (1977) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), although the timing of Close Encounters suggests it was more coeval with than a consequence of Star Wars. Without Lucas’s creations, however, the distance from The Thing to E.T. would have been greater for all extraterrestrials in science-fiction films. Special effects, motion pictures

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellis, Jack C. “Here and Now: United States, 1977-.” In A History of Film. 3d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990. Argues that economics and technology have driven the industry toward spectacular special-effect films. Focuses on social themes in post-Vietnam American movies and speculates on the artistry of directors such as Lucas. Contains a list of films of the period and a brief bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">La Valley, Albert J. “Traditions of Trickery: The Role of Special Effects in the Science Fiction Film.” In Shadows of the Magic Lamp: Fantasy and Science Fiction in Film, edited by George Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985. Approaches the subject historically, focusing on Metropolis (1926) and Woman in the Moon (1929) as dialectical in their uses of special effects. Uses Forbidden Planet (1956) as a more recent model for understanding special effects before 2001. Discusses the Star Wars films as examples of blockbusters more optimistic in attitudes toward science.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mast, Gerald. “The New Hollywood: 1966-1978.” In A Short History of the Movies. 9th ed. New York: Longman, 2005. Explains the success of contemporary films as the result of competition with television, influence from European and underground directors, expansion of themes and subjects, and reflection of current social values. Identifies Lucas as one of the younger directors who learned from Coppola and Kubrick. Includes bibliography and filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ryan, Michael, and Douglas Kellner. Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. Examines films according to such characteristics as feminism, racism, genre, individualism, and technology. Discusses the Star Wars trilogy in the context of an argument that genres have been transformed by the failure of liberal political causes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, Robin. “Papering the Cracks: Fantasy and Ideology in the Reagan Era.” In Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan . . . and Beyond. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Harshly critical of what he calls the “syndrome” of Lucas and Spielberg, Wood analyzes the Star Wars trilogy as a successful appeal to childishness.

Star Trek Becomes a Cult Classic

Release of Blade Runner Heralds a Science-Fiction Classic

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial Opens to Great Success

Categories: History