From Concept to Screen: Bringing Darth Vader to Life

The process of creating cinema's greatest villain!

Welcome to From Concept to Screen, an ongoing article series about the various stages of the production that your favorite character, vehicle, creature, location, or scene of the Star Wars saga had to undergo before arriving on the silver screen.

We start this series with the main character of the movies, the man whose story the saga is all about, the menace in black: Darth Vader.

Darth Vader vs. Deak Starkiller by Ralph McQuarrie

Darth Vader vs. Deak Starkiller concept painting by Ralph McQuarrie.

Idea & Concept

Considering the importance of Darth Vader in the saga, it will come as no surprise that he was always in the script in some shape or form. Before working on the rough draft, Lucas started making lists of the various ideas he had written down before in the Journal of the Whills (a two-page idea fragment) and The Star Wars treatment (dated May 1973, this is a 14-page treatment that evolved from the Journal of the Whills), and one of the names he had listed down was a General Vader, an Imperial commander. In The Star Wars rough draft summary from May 1974, this character was a bit fleshed out and described as “Darth Vader, a tall, grim-looking general”; he is tasked to conquer Aquilae.

This was not the only character in the rough draft that resembles Darth Vader as we know him today. There are many Knights of the Sith (one is even wearing a breathing mask) who are led by a Prince Valorum, and then there is a Kane Starkiller who is described as a cyborg, half machine and half man. Kane is also the father of Annikin and Deak. The second draft would later change Vader from his role as a general into Darth Vader, a seven-foot Black Knight Of The Sith with features partially obscured by flowing black robes and a breathing mask. Serving as the right hand to the Master Of The Sith, he engages in a duel with Deak Starkiller on a spaceship. At this point, between the end of January and the first few days of March 1975, Ralph McQuarrie was brought in to paint five moments from this second draft to convince the officials at Fox to invest in the movie.

Darth Vader costume parts for Return of the Jedi

Darth Vader costume parts for Return of the Jedi.

“Early in the script there was a description of Vader crossing between two ships in space so I created this mask so he could breathe in space, with a suggestion of teeth in the masks grillwork,” McQuarrie said.  It was not until the fourth draft that Lucas wrote in more of the backstory of Vader, with his connection to Ben Kenobi and Luke’s father, as well as the duel that followed between Ben and Vader after Vader killed Luke’s father. The duel ended with Vader falling into a volcanic pit and needing the suit and mask that Ralph McQuarrie had come up with.

Costume & Casting

With the costume sketches of Ralph McQuarrie and a budget of $1,173 for one costume, it was up to John Mollo, the costume designer for the original trilogy, to translate the sketches into a real costume that an actor could wear. Without straying too far from the provided sketches, Mollo, inspired by not only the samurai influences but also by World War I trench armor and Nazi helmets, made some sketches of his own to fine tune the costume. He then hired costumers from Berman’s & Nathan’s to work on the undersuit, gloves, surcoat, and cape, while the job of sculpting the mask, chestbox, belt, shoulder bells, shins, and the rest of the armor fell to sculptor Brian Muir.

To make the parts fit, they made casts of the body of the actor that was hired for the part: David Prowse. Prowse, who was a renowned bodybuilder at the time with his own chain of weight-lifting gyms, was often asked in movies to play the roles of the big large guy, be it a Minotaur in Doctor Who, a circus strongman in Vampire Circus, or a bodyguard in A Clockwork Orange. It was the latter that got him noticed by George Lucas, who would later approach Prowse with the offer to play either Chewbacca or Darth Vader. Believing that villains are more memorable, Prowse chose to play Darth Vader, not realizing that his face would be behind a mask for the role.

David Prowse is getting ready for filming.

David Prowse gets ready for filming in A New Hope.

Live-action shooting

Every shooting day, Prowse would put on the undergarments and the leather in his dressing room with help from his primary dresser John Birkinshaw, before moving to the set where the wardrobe staff would add all the other pieces on him.

The first day of shooting for David Prowse was April 26, 1976. On this Monday he filmed just a small scene of walking through a Death Star hallway after catching a glimpse of Ben Kenobi. The following days were filled with more filming on the Death Star, which included scenes in the control room with Peter Cushing, who played Grand Moff Tarkin. At the end of May were scenes in which Prowse battled Sir Alec Guinness in their lightsaber duel. It was stunt coordinator Peter Diamond who had devised a unique style of fighting for the combatants, which was to be a mix somewhere in between fencing and broadsword fighting. However, with this style of fighting and Prowse’s natural strength, the blades kept snapping.

