Friday, December 18, 2015

Information vital to the Rebellion: Watching the Star Wars “making-of” documentaries

You've surely heard by now that there's a new Star Wars movie opening this week. I see that many people are marathoning the previous six movies in preparation.

As a kid I devoured every book, article, interview or documentary I could find about how Star Wars came to be, what its themes are, how the effects were done. Star Wars, to me, was always something that somebody made, and I was always on the side of the person who made it and interested in what he was trying to achieve.

But I think many other viewers prefer to accept invented universes like Star Wars at face value, and to acknowledge the writer or director only when it’s time to blame someone for something they didn’t like. This is aided by the fact that, more and more, science fiction and fantasy films and TV shows are based on existing properties, making it easier for viewers to feel that they know in advance how the story should go and that the filmmaker or showrunner will get it wrong. 

In defiance of this trend, I decided that instead of marathoning the previous six movies (something I’ve already done anyway), I would marathon the “making of” documentaries, and revisit the Star Wars saga from a behind-the-scenes perspective. In doing so I hope to champion the creativity and hard work of the people who made them.

(Disclaimer: I don’t have a player to watch the Blu-ray features, so my marathon will be limited to what’s on DVD, on the internet, or in my personal collection. Also, the prequel DVDs are loaded to the gills with bonus features, so in the interest of time and sanity I limited myself to one or two documentaries for each prequel.)


Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace is widely criticized for its lack of realism, so what’s fascinating about the making-of documentary The Beginning is how raw it is. It has no narration, no background music, no talking-head studio interviews, no fancy graphics or transitions. There is some occasional plain text telling you what the location is, what the date is, or how many weeks are left before the movie comes out, but otherwise this is fly-on-the-wall footage of the film’s planning, shooting and editing, presented without comment.

The upcoming Episode VII will be the first Star Wars movie made without its original creator, so it’s poignant that my marathon would start here. The documentary opens with Lucas being interviewed on 60 Minutes, explaining that the “auteur” theory is true, that movies resemble their makers, and that he to have a strong emotional commitment to these films in order to make them.

A scene in Episode I that’s grown on me over the years is the one where Anakin Skywalker’s loving mother sends her young son off to new adventures with the words “Don’t look back.” It’s a scene I now find moving, since the other two prequels have provided clearer knowledge of how painfully the adult Anakin would fail to live up to his early potential. I bring this up because The Beginning has the heartbreaking real-life equivalent – we see little Jake Lloyd excitedly signs the contract to play Anakin, while his female agent tells him how proud she is, surely assuming her young client is destined for stardom. (If you don’t know what later became of Jake Lloyd – who even changed his name! – I’ll just say that his Wikipedia page is a sad read.)

Contrary to Episode I’s reputation as an exercise in CGI overkill, we see the extensive use of audio-animatronic creatures, large physical sets, and arduous location shooting under difficult weather conditions. Lucas is seen to be a very hands-on director, consistently involved in every creative decision.

Still, rewatching this documentary leads me to suspect that many of Episode I’s problems result from Lucas’ preference for directing films in post-production rather than on the set.

When Lucas is reviewing the finalists for the role of the young Anakin, he says he is trying to decide between one kid who is pretty good all the time, and another kid who is more hit-and-miss but has brilliant moments that could be combined in editing. Later in the film, editor Ben Burtt sounds slightly frustrated by Lucas’ desire to try to re-direct a film in post-production; Burtt points out that in the old days one would reject a take that had something wrong with it, and that the ability to digitally combine different details from different takes has now made the editing process more challenging.

If Lucas likes a certain type of performance, and is able to cherry-pick every element of a take or scene that fits that preference, that may explain why the performances in Episode I seem so monotone. I would also argue that if the finished CGI had kept more of actor Ahmed Best’s on-set physicality, without exaggerating his character’s movements and facial reactions to such a cartoony degree, Jar Jar would have seemed less grotesque.

