Imagineering Star Tours, Part 3: Visual Effects (and Disney) Magic

Star Tours

When we last left our heroes, Disney Imagineers Tom Fitzgerald, Tony Baxter, and their project team had collaborated with George Lucas to develop a concept for their flight simulator attraction Star Tours. In their story, the interstellar spaceline offers flights throughout a galaxy recently made safe by the Rebel victory over the evil Galactic Empire…but, of course, the proverbial “something horrible” would inevitably go wrong. For the ride-film itself, George unleashed the same visual effects wizards at Industrial Light & Magic that had transported audiences to a galaxy far, far away in the Star Wars trilogy.

Longtime Star Wars veteran Dennis Muren led the ILM production, although art director and storyboard artist Dave Carson had to step in briefly while Dennis and his wife had their first child! The shoot was a challenge unlike anything ILM had attempted before because, unlike a feature that allows you to cut away from the action when composing a scene, the 4.5-minute Star Tours ride-film would have to be one uninterrupted take — or at least appear to be so (the crew would ultimately find strategic places to make subtle cuts that would go largely unnoticed by the average guest).

Star Tours during construction

The ride-film’s other unique feature was that it would also be one long POV (point of view) shot; the audience would only see what was directly in front of them, another result of being unable to cut away to alternate angles to communicate what was happening to guests throughout their space flight. A side monitor depicting R2-D2 in his socket atop the Starspeeder 3000 would provide a small rear-view image — along with the occasional incoming transmission from a Rebel pilot — but that was about it. The ride-film had to tell the entire story from start to finish.

Muren and the ILM team approached the Star Tours shoot much like they did the Star Wars film trilogy. They first mapped out the entire sequence in a series of storyboards, from the Starspeeder’s erratic takeoff and jump to lightspeed to its erratic flight through a field of comets (or “ice-teroids,” as the team referred to them) and the final attack on the Death Star. The crew then used the storyboards to create a full animatic, which was subsequently used to test the physical experience aboard the simulators before shooting the ride film.

Star Tours miniature set construction

Even though CGI (computer-generated imagery) was first rearing its digital head in ILM productions like Young Sherlock Holmes, Star Tours was shot the “old-fashioned way” using practical models and miniatures and computer-controlled cameras — just like the Star Wars feature films. But shorter certainly didn’t mean “lesser” in the minds of the ILM crew; in fact, the “ice-teroid” field sequence employed more effects elements — close to 80 — than any project since Return of the Jedi, in which the Millennium Falcon‘s flight through a swarm of TIE fighters at the Death Star required 60 different elements. Many members of the ILM team have said that Star Tours was every bit as challenging and complicated as any of their big screen work, if not even more so.

Shooting Star Tours visual effects

The Imagineers quickly discovered that the ride-film from ILM could actually help make their thrill ride even more thrilling. The new flight simulators could only do so much, only go up or down about 15 degrees, so the ride-film had to exaggerate the motions of the Starspeeder 3000 and do most of the work for the attraction. For example, the speeder’s plunge toward the surface of the Death Star was, in theory, a 270-degree spiral that would make guests feel as though they were dropping literally straight down. The simulators obviously weren’t capable of such an extreme motion, but the more limited movement combined with a dramatic, white-knuckle drop on film created the harrowing experience the Imagineers were seeking. But the motion of the simulator could be deceptive. Sometimes, when the Starspeeder was meant to feel as though it was accelerating down, the simulator itself was actually tilting back to make guests feel as though G-forces were pressing them back into their seats. The magic of the movies had met the magic of Disney.

Star Tours' entrance, featuring a giant AT-AT

The ride’s climax was, of course, a thrilling dive down to the Death Star that culminated in the classic trench run from A New Hope. The Imagineers knew that might raise questions among fans as to why they were attacking the Death Star in the wake of Return of the Jedi, but everyone on both the Disney and Lucas teams knew it had to be included — hence Rex’s classic line, “I’ve always wanted to do this!” The rookie pilot was basically speaking for the audience!

The sequence actually combines the best of the Death Star assaults from both A New Hope (the final trench run itself) and Return of the Jedi (skimming across the surface of the Death Star, narrowly avoiding gantries, control towers, and enemy fighters) to create a climactic sequence that felt familiar and new all at the same time. Since the individual shots were all longer to create the illusion that the entire ride was one extended take, all the models had to be smaller, so the ILM team custom-built a smaller-scale Death Star just for the Star Tours shoot.

Star Tours grand opening at Disneyland with George Lucas

Star Tours opened with a special “Interplanetary Launch” event on the evening of January 8, 1987, following a soft opening in December of 1986, giving the Imagineers plenty of time to work out any remaining bugs. The attraction then “officially” opened on January 9 with a 60-hour party that saw the line winding all the way down Main Street to the park’s entrance. George Lucas himself was on hand to help cut the ribbon with — you guessed it — a lightsaber. Fans and reporters alike asked Disney CEO Michael Eisner if the company had plans to bring Star Tours to Walt Disney World. “We are considering whether or not we are going to open it at the Magic Kingdom or at the studio tour in Florida,” Michael replied, “but I suspect at some point Star Tours will end up in Florida.”

Star Tours at Walt Disney World with an AT-AT walker

Star Tours did indeed make the inevitable flight east to Walt Disney World, opening at Disney-MGM Studios — later renamed Disney’s Hollywood Studios — on December 15, 1989. The ride itself was identical, but the Imagineers had to make some adjustments to the overall story in order for the attraction to fit the narrative of its new “studio backlot” home. Instead of entering a futuristic-looking Star Tours terminal as in Tomorrowland at Disneyland, guests approach an elaborate Ewok village on the Forest Moon of Endor, complete with an Imperial Walker looming over the entrance. In this case, the theme park “set” was meant to be just that, a working film set on which a crew is shooting a new Star Wars film, and this particular episode tells a story about the Star Tours spaceline. Many of the set pieces were clearly façades, or false fronts, with stenciled lettering indicating that they were part of this Star Tours “production.” This time Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia themselves, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, joined George Lucas and Michael Eisner for the grand opening festivities.

Star Tours' grand opening with Han, Luke, and Leia

Star Tours also opened at Tokyo Disneyland on July 12, 1989, and was built as part of the opening day lineup of attractions at Disneyland Paris on April 12, 1992. Both international versions of the attraction maintained the spaceport setting of the Disneyland original. The Imagineers placed Star Tours in Tomorrowland at the Tokyo park and in Disneyland Paris at the newly created Discoveryland, which offered the international audience a Jules Verne-inspired vision of the future.

Star Tours' opening at Disneyland

Star Tours set attendance records at Disneyland — at least until Indiana Jones Adventure opened eight years later — and became one of the most popular attractions at each park in which it was built. It quickly took its place as a modern Disney classic, with its own legion of diehard fans who could recite the script right along with Rex and delighted in destroying the Death Star again and again and again. The attraction closed at Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2010 and at Tokyo Disneyland in 2012 to make way for Star Tours — The Adventures Continue, a complete reimagining of the experience that brought the most memorable moments from all six Star Wars films to life.

The original Star Tours may be gone but it’s far from forgotten — sharp-eyed fans can even spot Easter egg-style salutes to it in the new attraction — and the “creative forces of Disney and George Lucas” will only grow stronger in the years to come as Lucasfilm continues to settle in as part of the Disney family. Now anytime Star Wars fans utter those immortal words, “I’ve always wanted to do this,” who knows? Perhaps those classic characters and memorable moments will someday find their way to our galaxy…

Jason Surrell is an author, screenwriter, and senior show writer at Walt Disney Imagineering. Follow him on Twitter at @2Manhattans.

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