Star Wars has brought us iconic characters and legendary stories, but its impact on film (and, more broadly, culture) is not limited to what is presented on the screen. In fact, Star Wars is responsible for a number of advancements and innovations that changed how filmmakers and film viewers approach cinema. Star Wars has inspired countless directors, film technicians, actors, and audience members. Additionally, though, it has affected larger trends in how studios and fan movements understand film – Star Wars literally redefined how a movie is supposed to be made, how a movie is supposed to be viewed, and how a movie is supposed to interact with the larger world.
While the advancements on this list are not solely due to George Lucas, they are in large part indebted to his inventive spirit, and represent his legacy as Star Wars‘ creator. It remains to be seen how Disney’s revitalization of the franchise will affect the future of movies, but the success of The Force Awakens seems enough to hint that Star Wars will continue to influence the movie industry in the years to come.
Here are 13 Ways Star Wars Redefined Movies.
13. The Blockbuster
Along with Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977) solidified the blockbuster – a movie that aims to be a visual spectacle that captivates and amazes audiences through a combination of fast-paced action and special effects. Both Jaws and Star Wars illustrated that investing in technical effects and emphasizing their importance in a film’s production could win over movie-going audiences, and even convince some audience members to see a film multiple times in theaters.
Additionally, the differing genres of the two films showed that blockbusters were not necessarily limited to a single narrative or style. While blockbuster films tend to have higher production costs, this investment is, if successful, rewarded with large financial gains.
12. Industrial Light & Magic
In 1975, George Lucas began exploring options for the technical effects for his upcoming science fiction film. His distributor, 20th Century Fox, did not have a functional in-house special effects team, and so Lucas created his own special effects team, the now famous Industrial Light & Magic, especially for Star Wars. Initially headed by John Dykstra, the team went on to create a variety of special effects that would win them an Academy Award. ILM also created the Dykstraflex camera, the first digitally motion-controlled camera which was used in Star Wars (1977) – the Dykstraflex’s panning around model starships created the feeling of movement.
Industrial Light & Magic has continued to produce and innovate visual and technical effects in films, including the Indiana Jones, Star Trek, Terminator, and Jurassic Park franchises. It has become a model for other special effects companies, most notably Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital, which worked on The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies as well as Avatar.
11. Sound Technology
Sound designer Ben Burtt revolutionized the industry by showing how dynamic and effective different sounds could be at creating characters and worlds. Rather than using electronic sounds like previous science fiction films, Burtt used foley artistry and “found” sounds to create the sounds of lightsabers (an old movie projector), TIE fighters (elephant noises), and Darth Vader’s breathing (a scuba mask). Burtt also created the beloved voices of R2-D2 and Chewbacca.
Burtt was awarded his first Academy Award in 1977 for his work on Star Wars. Because an award in Sound or Sound Editing was not given every year at the time, he was awarded a Special Achievement in Sound Effects Editing. His company, Skywalker Sound, has since won 18 Oscars and now has over 100 employees.
The Graphics Group of Lucasfilm, which was launched in 1979, focused on computer graphics and special effects for the Star Wars films. The team helped to create many of the digital special effects that appeared in The Return of the Jedi (1983).
Lucas’s divorce in 1983 ended the short-lived but fruitful relationship with the Graphics Group; he sold the group to Steve Jobs for $10 million, and Pixar was born. Pixar’s innovations in computer graphics and animated storytelling were revolutionary in their own right, but not many people remember that their initial creation was in large part because of Star Wars.
9. The Trilogy
Star Wars changed how movie-makers approach feature length films. Modelling itself off of old serials, Star Wars was a trilogy, three movies that built off of each other in order to tell a single story featuring a reoccurring cast of characters. Some stories lend themselves better to sequels than others, but Star Wars was fully committed to the idea of an ongoing story from its inception. The first film in the middle of the action, and does not slow down to explain who the main characters are or what is going on. In contrast to other high-grossing films, Star Wars aimed to have a continued story that spanned multiple films.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was even criticized by some film critics at the time because it did not feel like a standalone story, and instead merely acted as a bridge between the first and third installments. Today, all sorts of film franchises build from the format that Star Wars popularized, and films within franchises are increasingly interdependent on one another.
George Lucas is a billionaire today, in large part because he negotiated with 20th Century Fox for the merchandising rights and production rights to any sequels of the original Star Wars. At the time, Fox was short on cash, and Lucas offered to take a pay cut as the director of Star Wars if he could have the rights to any Star Wars sequels and the merchandise that would be created. But turning down a few hundred thousand dollars initially earned Lucas billions in the long-run. Even during years when there were no plans for future Star Wars films, the franchise generated billions of dollars in merchandise.
While many other franchises now emulate the Star Wars model of merchandise, Star Wars has turned fan enthusiasm into monetary gains in an unprecedented way. Fans can not only buy toys of their beloved characters, but food, clothing, and house and office supplies. This has, in turn, increased Star Wars‘ influence on popular culture and its cultural reach – even people who have never seen a Star Wars film can recognize and name its iconic characters.
During promotion for The Force Awakens, the importance of merchandise was emphasized yet again – on #ForceFriday, when the new Star Wars merchandise was released, it is estimated that nearly a billion dollars were spent in a single day.
7. The Pastiche Film
George Lucas fully embraced the art of imitation, creating a film that pulled from a variety of cinematic and other sources. “Pastiche” refers to a film that imitates an earlier film in order to pay homage to the original film; it is usually placed in contrast with “parody”, wherein a film imitates an earlier film in order to create humor at the original film’s expense.