Ironically, some of the last scenes shot for the movie were the ones that appeared first, most notably the opening battle between the stormtroopers and the rebels on Princess Leia’s starship. Darth Vader stands in the very same corridor that Ralph McQuarrie had originally envisioned him fighting Kane Starkiller.

Voice & Sound           

Despite Prowse thinking throughout production that his voice would be used in the final movie, it was apparent to Lucas from the beginning that he wanted a different voice — one in the bass register — for Darth Vader. While Orson Welles was originally contacted by Lucas to read for the film, it was James Earl Jones who was ultimately hired. On March 1, 1977, Jones arrived in the Goldwyn Studios, and after reviewing the footage it was apparent that Darth Vader’s lack of emotion was the key to the character’s menace. Using this narrow band of expression, Jones finished recording the lines for Darth Vader within two-and-half hours.

To complete the character of Darth Vader, Ben Burtt added many beep and click sound effects that would fit with the mechanical devices of the suit. However, this proved to be too distracting, and with only a very limited budget left he had to simplify the character. So Burtt went to a local scuba-diving shop and put a microphone in the regulator of a scuba-breathing apparatus to record himself breathing in and out of the device in a couple of different ways. Another concern for Burtt was that the recorded dialogue of Jones did not sound as if it was coming from a helmet, so at night he played back the dialogue in various rooms and re-recorded it to get the right acoustics on tape.

Shooting The Empire Strikes Back

Shooting the climactic duel from The Empire Strikes Back.

 The Empire Strikes Back

With only one suit made for Darth Vader in A New Hope due to time constraints, and the suit being used extensively in promotional campaigns after the premiere, it was decided that a new suit was to be produced for The Empire Strikes Back with upgrades in style and comfort. The costume’s various loose parts were also made in larger quantities so it could be replaced when something broke. The chestbox now had working lights, different colored buttons, and Aurebesh letters. The belt received upgraded boxes, switches, and lights.

The biggest changes, however, could be seen in the helmet.  The dome at the top was fixed more securely, and the triangular chin vent was made larger to improve the vision and breathing for David Prowse. A special stunt helmet was also devised with the neck and cheek areas made from tinted acrylic that allowed stunt performer Bob Anderson to see through more of the mask then just the eye pieces. Despite a height difference, which was resolved with small stilts or the camera shooting from a lower angle, it was Anderson who performed all of the fights between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker for both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

Of course the biggest moment for Darth Vader in this movie was his big reveal at the end. This was alluded to earlier in the movie when we saw the back of Darth Vader’s head — scarred and bald — showing us for the first time that there was a human being behind the mask. This scene was done as simply as you would imagine it: with Prowse wearing a bald cap made by Stuart Freeborn, which was fitted on a newly-made rear neck piece.

The idea for the reveal came from Lucas’ desire to expand on both Darth Vader and Luke, which quickly resulted in the addition of there being a twin sister for Luke, who was not necessarily Leia at this point. Lucas going back and forth on the identity of Luke’s father can be clearly seen when comparing the first draft from February 1978, in which Luke’s father appears as a Force ghost along with Ben Kenobi, to the handwritten version of the second draft in which Darth Vader was Luke’s father. Lucas decided to keep it out when typing the script to keep it more of a surprise. He kept this up as long as he could, eventually telling director Irvin Kershner. When it came to the actors involved, Mark Hamill was told before shooting that Prowse would say that Obi-Wan killed Luke’s father, when the actual line was going to be that Vader is his father. The only other person who had to be confided in this big secret was of course James Earl Jones, who returned to do the voice of Darth Vader.

Darth Vader arrives in Return of the Jedi

Darth Vader arrives in Return of the Jedi.

Return Of The Jedi

With the upgrades so successful for The Empire Strikes Back, the costume was hardly changed — except for the moment when Darth Vader’s helmet comes off. For this scene, an entirely new mask was designed by Fred Hole and made by prop maker Brian Archer, dubbed the “reveal” or “redemption” helmet. The rear neck piece from The Empire Strikes Back was combined with a newly made chin piece (including a dental expansion unit), a facemask with various greeblies attached to it and a helmet that could fit only loosely over it all. A special prop arm was also designed to simulate Luke hacking Vader’s hand off. For the funeral scene, an old promotional mask was used from the touring that took place after the premiere of A New Hope. 

