5 Cool Practical Effects in Star Wars

From Q-tips watching a Podrace to an 18-inch-tall monster, practical effects have a long legacy in a galaxy far, far away.

Advances in technology mean digital effects can transform the landscape and scope of a film more than ever before, and those effects are constantly influencing the way films are made. Digital effects can sometimes accomplish what practical effects cannot, and they can enhance them, too. But before digital effects reached a certain level of sophistication, practical effects ruled the day. They’re still extensively used in the film industry — often in concert with CGI — and likely won’t ever disappear, and the Star Wars saga helped take practical effects to new heights. These are some of the many cool practical effects used in the Star Wars films:

Darth vader is born

1. Anakin becoming Darth Vader

The end of Revenge of the Sith saw Anakin Skywalker undergo a drastic transformation, physical and otherwise. After the newly-anointed Sith Lord was burned by the fiery lava of Mustafar, he received the suit and the iconic mask. The scene in which Darth Vader’s mask was lowered onto Anakin’s face featured a practical effect. Special effects artist Don Bies campaigned to work on the inside of Vader’s helmet physically, and he teamed with concept design supervisor Ryan Church on the interior design.


2. A scary rancor

Jabba the Hutt’s pet rancor looked vicious in Return of the Jedi, but it took a couple of tries to get right. The crew initially tried to put people in a rancor suit, but when it didn’t deliver the look they wanted, they opted to create a rod puppet. They filmed the 18-inch puppet on a miniature set with four or five puppeteers and treated it like they were shooting a live-action creature. Mark Hamill’s scenes with the rancor were filmed on a blue screen and combined with the shots of the puppet.

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3. Mimicking snow

Finse, Norway stood in for Hoth during the live-action happenings, but when it came time for the Rebellion to fight the Empire, the ILM team needed stable (and also not freezing) setups. They simulated real snow with baking soda and Microballoons, and in order to keep model snowspeeders from disturbing the pristine surface in various shots, they built trap doors so the animators could come from underneath the set to move the models. The snow on the tops of those doors were glued down. It’s the little things.

Mos Espa

4. The models of the prequel trilogy

Miniatures are a form of practical effects, and the models built by ILM for the prequels brought locations such as Theed, the Mos Espa Grand Arena (the “audience” was made from 450,000 Q-tips), and the levels of Coruscant to life. Model makers built incredibly detailed, large-scale models for those locations and many others, and their work was used in establishing shots as well as close-ups and made the end product more realistic. More miniatures were made for The Phantom Menace than the entire original trilogy.

Star Wars trench run

5. Death Star explosions

The first Death Star was massive in the films and in real life — maybe not as large as a moon but… In order to get the proper kind of light to make the explosions along the trench run convincing, the team took that segment of the surface into the ILM parking lot. High-speed photography was a must to capture the pyro effects, and for shots that needed extra fast speeds they mounted a camera to the back of model maker Steve Gawley’s new truck and he drove by the model just as the explosions went off.

Which practical effects from Star Wars are the most memorable to you? Let me know in the comments. And don’t worry, we’ll be looking at digital effects soon.

Sources: “Practical Magic,” Star Wars Insider #160; Sculpting a Galaxy 

Amy Ratcliffe is a writer obsessed with Star Wars, Disney, and coffee. Follow her on Twitter at @amy_geek and keep up with all things geeky at her blog.