Day 156: An Elegant Weapon For A More Civilized Age

originally published June 4, 2012

I try to keep things fresh with this project. I don’t like writing about similar subject matter on consecutive days. Yesterday I wrote about Alan Smithee, the great phantom director. For the record, today’s article is not also about the movies. It’s about religion.

It’s about the lightsaber.

Like most of the Star Wars world, George Lucas drew inspiration from elsewhere for the Jedi weapon, specifically a handful of sci-fi novels. Larry Niven’s Ringworld and M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City both featured energy-based sword-like weapons. But it had never been tried in movies before, because Lucas’s team hadn’t yet invented the technology to pull it off.

Initially Lucas envisioned the saber as just another laser-y weapon. When he came up with integrating the supernatural element of the Force into his story, it elevated the weapon into a Jedi-only (or Sith-only) weapon of elegance.

John Stears, without whose brilliance Lucas may have had to shoot the entire movie in stop-motion with claymation effects, designed the saber hilt from scraps of hardware and old press camera flash battery packs. He added something called greebles to the exterior – little bolts, sprockets and texture thingies to make it look more realistic. The term ‘greeble’, invented by the Star Wars team, became an industry term every time designers wanted something to look a little more rustically realistic. Think of the difference between the smooth finish of the USS Enterprise and the clunky Millennium Falcon.

The blade they used while filming was a three-sided stick covered in the same crap they put on highway signs to make them pop in the glow of approaching headlights. The lighting team set up a lamp beside the camera and reflected it through 45-degree glass directly at the blade to give it a glow, even though the juicy effects wouldn’t be added until post-production. Set decorator Roger Christian gets credit for finding the Graflex camera flash in a West-End London shop. That was made into the first prototype, which was shipped off to Tunisia to be used as the Skywalker family heirloom on Tatooine.

Nelson Shin, an animator whose most famous work would come a decade later on the Transformers cartoon show that shaped my generation and cost our parents gazillions of dollars at Toys R Us, was brought in to make the lightsaber look cool. He used an optical printer, which was the device Hollywoodians used to employ for fade-ins, dissolves, and wacky fast-motion chase scenes. It was also the toy that allowed for matte shots, like the visual effects that turned 2001: A Space Odyssey from a classical music sleep-fest into a stunning leap in movie visuals.

Shin decided that the lightsaber should look a little shaky. A crisp, solid beam of light would make it appear to be a contained prop rather than a beam of energy, held together by Jedi-voodoo magic stuff. So he added an extra lighter frame while running the film through the optical printer and gave the weapon a shimmering, slightly warbled look.

I’ve looked at a few sites that describe the full process, and the easiest way to sum it up layman-style without devoting the rest of this article’s word count to technical description is just to say it’s a form of animation. The portion of the frame with the saber blade was colored, and Shin utilized the magic of the optical printer to make it shimmer and glow. Magic. Let’s just call it magic.

As an on-topic aside, while taking a breather from today’s writing I wandered to my window and observed my scrawny shirtless teenage neighbor executing clumsy saberesque moves in his backyard with a large stick. It was touching. And a little goofy.

Getting back to the magic, another of Lucas’s skilled channelers of mystic jibberjabber was Ben Burtt. Burtt was a sound designer who opted to incorporate ‘found sounds’ into the Star Wars universe, rather than rely on electronic bleeps. To create the lightsaber’s hum, he recorded an idling movie projector, then mixed it with interference and feedback from an old television set. Shin, the animator, felt a degausser sound – a device that eliminates magnetic fields – would add a more ethereal element to the saber’s sound. Burtt crafted the effect, then recorded it with a moving microphone to create a Doppler effect. That’s the “woom-woom” noise when the lightsaber is waved around.

Lucas’s original color scheme was pretty basic: blue for the good guys, red for the bad guys. The early cuts, trailers and posters for Return Of The Jedi featured Luke with a blue saber, but they swapped it for a green one in editing. This wasn’t a plot-driven twist – the editing team simply felt that green would stand out better against the bright blue sky of Tatooine.

Green and blue was then applied to the entire Jedi gang in the prequel trilogy. Well, except for Samuel L. Jackson. He requested a purple lightsaber for Mace Windu because purple is his favorite color, and he’s Samuel L. Jackson so fuck it – he’s the best part of the prequel trilogy, he deserves the purple saber.

The choreography associated with lightsaber battles is one of the few things that did evolve with the prequel trilogy. Alec Guinness was anything but nimble in his fight with Vader – he actually performs this clunky spin move so slowly, the only logical reason Vader didn’t jab him in the back was that he was probably thinking, “What the hell is this guy doing?”

The sword work was crafted by former Olympic fencer Bob Anderson, who would also choreograph battles for The Princess Bride and the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. I don’t want to be too hard on Bob – he even performed Vader’s saber-stunts himself in Empire and Jedi. But there’s no question the Nick Gilliard-directed saber battles in the prequels were far more stylish and energized.

In all fairness, the only people who wield a saber in the Holy Trilogy are an old guy, a half-robot heavy-breathing guy, and a kid whose only training involved running around a forest with a muppet on his back. They can’t be expected to possess the skill of a thoroughbred Jedi.

I suppose I’ll go to my grave without realizing my dream of holding a real lightsaber. That’s fine, I can accept that. Maybe I’ll take a trip to the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia, where the original lightsaber Obi Wan handed to Luke on Tatooine is on display among tommy-guns, uzis and whatever else has been used to kill actual people. Maybe I should be happy with my plastic replica, standing like a bad-ass and posing for my bulldogs while feeling my inner midichlorians (or perhaps it’s the alcohol) pulsate with force-iness.

For now.

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