While pastiche art has a long and complex history that predates Star Wars, Lucas combined a variety of influences – including samurai films, western films, World War II films, and sci-fi serials – in order to create the unique blend that was Star Wars. Lucas’s influences affected every part of his production, from script to characters to cinematography. In its ideal, the pastiche film is able to take the familiar and make it new, which is one of the reasons why Star Wars appeals to so many audiences.
6. The Scope of the Story & the Expanded Universe
Star Wars was not simply a story – George Lucas created a universe where an infinite number of stories could take place. Other high-grossing films, like Gone with the Wind (1940) or even the science fiction 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), were contained and singular stories, whereas Star Wars was the beginning of innumerable stories.
But it isn’t simply that Star Wars could have many stories, it became many stories, both over the course of the films and later with the expanded universe in a variety of other medias. The original expanded universe was curated to a certain degree by George Lucas, who sanctioned certain projects within the official Star Wars universe.
Disney’s acquisition of Star Wars changed the rules of what was considered Star Wars canon, resetting the expanded universe. However, this did not diminish the significance of Star Wars Legends, and in many ways opened the door for more possibilities. Disney’s new plans for Star Wars extend to television shows, books, graphic novels, and more – in addition to their ambitious and comprehensive plan to continue to create Star Wars movies.
5. Fan Ownership and Fan Culture
The Star Wars story resonated with millions of fans around the world. From casual fans to fan organizations and conventions, fan activity was not limited to watching the films and buying the merchandise. The Star Wars franchise supported fan culture, from giving awards to fan-created films, promoting fan art and fan fiction, and even adding easter egg references to fan organizations like the 501st Legion.
In the documentary The People Vs. George Lucas (2010), Alexandre O. Phillipe explores the sometimes tenuous relationship between the Star Wars fandom and the Star Wars creator, especially after that relationship was exacerbated by the prequel trilogy. Similar questions of who owns Star Wars and who makes decisions that shape Star Wars have come up since Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm and the redefinition of Star Wars canon. However, both director J.J. Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy have said that The Force Awakens was created with Star Wars fans in mind, and the film’s popularity illustrates both the support of the core fan base and the growth of Star Wars‘ influence.
4. Science Fiction Revolution in the 1970s-1980s
One of the more immediate effects of the success of Star Wars was that it influenced which film projects were made in the years after its release in 1977. Many science fiction projects were greenlighted after the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which debuted later that year. Star Wars also influenced how the future was imagined in science fiction. In contrast to the earlier Metropolis (1927) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars created a vision of the worn and dirty science fiction universe, which influenced the aesthetics of many later films.
These films include Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and sequels, Blade Runner (1982), the Terminator (1984) franchise, and even the Star Trek movies (the first in 1979). Star Wars has also influenced later science fiction stories, including Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002).
3. The Rise of the Movieplex
Star Wars and the rise of the blockbuster helped to modernize movie theaters, both by creating the revenue that made these modernizations possible and by demanding that movie theaters have state-of-the-art equipment. Larger theaters were built to optimize on mass-markets of moviegoers.
George Lucas hired Tomlinson Holman to ensure high sound quality from the recording to the delivery to audiences in theaters, and Holman discovered that many movie theaters did not have up-to-date sound technology, and many had not updated their sound systems since WWII. Lucas and Holman created THX, a certification program for movie theaters (which later expanded to other audio systems). By following regulations followed by THX, cinemas were able to optimize the high-quality sound that were being recorded for movies.
2. The Reboot
The Phantom Menace (1999) and the subsequent films of the prequel trilogy have faced criticism from fans and reviewers for a variety of reasons, but they were successful in some ways. The prequel films were a fiscally successful reboot of the Star Wars franchise, and illustrated that reboots could harness pre-existing fan enthusiasm in order to make money through ticket sales and merchandise. The Star Wars prequel trilogy was a financial success, and influenced how studios approached successful but seemingly dormant franchises of the past. Following the Star Wars prequels, Indiana Jones, Star Trek, Superman, Batman, and even The Lord of the Rings (in the form of The Hobbit trilogy) were rebooted.
1. Digital Film
While creating the prequel trilogy, George Lucas wanted to continue to be on the cutting edge of technology and innovation. Because of this, Attack of the Clones (2002) was the first film shot completely digitally. Additionally, the number of digital effects was so great that Roger Ebert described the film as”the flip side of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988) in that it features some scarce live action characters in a completely animated world.
Many critics of the film felt that Lucas was merely using the film in order to further film innovation and technology – while the film was successful in the technical advances that it made and the special effects that it achieved, its characters, script, and story often felt like little more than afterthoughts.
Conclusion: Looking Forward
With the record-breaking box office success of The Force Awakens, the Star Wars franchise is alive and speeding ahead. Its difficult to know directly after a film what its larger impact will be, so only time will tell how history remembers The Force Awakens. However, its advertising campaign, its secrecy, and even its responsiveness to fans’ desires, are all noteworthy in their own way. And, with countless upcoming Star Wars films and stories – along a reinvigorated fandom – Star Wars seems ready to continue to redefine cinema, both for movie-makers and movie-goers.
What are some other ways that Star Wars has shaped and influenced the movie industry? How will The Force Awakens affect future movies and movie-goers? Let us know in the comments!
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