When Star Wars hit the big screen in 1977, it was different from other Science Fiction films. Before Star Wars, nearly everything in sci-fi was clean, sleek, and futuristic in design. The vehicles, the clothes, the architecture, everything.
Star Wars changed that. George Lucas envisioned a “lived-in” universe. A universe where things looked old, used, dirty, and beat-up. Things didn’t always work right. Many objects looked in some way familiar to us, even though the function they performed was completely foreign to us.
The production design in Star Wars grew partially from Lucas’ imagination (with the help of amazing concept artists and partially from necessity. Take the lightsaber for example. The lightsaber itself is an iconic symbol of the Jedi as much as it is a symbol of the films themselves, and very recognizable. But the original lightsaber hilts were pieced together by the props department from odds and ends. As an example, check out this photo of a 1940s-era Graflex large-format camera and flash.
Now, remove the flash from the camera, remove the reflector, add some cabinet door t-track, a bubble lens from a calculator, and a D-Ring, and you get the original lightsaber prop given to Luke Skywalker by Obi-Wan Kenobi:
Many of the props were like this. Blasters were fashioned from real firearms, with bits and pieces added on to make them look more “sci-fi”. Throughout the original trilogy (and to a lesser extent, the prequels) you can spot real-world objects that have been used in a new way in the film – even as components of larger objects such as airplane reading lamps being used as holoprojectors on the lovable R2-D2.
Set design plays a very important role in nearly any film, and the sets in Star Wars were spectacular. Who can forget the Mos Eisley Cantina, or the interior of the Millennium Falcon? The interior of the Death Star instantly says “Star Wars” to anyone who has seen the films. The Carbon Freezing Chamber from The Empire Strikes Back is instantly recognizable and even made a brief appearance in an Energizer Bunny commercial in the 90’s.
The overall design of the spacecraft and other models in Star Wars seals the deal. The beat-up, used, military look of the ships was something unlike anything that had been seen on film before. The X-Wing Fighter, the Millennium Falcon (my favorite) and Imperial TIE Fighters are iconic, and as a kid they completely captured my imagination.
When you add this all up, it makes the universe believable. To this day, I find myself watching the background while viewing the films, taking in the beautiful set designs (which we barely see sometimes), models, props, and practical vehicles – watching for little details. While I have no delusions about the fact that it’s all fake, the production design completely sells it for me. It LOOKS real, and the process of taking something from an idea in one person’s mind to a completed, realistic set, prop, or model is something that will forever fascinate me.