It's been 40 years since The Empire Strikes Back hit theaters and the secrets behind the magic are beginning to be revealed.
Star Wars was a phenomenon and there was tremendous pressure on the sequel. It had to be a hit. So, George Lucas called Industrial Light & Magic’s (ILM) general manager Tom Smith and said, “I don’t wanna tell you this. We need some more shots for Empire.”
Imagine the ideas that ran through his head at that moment...
See, Empire was already in the can. Some theaters already HAD it.
“No, no, no,” Lucas clarified, “it’s not in all the theaters.”
What was the problem?
Lucas “realized that the end of the film was unclear.”
After the daring escape from Cloud City, Princess Leia, Lando Calrissian, Luke Skywalker, and friends reunite with the rebel fleet. At that point, new handed Luke and Leia chill while Lando and Chewy set off aboard the Falcon to rescue Han Solo.
So what's the issue?
In the original released version of Empire (in the 70mm format at about 100 theaters), Lucas was confused by the geography of the actual scene, and that hurt the logic of the ending.
Who used what spaceship to escape. and later, who was on what ship when they were leaving?
The 70mm movie was already playing in some theaters, but it was going to expand by tenfold over the next 3 weeks, as 35mm versions would go wide on June 18th.
That left them a window to shoot whatever Lucas wanted. If they were insane.
ILM effects cameraman Ken Ralston said he was in shock when he heard the news that they would be adding footage. Ralston was asked to meet artist Joe Johnston and George Lucas at Lucasfilm’s corporate offices in Universal City to help design the new shots.
They would then decide which would then film the shots at ILM’s then-headquarters in San Rafael by the San Francisco Bay.
The first shot they did was adding more ships to the fleet, to give us an idea on the breadth of who was in the rebel forces. It gives us more of an idea that people could be on different ships.
Next, there's a newly added shot of the Falcon docking. Proof once again that the characters are separating and how they could leave one another behind. It really helped Lucas with the geography issue he'd been having.
He now felt the audience would understand perfectly what's going on.
The final added shot was a pan from the docked Falcon to the medical bay. It was a definitive statement on where people were and what was left to come. By adding some of these establishing shots, Lucas solidified the spine of his film and grounded the space opera in reality.
Adding the shots
Lucas and his ILM cohort added these shots in record time and got them spliced into the 35mm prints. At the time, this addition was not made public. It was just a little bit of extra clarification for audience members and was so subtle that it might be imperceptible upon multiple viewings.
More crucial than that, they cool off the craziness we've just faced in the film. Luke found out Vader is his dad, Han is in carbonite, and the whole gang has changed in huge ways. This gives the audience time to catch their breath and just decompress as anticipation builds for the next movie in the saga.
The film received critical success and incredible box office numbers that made Lucas's decision worthwhile.
Star Wars is the most influential piece of original filmmaking to ever grace the planet Earth. So how did George Lucas come up with the idea and why was a studio crazy enough to make it? We dig deep.