On May 21, 1980, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back made its theatrical debut. To celebrate the classic film’s landmark 40th anniversary, StarWars.com presents “Empire at 40,” a special series of interviews, editorial features, and listicles.
Not long after Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back made its initial premiere in theaters on May 21, 1980, Industrial Light & Magic’s (ILM) general manager Tom Smith received a phone call from George Lucas. He later remembered to former Lucasfilm executive editor J.W. Rinzler (author of The Making of The Empire Strikes Back) that Lucas had said, “I don’t wanna tell you this. We need some more shots for Empire.” Smith could hardly believe his ears. It must’ve been a joke; the film was already in theaters! “No, no, no,” Lucas clarified, “it’s not in all the theaters.”
Smith explained to Rinzler that during an early public screening, Lucas “realized that the end of the film was unclear.” After Princess Leia, Lando Calrissian, Luke Skywalker, and friends escape Cloud City, they reunite with the rebel fleet in the depths of space. From there, Luke (with a new hand) and Leia recuperate while Lando and Chewbacca set off aboard the Millennium Falcon to rescue Han Solo. But in the original release version of Empire (in the 70mm format at about 100 theaters), the geography of this scene was confusing to Lucas’ mind.
Where were Luke and Leia in relation to Chewie and Lando? Were the heroes on the same spaceship or two different ones? If the latter, where was the Millennium Falcon in relation to the rebel medical frigate? In the rush of completing the film, the potential hazard had been overlooked, but Lucas was never one to miss an opportunity for improvement. There was a generous three-week window before Empire’s wider 35mm format release on June 18, just enough time to create three new shots.
ILM effects cameraman Ken Ralston could hardly believe the news either. He was in Los Angeles enjoying a much-needed break after months of helming the night shift during Empire’s production. When he got the news about the additions, he recalled to J.W. Rinzler that he’d said, “’That’s funny, that’s a good joke!’ But it wasn’t a joke.” Ralston was asked to meet artist Joe Johnston and George Lucas at Lucasfilm’s corporate offices near Universal City in southern California (known as the “Egg Company”) to help design the new shots, which would then be filmed at ILM’s then-headquarters in San Rafael off San Francisco Bay.
In the original 70mm release, the camera begins by moving forward amidst the rebel fleet, revealing the Millennium Falcon docked to the medical frigate, then cuts to Lando and Chewbacca aboard the ship. But the first of the new shots added another view of the fleet before going aboard the Falcon: a few X-wings and a Y-wing pass from behind the camera, followed on opposite sides by the frigate and a transport (likely one of the escapees from Hoth).
Still before glimpsing Lando and Chewie, a second new shot moves in close on the Millennium Falcon, lowering to view the cockpit with illuminated interior. Only then does it match the cut of the original release. “Luke, we’re ready for takeoff,” Lando says from inside.
A final new shot involves the most complex camera move: a right to left pan from the Falcon’s exterior to a viewport on the medical frigate, wherein Luke, Leia, and the droids are speaking with Lando over commlink. A specific note had been made to avoid the view of any characters within the window frame, and the camera was lowered so as to avoid seeing anyone. “I’ll meet you at the rendezvous point on Tatooine,” says Luke as the film cuts to the interior of the medical bay (and in the background, R2-D2 and C-3PO are conveniently positioned to the left side of the window, away from the camera’s view from outside).
In its original release, there was a direct cut from the Falcon cockpit to the medical bay, with no visual cue to understand that Luke and Leia were aboard a separate ship. Thus the last-minute remedy to clarify the geography of Empire’s final moments.
In a couple instances, ILM relied on stock material as well as a handful of newly-constructed models to complete the shots. And they didn’t just require new visual effects, but also modifications to the film’s score (which had to be carefully extended) and dialogue (which in part had to be re-designed to come from the commlink speaker), all tasked to the editorial department.
Though it wasn’t publicized at the time, audiences attending their local theaters were experiencing an oh-so-slightly-new version of The Empire Strikes Back with its 35mm release. The additions are subtle, but along with clarifying the onscreen logic, they add helpful beats to the pacing of the film’s dénouement, allowing time to cool off from the high drama of what had taken place only minutes before (and most of which would be left unresolved before Star Wars: Return of the Jedi). Just two days after the June 18 release of the 35mm version, a syndicated film critic in Chicago wrote that “Empire ends begging us to ‘come back next week’ — only next week may be 1983, instead of after a 10-minute intermission.”
As ILM’s Tom Smith later explained in The Making of The Empire Strikes Back, “[…] it was a real challenge that George had tossed us — and we wanted to show that we could do it.” After their completion, which took only three weeks, Tom Smith recalled Lucas saying, “Wait a minute. If you guys did this so fast, why did it take so long to all the other ones?”
One thing did not change between either release — the final shot: another camera move from space, this time providing a clear view of the frigate’s bay window with the heroes inside. It pulls away as the ships peel off, and the picture irises out to Irvin Kershner’s directorial credit. Until the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015, Empire was the only Star Wars saga film to not iris out on a “family portrait” shot at its end, which Episodes I-III, IV, and VI all do.
Sources: J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of The Empire Strikes Back
Lucas O. Seastrom is a writer and historian at Lucasfilm. He grew up on a farm in California’s Central Valley and is a lifelong Star Wars and Indiana Jones fan.
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