5 Dumb Accidents That Made 'Star Wars' A Classic
Star Wars is such an overwhelming pop culture juggernaut that it's easy to forget that the first film was made with a relatively meager budget and less-than-enthusiastic support from the studio. In fact, many of the film's dazzling effects were thrown together using discarded ideas, old dolls, toy model kits, and a coat of shitty paint. Basically, Star Wars was built on a mountain of garbage and happy accidents.
For example ...
The Iconic Death Star Trench Battle Was Invented By A Lazy Model Maker
The Meridian Trench that wraps around the Death Star is not only the setting of one of the most thrilling climactic sequences in cinematic history; it's also responsible for a generation of adults who still daydream about unrealistic space dogfights to this day. And it wouldn't have existed at all, had it not been for a single model maker feeling a bit lazy one afternoon in the early 1970s.
To be fair, he was only mimicking the laziness of the Death Star's fictional designer.
Although virtually none of his work appears on film, model maker and spaceship designer to the gods Colin Cantwell was instrumental in the early pre-visualization days of Star Wars. You see, before many of the iconic vessels/future action figures featured in Star Wars found their way to the big screen, Cantwell built concept models for George Lucas to hold in his hands and study, which is a term here meaning "run around the house while making race car noises."
This included an early model of the Death Star, but there was a glaring problem with Cantwell's model: The material Cantwell used to form the Death Star's iconic "that's no moon" shape had a tendency to shrink, which caused the two dome-shaped halves of the model to not quite meet up in the middle, leaving an unsightly gap around its equator.
"Don't shame me. #RealSpaceStations #RealBodies"
Cantwell had previous experience with this precise issue, but in order to fix it, he would have to fill that goddamn seam with putty and sand it smooth, which is something he absolutely did not want to do, because it would take a super long time and there was beer to be drunk. So, he called up George Lucas and suggested that George rewrite the final battle scene in Star Wars to include a thrilling sequence in the giant crack in his model that was totally part of the original design and in no way just a mistake that he didn't feel like fixing.
Cantwell pitched the idea of a "ditch" around the Death Star that the heroic Rebel pilots had to dive and swoop and swish their way through, breathlessly avoiding heavy armaments on their way to the final attack point. Prior to that, the now-famous exhaust port was an obvious but well-guarded hole that the Rebels would just swarm around, like flies at a picnic table. Lucas agreed that Cantwell's pitch sounded way better (because, Cantwell's motives aside, it does), at which point Cantwell presumably wrote "DONE!" on a sticky note, slapped it on his Death Star model, and went out to get hammered.
Models Were Created With Off-The-Shelf Toys
For kids growing up in the '70s, life was full of such wonders as Planet Of The Apes, Land Of The Lost, and The Six Million Dollar Man ... that is, before Star Wars came along and stomped all of that crap out like a campfire. Incidentally, Steve Austin, The Six Million Dollar Man himself, made a cameo in the very movie that would usurp his merchandising empire. Or, at least, his action figure did.
Obi-Wan lost his eye in a tragic drunken lightsaber-juggling incident.
To create the human figures occupying the miniature of Luke's landspeeder, 98th-level visual effects wizard Lorne Peterson looked for a quick and dirty alternative to actually sculpting wee versions of Luke and Obi-Wan, and he found it in the form of two Steve Austin action figures, which he mildly disguised with tiny Luke and Obi-Wan robes and stuffed into the vehicle. Although it looks downright ludicrous from the front, it totally worked in the film because the prop was shot only from far away or from behind, and for only short durations. Which is a good thing, because miniature Luke isn't wearing any pants.
And Obi-Wan doesn't have any fucking legs.
But in the quest to cut corners, nothing beats this next example.
First, a quick lesson in special effects history: Pre-CGI model makers used a process called kitbashing, wherein they'd plunder store-bought model kits (typically tanks and military aircraft) for high-tech-looking plastic bits, which they'd then glue together into even more high-tech-looking plastic bits to make a good-looking model for the film. But you know what makes this easier? When stores start selling models from your actual franchise.
That's right -- once the original Star Wars became an honest-to-goodness phenomenon, there were tons of Star Wars model kits on the shelf of every single toy store in America that could be easily kitbashed for the sequels. In at least one confirmed case, an entire off-the-shelf X-wing model kit was used for Return Of The Jedi. It's not even really fair to call this a case of kitbashing, because all Lucasfilm did was simply give the model a metal support structure, paint on some grime, and call it special effects genius.
Of course, the real genius was whoever drew Luke's face on that box.
Said X-wing has been positively identified by the hobby community as an off-the-shelf MPC kit by "tells," such as its uniquely gaunt underbelly, the orientation of its laser cannon tips, and probably the words "Made in China" stamped on there somewhere.
The Stormtrooper Armor Was Cheap, Poorly Painted Plastic
Have you ever watched an old movie that's been updated for HD broadcast or Blu-ray, only to notice how incredibly shitty the props look? You know, because they assumed they would always be viewed on fuzzy celluloid and nobody would look too closely? Well, if you look really hard at the Stormtrooper costumes in the first two films, you'll see how many of them look like mismatched, poorly made Comic-Con costumes.
Not even the San Diego one. Like, Cleveland's.
That's because when Lucas ordered up an army's worth of fancy space soldier duds for the villainous Stormtroopers to wear, the costume department rightfully shit their pants. They simply weren't equipped to crank out something to that scale, so they needed someone who was. And since people who specialize in the large-scale manufacturing of space armor don't exist, they turned to the next best thing: Andrew Ainsworth, a man who made fish ponds and canoes for a living. Ainsworth went straight to work, pretty much making shit up as he went along.
