It seems like the world always moves in a cyclical fashion. We embrace a certain technique or tradition for so long and then begin to advance past it in leaps and bounds. But something happens and we begin to step backward at an ever-accelerating pace only to find ourselves back at the original technique or tradition. But something is different. Something is new. Something is better. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens looks to have completed its cyclical evolution and is about to do something fantastic.
What I’m talking about is the return to traditional filmmaking and the use of live sets, handmade props, costumes, puppeteered creatures and a grounded sense of reality while still giving you a full suspension of disbelief. J.J. Abrams has pushed this type of filmmaking while using computer-generated imagery to only enhance the story and visuals. He doesn’t rely on the visual effects to carry the film.
When things exist in the physical realm, they have a different look. Light bounces and reflects in ways that are not achieved through man’s mathematical equation. They also have weight, texture and actors play off of them. When I heard that J.J. Abrams was approaching the film in the way the original trilogy was created, I had to tilt my hat to him. Many studios have the choice between spending $100,000 on a foam latex costume or a lot less for a 3D character. Most studios would choose the latter. Instead they are taking a route that looks fantastic on camera and allows the fanboys to study all of the props and costumes.
Being a member of the R2 Builders Club for over a decade, I’ve seen firsthand how props are made and have frequented communities in my prop making ventures. Along the way I learned about all of the things that went into making these props and costumes that we are saw in the original trilogy and how those same techniques will play into the making of Episode VII. Lets take a look at how some of those props were made.
When creating the props in the original trilogy, model makers used a technique called ‘kit-bashing’ that tooks parts from various model kits and pieced them together to make unique original pieces. Many props were also based off of founds items. A few interesting ones are below.
1. Graflex Flash
The Graflex camera flash is probably one of the most sought after antiques because it is the base for Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. Modified ever so slightly with some LEDs and T-track sliders from old cabinets, it was turned into the the iconic lightsaber.
2. Sterling Mark 4 L2A3 Sub-machine Gun
Another iconic prop is the Stormtrooper’s blaster rifle. Originally based off of the World War II Sterling Mark 4 L2A3 sub-machine gun, the firearm helped create legion’s primary weapon. It utilized a tank scope on top, a mechanical counter, T-track sliders from old cabinets and a cut down version of the magazine.
These are just a couple of the many other props that consisted of everyday items glued together to create something new. Feel free to look more up online. There are entire communities dedicated to the making of these props. One other is Obi-wan’s lightsaber being made from an old hand grenade.
To come back to the original point, there is a craft that goes into making a movie. It involves handcrafted props, costumes, puppets and other old school methods of set dressing. With Episode VII, life has been breathed back into this craft and traditional filmmaking. Fans everywhere are rejoicing that it has come full circle and now we are receiving the best of both worlds (CGI and Special Effects). I hope to see more filmmakers embrace this old school method of creating props, filming using a majority of live action and bringing the movie-goer deeper into the world of the movie.