The Death Star Plans ARE in the Main Computer…and a Special Postcard

Learn how the animated Death Star plans in Star Wars were made -- and check out a rare souvenir from their creator!

The Star Wars phenomenon had only been underway a few months when my dad received a postcard from Larry Cuba, creator of the animated Death Star plans as seen at the Rebel base on Yavin 4. It thanked people who helped him, both directly and along the way.

postcardMy father worked at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), in capacities including manager of the Space Flight Operations Facility, and as I learned, met Cuba sometime in the early ’70s. The ensuing story has been told to me many times over the years (and hasn’t changed), but here it is in my dad’s own words.

“Larry Cuba and another CalArts student, Gary Imhoff, made an early computer graphics film for a project for school. I had slipped them in many times to use the JPL computer without any official permission, so when the film was done they showed it to me and the programmers that had helped them. At the end it acknowledged the generous assistance of the Jet Propulsion Lab, and I said, ‘TAKE THAT OUT, JPL doesn’t know they allowed government-owned computers to be used.’

They replaced it with an acknowledgment of the programmers by name individually, and since my help was not technical, there was another screen that said ‘a special thanks to Mike Plesset,’ which made the viewer wonder just how ‘special’ I was to them.

Later, he got a job from Lucas to do a screen for the movie. He came to JPL to look at screens we used in mission control.* When he told me what it was for and described pilots manually hitting targets, I said that even current fighter plane firing was automated, not aimed by the pilot, because of the speeds, so futuristic ones would definitely be. He said, ‘Well this isn’t high-class science fiction.’ I said, ‘So they’ll be leaning out the window shooting at each other?’ And we laughed about it.

Boy were we wrong, it was the most successful science fiction film of all time by a long, long way.”

(A few years later I had a chance to meet Cuba myself at a party**. The release of The Empire Strikes Back was only a few months away, and I asked if he was working on it; he wasn’t. I also got to hear him describe the rigors of doing the Star Wars CG, which sometimes necessitated working in the middle of the night — whenever his system would work. I brought along my copy of The Art of Star Wars (I had recently gotten it for Christmas), which he autographed.)

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*”I don’t think Larry learned anything from the screens at JPL,” he added, “they just had numbers.”

**The party followed a screening of CG shorts, many of them JPL depictions of Jupiter but there was other material, too; one depicted a sleek, highly-maneuverable spaceship (which I found impressive and promising).

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