John Baumgartner

Shot4shot-Star Wars

STAR WARS (1977, Lucas)

I think by now we probably take this opening for granted, not stopping to appreciate how much good storytelling is crammed into this one “silent cinema” shot.  (But when you see the prequels, you realize with stunning clarity just how wrong such moments can go.)  I was six when this movie came out, so this film is embedded deep in my brain not as a film, but as a reality.  I was 6, it was real!  To this day, I can hear parts of the score and it’s not music, but an emotional window into an alternate universe.

Meanwhile, my friend Beth Grant went to the premiere of Star Wars back in ’77, having no clue what is was about.  In fact, she said she’d had the misconception it wasn’t even sci-fi, but a story of feuding Hollywood celebrities.  But she exclaims she’ll never forget the moment when this first shot came on screen – the place erupted into applause.  They’d never experienced anything like it.  2001 had had similar effects up to that point, but this was a whole new ball of wax – the immortal music, the amazing sound effects, the dramatic premise.  Beth says it was truly a spiritual experience, “we were awestruck and thrilled to the core.”

George Lucas, a long time ago

So the shot itself.  Man, George sure doesn’t make ’em like this anymore.  After the famous crawl floating through space, which sets up the plot, we’re treated to a slow TILT DOWN from the stars to the planets — not 1 but 3 (how about the music hit on the reveal of the visually stunning, NASA-grade image of the third and closest planet) — and a small ship on the run, lasers blasting at it and from it.  Explosions.  Cool sights and sounds.  The score. (Technology was limited back then, or we might have been assailed with 250 ships.)  But then, the Empire barges onto the screen and what a reveal.  That mammoth war ship goes on and on, dwarfing the little guy.  And thus the players, the entire nature of the conflict, the setting and tone, in short, the world is established in one fell swoop.

No wonder that first audience dirtied their collective pants at this one shot.  Here it is –


  • May 20, 2011
    Jeremy Cole

    I was about the same age when Star Wars came out. I first saw it in one of those old theaters with a balcony. I was sitting under it and somehow, sensing its bulk above me lent the star destroyer weight and made this opening shot even more powerful. The fact that I remember that so clearly still at 38 is evidence that George was definitely on his game. Sadly, after that he chose ewoks over wookies and his fate was sealed. The betrayal.

    I grew up in Marin and the lore of this film was everywhere. Somehow the neighborhood kids knew George had a house way across this valley from us and pointed out the cupola of it to me. A neighbor worked on the film and came up with the idea of wrapping the underside of Luke’s land speeder with a mirror to hide the rig. I think it was his kids who pointed out the house to me and spread this myth that he kept a bald eagle in a giant cage inside (go figure). Anyway, this house was a kind of a light pine color that stood out — literally the shining house on the hill. I was totally captivated. It was like the film had some tangible link to my world that made the film itself real.

    Anyway, good post. Keep it up!

  • May 20, 2011
    Jeremy Cole

    Funny. Now that you mention the dream I remember one myself from when I was a kid. I was using The Force to make the car windows go up and down. Totally vivid. In the morning I was so confused and disappointed that I couldn’t repeat the performance.

    I guess that’s why that ad with the kid in the Vader costume is so funny. It’s dead on!

  • May 22, 2011

    I think I was about 14 or 15 when I saw Star Wars. We were so dirt poor I missed all the hype and splendor of the movie cinema experience. I was sitting outside, while my parents were listening to the spanish radio station. The DJ announced that, that night at Sacred Herat Chapel, there was going to be a screening. Someone in the church had bought one of the fist VCR’s and a projection TV. It was a mammoth thing and the image was projected onto a shell. The best part was that the viewing was FREE! I begged my parents for almost an hour before they gave in.

    Naturally, this was before copyright and stuff like that tossed before the film. So screenings like this was…well, I guess it was a first. I remember sitting on the concret floor of the church gym Waiting for 7pm to roll around. Finally someone walked to the VCR and hit play.

    “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” The letters burst onto the screen, and the trumpets blared the now famous fanfare of the film’s theme. Then, I saw the rebel cruiser. A few laser blasts later, and my fate was sealed. By the time the imperial star destroyer had finished crawling near the top of the screen, I knew that making movies was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. ‘Til this day, the opening of Star Wars is still the single greatest opening ever.

    I agree, that silent opening says a lot of what you are about to expreience.
    Great Job kimo!!

  • May 22, 2011

    Even though I was too young to recall seeing this opening shot, I am quite familiar with it.
    Yes, this is the scene that sealed Carlos’ fate. Hence, signifcantly impacting my life, as you know!

  • May 22, 2011

    Agreed (obviously). Part of what this scene does so well is show immediately what the rebels are working with and what the Empire has at it’s disposal. Total David and Goliath right off the bat.
    An interesting footnote to this scene is that the two models used in the shot were very nearly the same length. The rebel ship model started out as the Millennium Falcon but the Falcon was redesigned prior to shooting and the early design was instead used as the rebel blockade runner. Because of this, it was larger and more detailed since it was meant to be the hero ship. This must have made the compositing for this scene particularly difficult, because they couldn’t just put the two ships next to each other on a rig, or even shoot them from the same distance.
    The result is so perfectly proportioned and the model so well done that the Star Destroyer (which was only like 3-4 feet long) effective appears to be at least a mile long moving at 1000 miles an hour. I don’t think this had ever been so effectively presented on screen or even attempted at the level prior to this movie (although 2001 was good early first step).


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