The climactic Rebel attack on the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope stands as the most iconic space battle sequence in movie history, which is all the more impressive considering its retro special effects were created 44 years ago using ships cobbled together from modeling kits in a Van Nuys warehouse and then filmed without the benefit of digital effects.
EW spoke with special effects pioneer Dennis Muren about creating the sequence. Muren revealed the masterfully edited 13-minute battle evolved in at least one key way during filming, as well as discussed a couple of elements that don’t quite make sense, and explains why the sequence manages to feel more engaging than modern-day space battles done with computer graphics.
Originally the fight didn’t just take place in one deadly Death Star trench, but several. Special effects pioneer Dennis Muren tells EW that A New Hope‘s effects team led by John Dykstra originally constructed three trenches for the X-Wing fighters to fly through, each different widths. The idea was that as the fighters got closer and closer to their target (“Al-most … there…”), the trenches would get narrower and more perilous.
“Originally there were three trenches of different widths, I remember shooting tests on those,” Muren says. “The first fly-through was fairly wide. And then they made another loop that was narrower, and then the third was the one you saw in the film. Somewhere along the line it was decided to do it all with the [narrowest] trench because it was so much more dramatic. That way you had more stuff racing by the camera on the walls and a narrower area to fly in, so ships had to be more careful.”
The initial idea for trenches in the first place is unclear, but concept artist Colin Cantwell recently claimed on a Reddit AMA that he came up with the idea to solve an early design problem with the Death Star orb model. “I didn’t originally plan for the Death Star to have a trench, but when I was working with the mold, I noticed the two halves had shrunk at the point where they met across the middle,” Cantwell wrote. As fixing the mistake would have taken a week, Cantwell went to Lucas suggested a trench.
And yet, canonically speaking, there are still multiple Death Star trenches. According to the LucasArts CD-ROM Star Wars: Behind the Magic, the enormous space station has 18 trenches. The clearly visible meridian trench in the center of the model is just one of them. What’s more, that meridian trench is supposedly not the narrow one seen in the X-Wing exhaust port bombing run (despite shots showing fighters approaching the meridian). The size of the meridian trench is too big to be the same one — the meridian trench is the wide one with the docking port the Millennium Falcon was dragged into earlier in the film. So the actual bombing run trench is never seen with from perspective that reveals its location, but it’s apparently near the north pole of the space station.
If that doesn’t entirely make sense, that’s okay. The Death Star surface itself, Muren admits, is “kind of silly” when you study it, but the filmmaking is so engaging you don’t pause to consider what that endless sea of Lego-like buildings are for. “It’s just there to give you cues as to how fast you’re going,” he says. “You don’t have to understand it; the Empire understood it when they made it.”
Another element that doesn’t quite make sense, but is very emotionally effective: The sun. There’s no sun in any of the shots of the Death Star attack, yet one suddenly appears behind the Millennium Falcon when Han Solo swoops in to save Luke. “That was always in [the plan], the Falcon flying out of the sun,” Muren says. “It’s something George liked or had seen in films, but you’re right — I don’t see anybody squinting at the sun.”
What’s perhaps “most impressive” about the sequence is how well it all holds up. There have been plenty of space dogfight scenes since then, including in Star Wars films, but most fans agree the Death Star run remains the best with its painstaking use of models rather than computer effects. The ships feel like they’re really there, and the perfect editing by Marcia Lucas ratchets the drama and suspense.
Muren gave some reasons why CG just often doesn’t look as convincing as the old school techniques. “I was shooting everything [myself], now elements are being animated by separate people — you might get one person doing the background and another doing the ship flying in it, and the person doing the ship doesn’t have much connection to the background so you’ve lost any authorship of the shot,” he says. “Also, the [CGI] models might not have the right sheen on them, there’s not enough scale, the shading might not be right or the edges might be too sharp — that’s a constant problem with computer graphics. Another thing is, I spent an incredible amount of attention on giving a sense of weight to the camera while it was flying around looking at the ships and how the ships were flying. They were always flying and banking like real airplanes — that’s not done as much in CG, because the guys doing it don’t really have the time or even know if that’s important. I was following the laws of physics and inertia and weight.”
The result was an action sequence that was truly one in a million.
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