Star Wars set decorator Roger Christian always knew that the lightsaber would be one of his most important creations. It was the Excalibur of George Lucas’s universe, the weapon that would save the galaxy. There was just one problem: He had no idea what it should look like. In this exclusive behind-the-scenes clip from the Star Wars digital collection (available on multiple platforms Friday), Christian demonstrates how a discarded piece of camera equipment led to his iconic design for the lightsaber.
Christian, who won an Oscar for his work on Star Wars, tells Yahoo Movies that the special effects department’s early designs for the lightsaber looked like “torches, flashlights — but not good ones.” Before long, time was running out, since director George Lucas needed to start shooting desert scenes in Tunisia. Given the film’s small budget and time constraints, Christian’s strategy was to assemble his props out of whatever scrap material he could find. So when he went to buy lenses for Luke Skywalker’s binoculars, he asked the man at the camera shop if he had any spare parts he could look at. That’s when Christian discovered a box of Graflex handles, a device used to hold flashbulbs in a camera from the 1940s.
“I just lifted it out and thought, here it is — this is so beautiful. And it was weighty,” recalls Christian. He rushed back to the studio, to his office full of collected junk (“Literally, they moved me into another office, I had so much stuff,” he says), and began sticking things onto the Graflex handle with tape and superglue. After adding a rubber T-strip, a bubble strip from a calculator to simulate buttons, and a wooden dowel, Christian had the first lightsaber prototype. “And that’s the actual wand that comes out of Obi-Wan’s trunk when he gives it to Luke,” he says.
Because the lightsabers were enhanced by rotoscoping in post-production, they don’t look nearly as flimsy on film as they were in reality. As seen in the video, the wooden dowels, painted with front projection material to emit a glow, weren’t the sturdiest of blades. “When [the actors] were fighting with those, I mean, they were constantly breaking,” Christian admits. “And they had the power of acting to make it look real.”
Those first props may have been fragile, but Christian’s lightsaber design has stood the test of time. So what does he think of the controversial cross-guard lightsaber in the trailer for J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens? “I just know from that blade, that’s one of the old found Jedi ones. So that’s coming from the past,” says Christian.
“George’s mantra was always, ‘Everything had to work and look like it worked. Nothing should look designed, nothing should stand out — everything should fit into my universe.’ So I’m as keen as anyone to see where this is going to fit in.”
This post has been updated.