The Sets From the Original “Star Wars” Trilogy Were Actually Incredibly-Detailed Matte Paintings on Glass
by Matthew Gilligan
Have you ever heard of Industrial Light and Magic (called “ILM” for short)?
If not, you should, because it’s the company George Lucas founded in 1975 that made the Star Wars films possible.
Before computers were even a thing, the artists at ILM had to go above and beyond to convince audiences into believing that scenes in Star Wars were set on other planets. And they did it with oil paintings.
Names like Ralph McQuarrie, Frank Ordaz, Harrison Ellenshaw, Chris Evans (no, not Captain America) and Mike Pangrazio probably don’t mean much to you, but they were essential in bringing the planets and landscapes of the famed trilogy to life.
Matte paintings are basically fake sets. Artists (specifically the five previously mentioned) would paint on oversized panels like this one to create the details that cameras need to trick audiences when it was projected onto 40-foot screens.
And the level of detail was spectacular. (Chris Evans pictured below)
The finished results were even more impressive.
The fact that these paintings are not only so expertly and intricately detailed, but were also seamlessly integrated into the film in a way that none of us was even close to noticing is nothing short of mind-blowing.
The teams would then use plexiglass to create masks where the characters were supposed to be. Note the strangely shaped black blob in the photo below. That’s a mask.
The live action was then filmed, the two pieces were married together and viola! Movie magic!
This was used constantly throughout the first trilogy, and in places you probably never expected.
Once you see it, it’s hard to unsee.
Imperial loading docks were a very common place to see this kind of method because building a set that big would have been nuts.
Yep, you remember this.
And the Ewok village would have literally been impossible to construct.
Again, impossible to unsee now.
Cloud city, anyone?
These paintings fooled everybody for years. In fact, this method was still being used in films like Titanic in 1997.