It’s hard to believe that Star Wars is 40 years old. George Lucas’ myth-infused flight of science fantasy has empowered, imbued, and enriched four generations of moviegoers and counting. Whether you’re a casual viewer or a die hard fan, whether you checked out after the Original Trilogy or anticipate Disney pumping out pictures ad infinitum – heck, even if you’ve never seen a Star Wars movie: these films have profoundly shaped the world you’re living in. It should be no surprise that the series’ 40th Anniversary was a big bash.
Star Wars Celebration 2017, in Orlando, Florida, played host to the biggest names in a galaxy far, far away: George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, John Williams, Kathleen Kennedy, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Rian Johnson, and myriad other creative forces who’ve shaped the world as a part of the cultural zeitgeist of Star Wars. They looked back at the series’ humble beginnings, the recent tragic loss of Carrie Fisher, and the epic new space operas to come in movies, television, games, books, and other media.
Since Celebration’s inception in 1999, just prior to the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the show has materialized 12 times across the US, Japan, and Europe. It offers some of what you’d expect: an all-Star Wars dealers floor of classic and exclusive memorabilia, cosplayers and droids galore, autograph opportunities with actors major and minor. Since Disney acquired Lucasfilm, however, it’s become a hub for the latest and biggest announcements in the franchise. That transition to the Disney era of Star Wars marked a huge swell in the event. We were on site at the last US Celebration in 2015 and saw firsthand a Star Wars reborn. The Force Ghost of the Prequels had been exorcised, attendance had sky rocketed – this year even more so with a whopping 70,000 fans storming the Orange County Convention Center.
Though there was much to celebrate, and no shortage of cool experiences, the crowded event was a trench run, and required a Jedi’s resolve if you wanted to see the most coveted events and panels. These presentations are the heart of Star Wars Celebration: the behind-the-scenes looks, fascinating archival treats, and celebrity stage shows. In the dubious Star Wars tradition, overnight waiting was mandatory, and even then attendees still ran the risk of missing out – with fans needing to acquire wristbands to access each event, of which they were only allowed two a day. It was a convention meat processing plant on overdrive. Even the event’s store was a nightmare slog: three hours to get in to spend money at the event you already spent a ton of money to get into, then an hour waiting in the checkout line. No joke. Nothing was worth the hassle; especially not when all the biggest events were streamed, at least in part, online. What’s more, early looks into the production of the new films and announcements of future plans were few and far between this year. It’s enough to make the most die-hard fans reconsider spending their hard-earned credits to dock at this dubious spaceport.
Fortunately for us, we had press credentials. Otherwise, the coverage and insights we’re about to present you would have basically been impossible. And no, we don’t feel good about it. Nor do we have any good answers as to what can be done to circumvent the unfortunate effects of supply, demand, and ravenous fan culture intersecting. Fandoms are amazing, the Star Wars fandom especially so – and paying con-goers deserve more than to be under-serviced while their passion is milked to fill crowd shots. In spite of all this, the love of Star Wars, from both the spectacular fans and dedicated creators, ensured that the magic of Celebration still shone brightly underneath the carbon scoring.
A Star-Studded Shocker
This year’s opening ceremony was an unprecedented, once in a lifetime event. Billed as “40 Years of Star Wars” with “some of the saga’s brightest stars”, it was easy to assume that it would be a simple trip down memory lane with the already A-list talent that had been announced. No one, least of all the brave souls who camped out overnight, were prepared for what transpired.
As soon as George Lucas took the stage we knew all bets were off. Lucas’ conflicted feelings about his series direction under Disney were well known. What’s more, the past several years of Star Wars media had done much to cultivate the look and feel of the Original Trilogy and push the Prequel Era, which Lucas was the de facto symbol for, far behind. Had enough time passed for fans and creators alike to forgive and forget?
It would seem that the wound had healed. Now that there was the chance for new Star Wars stories without racist aliens and terrible dialogue, now that our Indiana Jones sequels could be (hypothetically) free from nuked fridges, we were ready to love Lucas for all his many triumphant successes in cinema. He was “the man whose collective genius brought us all together” and this was his panel. “George Lucas: This Is Your Life” … Or at least just the Star Wars bits. Lucas shared stories with Warwick Davis about the trials and tribulations of making a film with “mythological, psychological motifs” in the 1970s, and the dangers of signing your life away to a studio. He spent couch time with Dave Filoni, the Lucas protegee that he’d groomed as showrunner for The Clone Wars, who was now running Star Wars Rebels.
Hayden Christensen, Anakin Skywalker himself, was there too, appearing at Star Wars Celebration for the first time in 15 years. He was clearly nervous to be back, but was warmly welcomed with a standing ovation. Then it was on to the revered representatives of the Original Trilogy cast: Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Billy Dee Williams… and the jaw-dropping reveal of Harrison Ford. Ford famously avoids convention appearances, and when he does show up, usually has a stilted demeanor about him — but not this time. Lucas and Ford went at it, trading jokes and recounting the carpentry work for Francis Ford Coppola that landed him a date with Hollywood destiny. Ford even quoted Indiana Jones to take a jab at his recent airplane crash landings: “fly yes, land no!”
Everyone in the room knew we were witnessing something special. A once in a lifetime Star Wars gathering the likes of which won’t ever happen again. And then they upped the ante once more. We were shown a powerful, tear-jerking tribute to Carrie Fisher. After all, it wouldn’t be a Star Wars Celebration without a room of fans weeping together after being hit right in the feels. But if you weren’t bawling already, then came the killing blow: a curtain pulled back to reveal John Williams conducting the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra playing “Princess Leia’s Theme”. It was an unreal and melancholic moment of Star Wars bliss: a room full of pop culture icons and their biggest fans, mourning a beloved friend together.