Ainsworth vacuum formed stacks of Stormtrooper helmets out of high-density polyethylene plastic, the same material he used to make the fish ponds and canoes of his trade. The problem was that the material was a shade of greenish-tan, which you may notice is closer to the color of a dead lizard than the carapace of an intergalactic pacification specialist. The armor needed to be white, so Ainsworth blasted his pieces with a thick coat of white automotive paint. This would've been a fine solution if it weren't for the fact that absolutely no kind of paint whatsoever will bond to HDPE.
Then he handed them over to a class of finger-painting kindergartners for detailing.
That's right: The armor of the Empire's finest arrived on the set of Star Wars looking like the side of a badly repainted garage. In fact, the original Stormtrooper helmets were so poorly finished that collectors can actually spot the original props by matching up their glaring paint flaws with their screen appearances. It wasn't until The Empire Strikes Back that Lucasfilm sprung for beautiful new helmets ... oh no, wait, actually they just reused the old ones, slapping yet another shitty coat of paint on them. Hell, sometimes they didn't even bother finishing the details, like when they completely painted over the breathing slits on the sides of the helmets.
Actually, we hope those slits weren't for breathing.
They did eventually produce swanky new helmets out of white plastic for Return Of The Jedi, not because they wanted new ones but because some scenes featured more Stormtroopers than what they had costumes for. But even then, the right side of the mold collapsed, giving the Stormtroopers a squished, asymmetrical appearance, as if all of their faces were slightly melted by witchcraft:
There have been 37 novels written to explain the differences.
And speaking of cutting corners ...
Everything That Could Be Recycled, Was
As you have already guessed, saving as much time and money as possible was one of the keys to getting Star Wars made, so very little of the film's production materials went to waste. For example, the CZ droid, that goofy-ass robot you see in the background of Mos Eisley ...
... was just a different, much earlier design of Darth Vader. The resulting character was obviously far too ridiculous to be the terrifying, iron-heeled ruler of the galaxy, so they turned it into a random, friendless goofus hanging out at a spaceport.
A hero's journey.
Andrew Ainsworth, the fish pond helmet constructer from earlier, frequently reused his armor molds and mixed them up to create a variety of different helmets for different characters. For instance, as die-hard Star Wars fans have long known, TIE fighter pilot helmets are basically just a mash-up of X-wing pilot helmets and Stormtrooper face plates:
And AT-AT driver helmets are just TIE pilot helmets painted light gray:
When you look at a bunch in a row they start to look like a very sad army.
And, to bring it full circle, rebel troop helmets are the same helmets the Death Star gunners wear, painted white with the face shield removed:
After Jedi, two of them would put aside their differences to form Space Daft Punk.
Hell, the unfortunate casualty of history that is the CZ droid even has C-3PO's legs (as in, his legs are the same -- he doesn't, like, have them in a box in his basement). Extraordinarily bored Star Wars fans have even made a sort of Where's Waldo? game out of figuring out how many times the head of unintentionally hilarious robotic bounty hunter IG-88 was reused as a background prop.
Spoiler: It was a lot of times.
Speaking of which ...
The Original Millennium Falcon Was Repurposed For A Bit Part
As mentioned before on Cracked, the Millennium Falcon we all know and love came about only because the previous iteration looked too much like the Eagle from a television show called Space: 1999. The notion of naming your spaceship after a bird of prey, however, was simply too cool to abandon. Here's what the Millennium Falcon was supposed to look like:
And this is the Eagle, from that TV show nobody remembers or cares about:
Just like no one remembers the ancient year of 1999.
But those similarities were noticed only after countless hours and just as many dollars were spent on a kickass model of the original Millennium Falcon design -- the ship was intended to be the cinematic centerpiece of all the princess-rescuing hyperspace shenanigans, so it had to be jumbo-sized and nothing short of magnificent. But once the similarities between the Falcon and the Eagle were discovered, the Millennium Falcon needed to be redesigned, which meant the effects crew had to start over from scratch. The original ship they spent so much time and money on was suddenly a six-foot, highly detailed model of their own wasted time.
That is, until they needed to build the blockade runner, the ship in which Princess Leia is captured by Vader's Star Destroyer in the opening scene of Star Wars. Rather than design another spaceship entirely from scratch, the filmmakers simply dusted off the old Falcon, made a few changes for scale, and renamed it the Tantive IV. It was one of Star Wars' largest, most detailed models, and it appears on screen for all of half a minute.
It was, however, a very Freudian half minute.
In reality, the Tantive IV model absolutely dwarfs the Star Destroyer, but the difference in size is impossible to tell thanks to some old-school Hollywood voodoo.
Just the ass end of the Tantive IV (bottom) is about the size of the entire Star Destroyer (top). Baby got back.
Plus, Lucasfilm got a little more mileage out of their giant original Millennium Falcon model in Return Of The Jedi, where it was reused again as the Corellian Corvette.
So, to summarize: If J.J. Abrams really wants to commit to the "old-school special effects" feel he's promised for Episode VII, he needs to skip CGI, creature effects, and high-quality resin sculpting and just spray-paint a bunch of random shit lying around the prop room.
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Also check out The 5 Most WTF Origins of Iconic 'Star Wars' Scenes and 4 Ridiculously Obsessive 'Star Wars' Fan Tributes Ever.