In any case, Burtt’s grumbling is one of only two scenes in the documentary that indicate creative difficulty behind the scenes (even though it was made for Episode I’s belated DVD release, by which time the film’s reputation as a disappointment was set in stone). The other, more famous moment is when Lucas and company review a rough cut of the film and are concerned about how to salvage it. Lucas is concerned that things move too fast (“if it’s fast for us, a regular person is going to go nuts”) and that it might be possible to reduce this. It’s unclear whether Lucas is referring just to the action climax, or to the movie as a whole. If it’s the latter, his attempts to slow things down might explain why the pace of the exposition scenes in Episode I feel a bit sluggish.

Lucas’ attitude through the film seesaws between optimism and caution. I’m fond of the scene where he pragmatically observes that the sequel to American Graffiti was a box-office failure, and that “you can destroy these things – it is possible.”

Fun fact: Swear words (mainly from producer Rick McCallum) are bleeped throughout the documentary, but they missed one. After executing a stunt, actor Ewan MacGregor says that when he was offered Star Wars his response was “Too f**king right!”

The Beginning won’t convince anyone to love Episode I, but it’s a good glimpse into the filmmaking process from beginning to end. Seeing and hearing a full chorus belting out “Duel of the Fates” is a particular highlight.

"STORY" (2002)

The DVD for Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones doesn’t clearly identify one of its bonus features as a primary “making-of”. There are two “Documentaries” and three “Featurettes”, so I watched one of each.

The documentary From Puppets to Pixels has the same minimalist approach as The Beginning. The emphasis this time is on the challenge of creating convincing digital characters, specifically the new digital Yoda as well as Obi-wan’s four-armed friend Dexter.

My favorite moment is when Lucas and his animation director are arguing the subtleties of how sad or worried that the digital Yoda should look when delivering the line “Begun, the Clone War has.” This animation had apparently gone through several unsatisfactory iterations by this point, and Lucas seems to be struggling to keep his sense of humor about a shot that is now trying his patience.

Like The Beginning, this documentary provides glimpses into the filmmaking process from filming to editing. However, this time we only see two of the main actors at work (Ewan MacGregor and the late, great Christopher Lee) and that alone makes it feel less comprehensive than The Beginning.

By contrast, the featurette “Story” is a more conventional piece that has talking-head clips of Lucas and the main cast discussing the important story developments that occur in Episode II (a film that many fans like to insist has no story). Samuel L. Jackson states that this film will be a return to the swashbuckling spirit of the original films. I found this statement curious, since if anything Episode I was the more light-hearted film and Episode II is the one that plunges into darker territory. But it’s interesting as an indirect acknowledgement that the previous Star Wars film was not universally well-received.


Within a Minute, the making-of documentary for Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, is an interesting departure from those for the previous prequels. Stylistically it’s more conventional in its use of interviews, graphics and music, but its content is very different. It follows a single minute-long section of the movie through the entire filmmaking process from beginning to end, taking pains to emphasize how many people are involved and how many decisions are made along the way – from scripting and planning and filming, to special effects and sound design and music.

Whereas The Beginning opened with Lucas discussing the auteur theory, Within a Minute celebrates all the individuals who contribute to making a film. Each subsection of the movie includes a scroll of all the names involved in that part of the process. The roll-call of animators actually includes two guys I knew at RIT – Brian Cantwell (who is interviewed on-camera) and Kurt Nellis. The film even covers the people who never get covered in making-of documentaries, such as the caterers and the people who handle payroll.

The section of Episode III that was chosen for analysis is a minute-long portion of the climactic lightsaber duel between Anakin and Obi-wan, as they fight atop a large structure that breaks apart and falls onto the sea of lava beneath them. This battle was a famous piece of unseen backstory for years before the prequels were made, and all involved seem excited at the prospect of bringing this legendary moment to life.

I love Episode III but am aware that many people do not. This conflict made me squirm a bit at producer Rick McCallum’s obvious pride in the work on display here. I think his pride is justified but I could mentally hear Internet trolls snickering at his every declaration.

The shorter documentary “The Chosen One” is less about the production process and more about the creative development of the character of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, and how Episode III completes the story that is developed in the other five films to date. We get talking-head quotes from Lucas and Hayden Christensen, as well as on-set footage of Lucas directing Christensen and explaining the character’s motivation. The moment of Christensen walking on-set in the final Vader costume is understandably treated as a major event, with the crew applauding and Christensen later recalling the event as something he will not soon forget.