Filling in the Blanks
Any unoccupied spot in Star Wars continuity is an opening for storytelling opportunities. Even better, when that story can fill in some much needed plot holes. That’s the case with Marvel’s forthcoming Captain Phasma miniseries. Written by Hawkeye author Kelly Thompson, the Phasma series aims to redeem the poorly handled, under-utilized Stormtrooper Commander. It shows her improbable escape from the Starkiller Base garbage chute and leads her on a no doubt vengeance-fueled path towards where we’ll find her in The Last Jedi.
Marvel’s new ongoing Darth Vader comic, written by Charles Soule (Lando, Poe Dameron, Strange Attractors), picks up from another low point in the Star Wars universe: Vader’s cheesy Frankenstein monster moment and his laughable, anguished “Noooooooooooo!” While that’s certainly a cringe-worthy launching point, in Soule’s capable hands, this series could prove to be another golden opportunity to mend what was broken. Soule describes it as a horror book that sees the Dark Lord go on a murder spree across the galaxy – picking off any remaining Jedi, building his red saber, and owning his new exoskeletal visage, lest he go mad.
Meanwhile, in an unexpected turn of events, Star Wars Battlefront II is offering up a fascinating look at one of the least-explored periods of the new timeline: the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. The first iteration of the game, which came out in 2015, was a story-less multiplayer experience, but the sequel will feature a single player campaign that begins with the explosion of the second Death Star and continues through the founding of the First Order. You play as Iden Versio hero of the Empire, Commander of the Special Forces team, Inferno Squad.
It’s an interesting spin. While taking on the role of a Space Nazi isn’t the most appealing prospect amidst the burgeoning fascism of our own world, it’s a side of the Star Wars universe we haven’t had a good look at. Fans eager to get a jump on that character’s arc prior to the start of the game can learn more about her in the forthcoming novel Inferno Squad. The novel, by Christie Golden, covers the founding of Iden’s elite team following the theft of the Death Star plans in Rogue One.
Rogue One Still Haunted By Its Past
The production of Rogue One is still shrouded in mystery. Many official explanations have been offered, but the rumors of an allegedly troubled production persist. The two behind-the-scenes panels devoted to the movie at Celebration don’t shed any further light on what transpired in the filming process, but did showcase a wealth of fascinating, previously unseen material that hints to divergent paths the film could have taken.
Doug Chiang, Lucasfilm’s Executive Creative Director and Co-Production Designer for Rogue One, hosted a one-man show highlighting the incredible artwork that fueled the film’s development. There were plenty of cool images to see, but the presentation’s biggest shocker was images of the Rebel Alliance’s Dantooine base.
You’ll recall that in A New Hope, Grand Moff Tarkin threatens to destroy Alderaan unless Leia tells him the location of the Rebel base. She tries to fool him by saying it was on Dantooine, and Tarkin orders Alderaan be destroyed regardless. Later on, the Imperials report that they found the remains of a Rebel base on Dantooine, but it had been abandoned for some time.
In an early version of Rogue One‘s script, when Jyn Erso wasn’t a mysterious criminal but a Rebellion Sergeant, the initial Rebel base would be on Dantooine. At some point during the narrative it was to be evacuated in favor of Yavin. In the Expanded Universe, Dantooine had been portrayed as an endless grassland. However, options for filming in a location like that weren’t readily available, especially in England where the bulk of shooting was done, so the team looked at similar options and discovered a location called Smoo Cave in Scotland. Photo references were taken, and the production design team created a number of composite images defining the look of the base.
The resulting images also created a concept that could be reused for future Rebel installations: That the Alliance would build their bases into the natural landscape – laser cutting tunnels if need be. The makeshift spaces would then use the same plug-and-play lighting fixtures, generators, etc. as the Rebellion did on Hoth. The mossy, wet caverns of Dantooine, with their laser-cut ridges and shafts of natural light would have made a great addition to the film, but building two separate bases proved to be too expensive. Fortunately for us, Lucasfilm never throws anything away, and it’s likely that if we ever do get to see Dantooine base, it may be based on these designs.
At a larger scale behind-the-scenes panel, Chiang was joined by Executive Producer and Visual Effects Supervisor John Knoll and Supervising Sound Editor Matthew Wood. Knoll revealed that he’d recreated a number of iconic A New Hope interiors in photo-realistic CGI for potential use in the film, such as the Death Star conference room and hangar bay. This led into a revealing, if not downright shocking look at what was real and what wasn’t in Rogue One. 40′ LED screens, bright enough to create lens flares, cast realistic light on the Death Star’s bridge and over actors strapped into flight simulators; while some scenes, including exterior shots in the Maldives, were complete composites.
They also demoed how extensively virtual spaces and virtual camera work were used. In another early incarnation, Saw Gererra’s base was inside a starfighter that had crashed in a deep jungle. It wasn’t just a series of illustrations, but a loose 3D render that Director Gareth Edwards could wander around in with a VR headset and pick shots. A similar tactic was used for the creation of space battle scenes so that the handheld camera work on the ground would match the all-CGI dogfights.
The making of process of Rogue One is filled with fascinating tales, and these are but a few. Perhaps later editions of the film will come with special features as comprehensive as these panels, and hopefully one day the full filmmaking story can be told.