Before Star Wars became a blockbuster film, it was just an idea of filmmaker George Lucas. To bring his story to life, Lucas enlisted skilled artists and filmmakers who could translate his vision into reality. When it came time to convey his vision for space battles, Lucas looked to the past. War films and World War II dogfight footage served as some unlikely inspiration for exciting space battles unlike anything audiences had ever seen before!
From battles over the Death Star to the heroes of Star Wars Rebels escaping an Imperial blockade, starship battles are some of the most exciting moments in any Star Wars story. “One of the reasons I started writing Star Wars was because I wanted to see starships having exciting battles in space” says George Lucas in an archival interview from Jonathan Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars (Enhanced Edition). “I loved Flash Gordon and Buck Rodgers serials when I was a kid, but I thought I could create an experience closer to watching a dogfight in a World War II film — with incredible ships diving and banking in a realistic manner.”
This “realistic” style of space combat was what set Star Wars apart. As Lucas explains:
“Because one of the key visions I had of the film when I started was of a dogfight in outer space with spaceships — two ships flying through space shooting each other. That was my original idea. I said, ‘I want to make that movie. I want to see that.’ In Star Trek it was always one ship sitting here and another ship sitting there, and they shot these little lasers and one of them disappeared. It wasn’t really a dogfight where they were racing around in space firing.”
While the vision seemed clear to Lucas, he found a creative way to share that vision with the team that made Star Wars a reality: He re-cut his own compilation of battle scenes from stock footage, documentaries, and war films.
“Every time there was a war movie on television, like The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), I would watch it — and if there was a dogfight sequence, I would videotape it. Then we would transfer that to 16mm film, and I’d just edit it according to my story of Star Wars. It was really my way of getting a sense of the movement of the spaceships.” The final result was substantial, as Johnathan Rinzler retells in his book, The Making of Star Wars. “At one point I had 20 to 25 hours worth of videotape” recalls Lucas.
In April of 1975 Lucas met with John Dykstra, who became the special photographic effects supervisor for the first Star Wars film. To convey his vision, Lucas shared the project he began two years earlier: the aerial battle footage he captured and edited. The team at Industrial Light & Magic used that footage throughout the production.
“The entire camera system was designed for Star Wars,” says ILM cameraman Richard Edlund in an archival interview, remembering how shots were designed and filmed. “Any trade-offs that we had to make were in relation to the film that George gave us — the 16mm edit of World War II clips that showed all of the dynamics, the cutting sequence, and the way the ships would move. We knew the kind of shots that he wanted; it was a tremendous help in preventing what could have been an arbitrary mishmash.”
Model builder and visual effects veteran Paul Huston recalls his early career at ILM, which was still a very young company. In the behind-the-scenes book Star Wars Storyboards: The Original Trilogy he is quoted to say, “…we had a great time up in the art department, with its cinder block walls, plywood floor, hollow-core doors on sawhorses for drawing tables, and the Movieola with George’s black-and-white cut of the attack on the Death Star made from old WWII war movie footage. Joe would show me a shot of a Japanese Zero flying left to right in front of a conning tower of an aircraft carrier and say, ‘The aircraft carrier is the Death Star, the Zero is an X-wing. Do a board like that.”
Effects artist handling pyrotechnics, Joe Viskocil, was also inspired by WWII footage as he told Lucasfilm marketing and merchandising vice president Charles Lippincott in a 1978 interview: “George wanted to see the fireball effect, the World War II type of footage where the ship just disintegrates and you see this big ball of gasoline flame. One thing that I appreciate George for is the fact that he just gave me full rein to do what I wanted. He gave me a concept as to what he’d like to see, and I just elaborated from that.”
With principal photography done and post production underway, George Lucas was unhappy with the first cut of the film and eventually hired new editors. Not wanting it to influence the new editing team, Star Wars editor Richard Chew recalls that he was not allowed to look at the original cut of Star Wars. “The only guide that George could give me was this black and white dupe of World War II dogfight news footage.” Even sound designer Ben Burtt worked off of the war film, according to an interview in The Making of Star Wars. “At the time, very few optical shots were completed from the end battle, but they had a work print based on old World War II movies. So I cut the spaceship sounds and lasers to that. We had Spitfires going by that sounded like spaceships; we had lasers being fired from Messerschmitts. It was relatively insane.”
Even as editing and sound progressed, the visual effects from ILM were taking longer than planned. Even without the effects in place, Lucas invited some of his friends and colleagues to view an early cut of the film in February of 1977. Willard Huyck was there and recalls the reception of the audience. “So we watch the movie and the crawl went on forever, there was tons of back story, and then we’re in this spaceship and there’s Darth Vader” says Huyck in a 1997 interview. “Part of the problem was that almost none of the effects were finished, and in their place George had inserted World War Two dogfight footage, so one second you’re with the Wookiee in the spaceship and the next you’re in The Bridges at Toko-Ri. It was like, “George, what-is-going-on?”
Filmaker Francis Ford Coppola also saw the film and said, “It was a little hard to judge. It was so filled with grease-pencil lines, and missing shots, and Japanese fighter planes diving… I didn’t know how to quite take it. I thought it was maybe a tad repetitive.” Steven Spielberg, among friends who saw the rough cuts, recalls in The Making of Star Wars, “The film was really not ready to be screened for anybody yet. It only had a couple dozen final effects shots; most of them were World War II footage. So it was very hard to understand what the film was about to become. I loved it because I loved the story and the characters. But the reaction was not a good one; I was probably the only one who liked it and I told George how much I loved it.”
By summer of 1977, the effects shots were not only finished, they were revolutionary. Audiences turned out in record number to see the film, launching a franchise that is still going strong nearly 40 years later. That simple film reel of World War II footage was the predecessor to modern pre-visualization techniques pioneered in subsequent Star Wars films and common throughout the film industry today. Best of all, that World War II-inspired footage paved the way for exciting Star Wars space battles for years to come!
Cole Horton is a historian and co-author of the upcoming book, Star Wars: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know from DK Publishing. He also contributes to Marvel.com and runDisney. You can follow him on Twitter, @ColeHorton.