(Also, in a recap clip from Episode I, the puppet Yoda is replaced with the digital Yoda seen in Episode II and III. This was still a few years before was Episode I was re-released in 3D and on Blu-ray, with the new Yoda fully implemented by then.)

Episode III was not only the final Star Wars prequel, but – as far as anyone knew at the time – the final Star Wars movie ever. Many of the people in these documentaries – including Rick McCallum, Ben Burtt, and animation director Rob Coleman – had been working together for a decade. Within a Minute and “The Chosen One” show this project coming to its natural end, yet no one is seen to express emotion or melancholy at this. Instead, the filmmakers are excited to be part of a piece of history (as the Star Wars saga is finally complete) and express a sense of victory and accomplishment. It’s almost as if they knew that the story was just beginning.

Which leads me to…


I had originally planned to just marathon the official “making-of” documentaries – the DVD extras for the prequels, and the TV specials that accompanied the release of the original films. However, I remembered that a fan named Jamie Benning had made a series of documentaries about the original Star Wars trilogy, by intercutting each film with behind-the-scenes footage as well as audio-only interview material from various sources. I’d never gotten around to actually watching one of them, so I decided that now would be a good time. So I watched Star Wars Begins, Benning’s 2-hour-and-19-minute interlacing of the original Star Wars with behind-the-scenes content.

I’ve always been fascinated by the development of the original 1977 film, the one we now call Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. All the other films have had a successful proof-of-concept to follow, but this is the one that began as just a vague notion in Lucas’ head of swords and capes and ray guns, an ultimately world-changing idea that he struggled to develop through four very different drafts. Studio heads struggled to understand Lucas’ concept, the production of the film was famously difficult, the rough cut of the film was deemed a disaster and had to be extensively reworked, and entirely new special effects technology had to be developed in order to complete the film.

However, little of that seems to come through in Star Wars Begins. Occasionally an archive quote will mention how stressed and unhappy Lucas seemed to be during production, but the focus seems to be more on minor trivia – alternate takes, redubbed lines, what the camera and crew looked like when a particular scene was being shot.

The film doesn’t have an obvious point of view – it is basically other people’s documentaries and interviews stitched together in script order. Onscreen text (often with typos) will sometimes throw in an interesting factoid, and also identifies who is speaking in an audio clip and what year their quote is taken from. Any time a quote was from 2004 I recognized it from the original trilogy’s DVD release – either from the commentary track, or from the accompanying DVD extra Empire of Dreams – and I recognized a lot of behind-the-scenes footage from Empire of Dreams as well.

However, there were also some clips I didn’t recognize and some anecdotes I hadn’t heard. I was impressed to hear quotes from Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, who seem to have seldom been recorded speaking about their most widely seen roles. So Benning and/or his Internet friends (thanked in the credits) did an impressive amount of research, even if the resulting “documentary” is no more than the sum of its parts.

The most interesting thing about Star Wars Begins is that it provides a glimpse of how the original version of Episode IV would have played with its most famous deleted scenes integrated back into it. These scenes include early cutaways of Luke Skywalker (before he meets Artoo and Threepio); a few shots of Han with an unidentified female companion who leaves when Luke and Obi-wan meet with him; and of course Han confronting the original, human, fur-wearing version of Jabba the Hutt.

Some fans would love to see the early scenes of Luke and his friend Biggs (who appears in the finished film only as a Rebel X-wing pilot during the finale) actually edited into the film. Seeing these scenes placed in their original context, though, I think Lucas (or the studio?) was right to cut them.

As released, the original film opens in the middle of a conflict that is only partly explained to the audience, and gets away with this by telling the story from the point of view of two robots who also are unclear what’s going on. To cut away to seemingly unrelated characters in a strange environment talking about the Academy, the Empire and the Rebel Alliance would probably have confused the hell out of 1977 audiences who – remember – had not seen Star Wars before and did not already understand this universe.

