The truly innovative aspect of the Star Wars trilogy, in purely filmic terms, was the quantum leap it represented in special visual effects, production design, and sound effects. While most of the techniques used in the trilogy, such as digital matte painting and blue screens (when the actors perform before an empty screen only to be edited into a painted or filmed background later on), stop-motion animation, and computer-generated images, had been used to a certain extent before, never had they been used so extensively throughout the picture. Practically every frame of a Star Wars film has some sort of effect added in, whether as part of the main action or merely in the background. Lucas also combined the latest high-tech effects with classic Hollywood techniques, such as elaborate creature costumes and even puppetry. Yoda, for example, is performed and voiced by the master puppeteer Frank Oz, who worked for years with Jim Henson’s Muppets.
A typical scene in the trilogy could feature a relatively normal-looking actor interacting with another actor in costume, with another being operated by an off-screen puppeteer, and with yet another who was added in later with a computer—while the scene itself takes place before a matte painting giving the illusion of an alien landscape. With the Star Wars films, special effects became a box office draw in and of themselves, as viewers were willing to pay just to see the amazing things Lucas’s team at Industrial Light and Magic (including such famous effects wizards as John Dykstra and sound designer Ben Burtt) were able to come up with.
This highly artificial approach to filmmaking has not been without its critics. From the beginning, there have been those who have condemned the films as little more than eye-candy or as coldly technological artifacts with a lot of spectacle but little in the way of true wonder. Lucas himself has been dismissive of such concerns and has often seemed eager to dispense with the formality of having actual human actors. As the technology has improved, Lucas has continued to tinker with the films, adding more creatures and more detail to the backgrounds and even reshooting certain scenes to get them closer to his ideal vision. With the new Star Wars trilogy, Lucas again is striving for a quantum leap in what can be done with special effects. Now, the digital revolution has allowed him to create entire landscapes and settings without relying on stage sets or location shots at all. Soon the concept of “special effects” will no longer apply, as every aspect of the films will be in some sense an “effect.” The irony is that one of the themes Lucas plays with in the original trilogy is of the dangers of surrounding oneself in a completely technological environment—even as he creates just such an environment in his recent work.