To play the older Anakin Skywalker, with the name Annikin from the The Star Wars rough draft returning in an alternate spelling, Lucas and director Richard Marquand ended up agreeing that they needed someone experienced, but not too familiar to the audience. Sebastian Shaw was hired shortly after reading for the part, which was only listed as “dad.”  The mask reveal was filmed in secret, with the greeblies inside nearly taking off Shaw’s ear off when Hamill was removing it. When producer Kazanjian saw Shaw on his one shooting day, he asked Lucas whether it was a good idea for Shaw to appear as a Force ghost besides Obi-Wan and Yoda. Lucas liked this idea — which at an earlier point he was thinking about himself — and even directed the small scene himself. Shaw stood in front of a black velvet screen and was told to look happy and smile.

Men behind the masks: David Prowse, James Earl Jones, Bob Anderson, Sebastian Shaw & Hayden Christensen

Men behind the masks: David Prowse, James Earl Jones, Bob Anderson, Sebastian Shaw, and Hayden Christensen.

Revenge Of The Sith

With Revenge of the Sith being all about the fall of Anakin Skywalker, fans were eager for the long-awaited scene in which Anakin and Obi-Wan would fight in a volcanic setting, a scene that was mentioned in the novelization for Return of the Jedi and subsequently as backstory in various other sources. The art department of the movie spent lots of time creating Mustafar and the Coruscant rehabilitation center in which Vader would be fitted inside the costume. As early as January 2003, Lucas approved the latter to be made into a partial set.

The rough draft, dated January 31 2003, would fill out the details of Anakin’s fall. What’s noteworthy is the original idea of including unused footage of Peter Cushing (Tarkin) in a scene where Palpatine seduces Anakin to the dark side, saying that he manipulated the midi-chlorians into bringing forth the birth of Anakin. The dialogue would especially mirror the scene from The Empire Strikes Back:

Palpatine: “You could almost think of me as your father.”

Anakin: “That’s impossible!”

The scene in which Palpatine proclaims Anakin to be henceforth known as Darth Vader was shot on shooting day 14 — July 17, 2003. Don Bies and his team had begun working on the new Darth Vader suit, with molds made of Hayden Christensen so that the costume would fit him comfortably enough. The big question was how the inside of the mask would look, and it was concept design supervisor Ryan Church who answered that question. After Lucas approved, it was made by Don Bies using items that included a computer hard drive and collar spikes. The nose plugs seen in Return of the Jedi were originally planned to be included, but were left out after the digital shots were not approved. Another element added to the mask were two LEDs in the forehead and down by the nose, which served to match the video effects in the eyeholes.

On September 1, 2003, 20 years after Return of the Jedi, the day had come for Darth Vader’s return. With a special designed “Burnt Anakin” suit and with prosthetic makeup to recreate the Anakin we saw in Return of the Jedi, filming began for the final scene between Anakin and Obi-Wan after their duel.

Late in the afternoon production descended on Stage 4, where the minimal set of the rehabilitation center was built with just a table on a raised platform. With a crowd gathering to witness Darth Vader’s return and Hayden getting dressed in a specially set-up wardrobe tent next to the set, Lucas realized that they never thought to make cuffs for the ankles. Using bits of a nearby sprinkler system, Ivo Coveney (the Costume Props Supervisor) was able to deliver the ankle cuffs in 20 minutes, just in time for filming. After arriving on set to loud applause, Hayden and the crew filmed the transformation. In one of the takes, the face plate of the mask was lowered onto Hayden’s face by a crew member using  a pole.

While the last day of principal photography would see the cast and crew filming the Star Destroyer bridge scene with Darth Vader, Tarkin, and the Emperor, this was the day that Darth Vader was born, completing the saga of the tragic hero turned villain.

Sander de Lange (Exar Xan) from the Netherlands, worked on the “Rogues Gallery” feature in Star Wars Insider and wrote the backstory for Niai Fieso through “What’s the Story?” He is an editor for TeeKay-421 — the Belgian Star Wars Fanclub — and is an administrator for the Star Wars Sourcebooks page on Facebook. Being born in Deventer, a city used to shoot the world-famous movie A Bridge Too Far, he’s always had a passion for shooting locations and tourism, in which he hopes to find a job.

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