However, watching the dialogue between Luke and Biggs is interesting for another reason. After the prequels, Lucas gained a reputation as being inept at directing actors. It’s tempting to look back at some irreverent quotes from the original trilogy’s lead actors, and the knowledge that Episode IV had to be salvaged in editing (largely with the help of his then-wife Marcia), and conclude that Lucas was always deficient in this area. However, the Luke-and-Biggs material – which plays out in lengthy medium- and wide shots – is well-played by both actors, and the prequel documentaries show Lucas working closely with his actors (and animators, in the case of digital creatures) to shape a character’s performance. So this supports my aforementioned theory that the digital-era Lucas is not necessarily a bad director of actors while on set, but perhaps pushes out too much of their spontaneity in his editing choices.

Star Wars Begins was a little frustrating in that I wanted to see more of Episode IV’s birth pangs and not just random trivia. But I hadn’t planned to actually rewatch the movies in this marathon, so it was cool to find myself accidentally rewatching the original movie in this exploded, deconstructed version.


This hour-long documentary aired on ABC on September 16, 1977. It was scripted by Time critic Richard Schickel, with narration by William Conrad and some jokey in-character commentary from Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio (well, by See-Threepio anyway). The Artoo/Threepio material is corny and inconsistent – sometimes the droids seem to be recalling the film’s characters and events as if they were real, and sometimes they are recalling the experience of being actors in the movie.

I probably did see this at a very young age. I have a dim childhood memory of seeing the droids on a white sci-fi set when Threepio makes some kind of meta comment about the movie, and while I long pictured that set as being the blockade runner from the beginning of Episode IV, I now believe I’m remembering the set on which the droids appear in the host segments of this documentary. I don’t know for sure whether this set was built especially for this documentary or was left over from something else, but it’s very detailed and retro-awesome.

The bulk of the film is narrated behind-the-scenes footage narrated by Conrad, framed by occasional cutaways to Artoo and Threepio. There are very brief interview clips of Alec Guinness (clearly made during shooting, as he’s in costume and on set), Harrison Ford (in a boat for some reason), Carrie Fisher (in a video arcade!), George Lucas, a VERY long-haired Mark Hamill, and producer Gary Kurtz.

Despite – or because of – the thermonuclear levels of cheese in this documentary, I found myself holding back tears at its extreme simplicity and innocence. When this TV special aired, Star Wars – though already the highest-grossing film of all time – was less than four months old. Its footprints in the world were still fresh. The narration re-explains the entire film to its audience, and every major scene is shown, in case viewers did not remember the broad outlines of the plot. Lucas explains – perhaps for the first time on-camera – his desire to tell a more innocent adventure story, as well the religious concept behind the Force. Clips of old movies helpfully illustrate Star Wars’ roots in Flash Gordon serials, WW II dogfight movies, swashbucklers, and Westerns.

Near the end, Fisher mentions that there is talk of the next Star Wars being set on “an ice planet”, and also “a tropical planet” similar to the moon of Yavin (the misty rebel base seen in the original film), which is a startling indicator of just how early the broadest outlines of The Empire Strikes Back were being determined.

The closing narration, accompanying the famous scene of Luke gazing at the twin sunset, ends with “The magic of Star Wars does not lie only in its brilliant special effects. Its power derives from something simpler and rarer: the romantic spirit that moves in it. Before it we are all young again, and everything seems possible.”

If you watch this old TV special and are able to hold it together at that moment, you are made of sterner stuff than I. But it is Threepio who gets the last word when he rhetorically asks, “Where will it all end? Perhaps, Artoo, it will never end.”

I will always defend the prequels for their ambition, and for taking the innocent Star Wars universe into more adult and troubling waters. But watching this hokey documentary put me in the right frame of childlike innocence to remind me what Star Wars means to the rest of my generation.


I DEFINITELY remember watching this one as a kid, as it is basically Mark Hamill saying “Young Curt, I order you to make a movie” for forty-plus minutes straight.

Ostensibly a documentary about the special effects in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, SP FX is really a celebration of the art of special effects in general. Hamill’s narration (again written by Richard Schickel) frequently waxes poetic about the power of effects to transport us to realms of imagination, freedom, and possibility.

