“That’s it. The rebels are there.”
Hoth, the iconic world of snow, ice, and wampas, made its debut in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back as the new home of the Rebel Alliance. The frigid planet would host one of the saga’s most memorable sequences in the Battle of Hoth, in which snowspeeders attempted to thwart the impossibly-big AT-AT walkers. In StarWars.com’s exclusive excerpt from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 40th Anniversary Special, a rich celebration of Episode V from the makers of Star Wars Insider (and on sale now), we learn the genesis of Hoth, from George Lucas’ original ideas for the locale, to design, to shooting in Norway.
With temperatures as low as -60°C during the nights and landscapes constantly buried under ice and snow, this is one of the most inhospitable planets of the galaxy. The almost unlivable climate is caused by Hoth’s great distance from the primary sun of the system and also by its wide elliptical orbit—as a result, it takes the planet 526 standard days to round that sun. Intense winds and snowstorms constantly blow the frozen surface of Hoth, shaping the landscape and amplifying the extreme cold. Even droids, speeders, and transports have a tough life here. While Hoth’s hostile environment might dissuade visitors and explorers, it makes the planet a very good place to hide, as the Rebellion knows well. But even Hoth isn’t remote enough to elude the Empire’s probe droids and keep the Echo Base safe.
As he did for A New Hope, George Lucas made a list of planets in his notes when he started imagining the sequel. Among them, he named: the Wookiee planet—on which production illustrator Ralph McQuarrie started working since he signed his contract in October 1977, but that would not appear in the film; a gas planet called Hoth—which would later become Bespin where Lando’s Cloud City floats; and a generic “Ice Planet”. It was only in the second draft of the script in 1978 that the name was assigned to the actual ice planet where the rebels would set up their new outpost. From the Ice Kingdom of Mongo featured in Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comics series (March 12, 1939 to April 7, 1940) to Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World (1951), several influences shaped Hoth’s concept and development. This is how Lucas himself described the planet in 1977: “We could start on the Ice Planet, which would be striking. We’ve never been there before, an underground installation in a giant snow bank. Very hostile, with wind blowing around and the cold.”
In parallel to the world of the Wookiees, covered in huge trees, McQuarrie was already painting ice and snow: based on Lucas’ instructions, since no finished script was available at that time, the artist was developing Darth Vader’s home. Initially set in a cold environment, the metal castle of the Sith Lord was later placed amid boiling lava, but it didn’t make it in the film anyway—its first appearance would only be in 2005 in Revenge of the Sith, though it was not actually called Vader’s castle in the final prequel film. Some of the concept paintings were later converted to first illustrate the rebel base in the context of Hoth. In the following months the metal structure disappeared and the base was moved inside the ice caves, which were considered natural to the planet. Trying to figure out the design of the interiors, Ralph McQuarrie and visual effects art director Joe Johnston imagined how the rebels carved the ice out to make room for the hangar and the equipment: “It was my feeling that lasers would be used to accomplish the cutting in long, straight lines. That helped give me a key to part of the solution.”
PROBLEMS ON SET
After several trips across northern Europe, in the spring of 1978 the Norwegian town of Finse was chosen as the location for Hoth. According to associate producer Robert Watts, the glacier in Finse provided “the uninterrupted, treeless expanse” that was ideal for shooting the ice planet scenes. There was also a hotel along the railway line which was thirty minutes away from the glacier, and therefore quite convenient for accommodating the film crew. Yet filming in Finse proved very challenging due to the chilling weather conditions. With temperatures around -30°C (almost like the fictional planet Hoth), violent snowstorms and high winds, the film crew found itself facing Norway’s coldest winter in a hundred years. Basic tasks such as reloading a camera, using a tape recorder or even, as admitted by director Irvin Kershner, going to the bathroom were extremely difficult and required the crew to think on their feet and quickly come up with alternative solutions. One such solution was the decision to shoot some scenes just a few feet away from the hotel: “If the camera would’ve turned around, you’d have seen a big hotel behind you,’’ said assistant producer Jim Bloom, “but because of the weather, it looked like you were out in the middle of nowhere.” Filming started on Monday, March 5, 1979, under quite unfortunate circumstances: a trench that had been dug a few days before by the construction crew was buried in snow, meaning that none of the planned scenes could be shot; trains were unable to reach Finse and the road to the railway line was blocked. The situation was so critical that production decided to call Harrison Ford in a week early to film one of his scenes instead. “We thought we could shoot his sequence that, because of losing Stage 3 [destroyed by a fire in January 24, while it was housing the hotel lobby of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining], we were going to shoot at Leeds Studios 2,” said associate producer Robert Watts. “If we could get this sequence successfully in Norway, this would obviate us from having to go out to Leeds.” Due to three avalanches that had cut off the railway road, however, Ford’s journey wasn’t going to be an easy one: in order to successfully reach Finse from Oslo, the actor had to take a train, two taxis and was eventually picked up by a snowplow twenty-three miles from Finse. The last main unit scene was shot on Monday, March 11, whereas the second unit faced further weather variations which led them to run over schedule. “We were supposed to be there for three weeks,” said Bloom. “We were there for eight.” The unit wrapped on Tuesday, April 3; on the same day, another avalanche took place—a phenomenon which, according to locals, and somewhat frustratingly for the cast, meant the arrival of spring.
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