If there’s one aspect of the movie-making business that doesn’t get enough love these days, it’s the hard work that originates from the workshops on film sets that create the physical aspects of movies today. Small props, towns big enough to have a showdown in at high noon and the fast cars that make a getaway so memorable. And today, we’re taking a look at a weapon from a galaxy far, far away…
Not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age.
If there’s one staple of the Star Wars universe, besides kissing your own sister or hating Ewoks, it’s the Lightsaber. An iconic weapon that gave the franchise an edge of note, the weapon has forever been linked with the films, and has been there since the beginning.
While the idea of a laser-sword wasn’t unique to Star Wars, the manner in which it was implemented, certainly was. Director George Lucas originally wanted the lightsaber to be a weapon that was far more common in the Star Wars universe, before it was eventually decided that it would serve a better purpose as a legendary weapon wielded solely by Jedi and other force users.
John Stears and set decorator Roger Christian constructed the original hilts that appeared in the first film, A New Hope, out of old press camera flash battery packs and various other bits of equipement, which also included a coating of a retro-reflector array, for use during filming.
With some clever lighting, a rudimentary laser effect could be created, after which animator Nelson Shin would complete the effect. Seeing as how the blade was made of light (duh), Shin made it a tad more shakey, by inserting lighter colour frames with an optical printer, giving the blade its vibration.
All in all, the process to make a lightsaber look right on film, took around a week, record time back then in the seventies.
But the lightsaber was more than just a visual tool, as it came with a very distinctive sound, thanks to sound designer Ben Burtt. Burtt achieved the signature hum, crackle and pop by combining the audio from interlock motors in worn out film projectors with television interference sounds, which were recorded though an unshielded microphone.
In order to change the pitch of the lightsaber however, Burtt then played the basic sound on a loudspeaker, recording that on a microphone that was in motion, which created a doppler shift and voila! The saber sounds were complete.
In the years since then, computer graphics and wizardry have taken over from the original practical effects, with full scale replicas available on the market as well, for the fans out there who need to satisfy their inner jedi.
Consumer software has also allowed people to film their own scenes in which they have a lightsaber battle, creating effects on par with what is seen in the current Star Wars films, and the weapon remains an influential part of the expanded universe today.
As for sound effects in this day and age? Nothing beats doing that yourself. VVVVVZZZZZZMMMMMM WHHZZZZZZZZWWHHHMMMM WHHHHMMMM!