This TV special includes clips from many celebrated fantasy and science fiction films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, King Kong, The Thief of Baghdad, and even A Trip to the Moon (that’s the silent film where the rocket lands in the eye of the moon). But it’s the inclusion of clips from amateur stop-motion movies by child filmmakers (at about the 10- and 35-minute marks) that seared themselves into my young psyche. Rewatching those clips now, it’s startling to see that one of the films was made with paper cutouts and that the filmmakers named in the film were between 11 and 17 years of age. It so happens that, years later, I made a stop-motion paper cutout movie when I was between 13 and 15.

There are only a couple of brief interview clips, from Peter Mayhew (who played Chewbacca) and sound designer Ben Burtt. Otherwise it’s all Hamill talking about how inspiring and wonderful special effects are.

I’m sure many prequel haters will seize on Hamill’s closing speech that “In the end, a special effect is just a special effect. If it isn’t surrounded by people we care about, if it doesn’t serve a story that moves and involves us, and if above all it doesn’t help us to grasp some larger imaginative vision, then it’s just a trick, a gimmick.” But while I agree that the prequels falter on the first point they still manage the latter two, at least for me. Which I guess puts me in the role of Artoo-Detoo, who rolls onscreen at that point to tell Hamill to give it a rest.

“The Star Wars saga will continue,” concludes Hammer. “In the largest sense, it can never end, because imagination has no end.” Okay, Schickel, you’re starting to repeat yourself. Otherwise you did a hell of a number on my younger self. Good job.


In late 1983, two Star Wars documentaries aired within a few weeks of each other. The first was Classic Creatures: Return of the Jedi, hosted by Carrie Fisher and Billy Dee Williams. But I couldn’t find a complete copy of that one on YouTube and thus had to skip it for this marathon. So I’ll stick with the second and far superior From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga.

Like the two earlier specials, From Star Wars to Jedi is narrated by Mark Hamill and written by Richard Schickel. And again, we see plenty of on-set footage of the latest movie (in this case Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi), primarily filming Jabba’s lair (with brief input from Jabba’s puppetters) and the Ewok village.

But compared to the two earlier TV specials, this one doesn’t gush about the wonder of cinema, or show any clips from older films in order to explain and justify the tradition it’s working in. Instead, Star Wars is now firmly established as an end in itself, as Lucas gives one of his first and most extensive platforms to explain his theories of what the overall Star Wars saga is all about. The film regularly cuts to Lucas sitting in front of a leafy plant somewhere, explaining his thoughts and ideas as well as his disappointment at things that didn’t live up to his aspirations due to technical limitations. “In his mind,” says the narration, “George Lucas was jumping to hyperspace long before he visualized the process for the rest of us.” Lucas himself also asserted to my younger self the integrity that artists must have when he said that “that’s the way it should be, and if the public can’t deal with it, then what can I do it? … The film is about human frailties, it’s not about monsters.”

While I only have dim childhood memories of the two previous documentaries, I was able to record From Star Wars to Jedi off cable TV on VHS and subsequently rewatched it many, many times while developing my own filmmaking. During those repeat viewings I was fascinated to hear Lucas describe the development process of Star Wars, to see abandoned concepts (this must be where the human-Jabba footage from the original Star Wars was first shown publicly), and to hear Hamill’s narration explain the themes and mythology behind Star Wars. So I’m always baffled to encounter those who loved the Star Wars movies as much as I did but whose love never drove them to explore what made them tick.

Lucas talks about his attempts to explore how fast-paced a movie can be before it becomes incomprehensible, which ties in interestingly with his reaction to the rough cut of the “earlier” Episode I. He then adds that success has made his personal life more intense, which is a sadder statement when you consider that the time and energy he devoted to the Star Wars trilogy led to him becoming divorced.

This docu-marathon began with an older Lucas describing how films are the embodiments of their creators. By contrast, From Star Wars to Jedi has a final post-credit shot of Lucas getting on a plane and waving goodbye. “As attractive as the Star Wars world is, sooner or later you have to leave home and go on to some other place.”

And so the saga continues, for others to tend.

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