SWCA 2022: 5 creative lessons behind the creation of Star Tours
It’s been 35 years since Captain Rex first attempted to fly a Starspeeder 3000 to the forest moon of Endor, and this week creatives from Lucasfilm and Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) gathered at star wars Celebration Anaheim 2022 to discuss the continued legacy of the beloved Disney Parks attraction, Star tours.
After an introduction by Mark Vargo, Head of D23: The Official Disney Fan Club, host Ashley Eckstein first greeted those involved with the original version of the attraction, including Imagineer and Disney Legend Effects Supervisor Tony Baxter Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) visuals. Dennis Muren and Imagineer Chris Runco. Later, Eckstein was joined by WDI Senior Multimedia Producer Meghan Short and ILM Visual Effects Supervisor Bill George, who both contributed new renditions of Star tours at Disney Parks around the world. Together, the panelists explored the distinct creative challenges and rewards of this ever-evolving theme park experience.
1. Timing is everything. Even before the release of Star Wars: A New Hope in 1977, Tony Baxter had the opportunity to meet Dennis Muren. Through a mutual friend, the Imagineer attended a small gathering where Muren and fellow ILM member Phil Tippett had collected alien costumes used for reshoots in the Mos Eisley canteen, along with figures in stop-motion for the holochess sequence. “That night, nobody knew I was looking at the raw material for what would be a revolution,” Baxter said.
Nearly a decade later, Baxter would help lead efforts to do something unusual at Disneyland: adapt a movie outside of the Disney canon for an attraction. The original park was rooted in Walt Disney movies, and by the 1980s Disneyland was looking for new cultural relevance. For Baxter, Disneyland “had to connect with the best popular culture of the time, and there was no doubt that George [Lucas] had nailed that, first with american graffiti and star wars came and IndianaJones shortly after. He noted poignantly that the films of Lucas or Steven Spielberg even reflected their own childhood influences from the work of Walt Disney.
2. Each new project brings a new challenge. Star tours was an unusual opportunity for the Imagineers as well as Dennis Muren and the visual effects team at ILM. “The idea of making a movie that’s a view out the window without any cuts gave you a lot of neat visuals,” he said. With their current knowledge of star wars aesthetic, the ILM team knew how to adapt its effects to the distinctive and uninterrupted format of the attraction.
Key to Muren’s approach was the need to use storytelling methods in films. As he explained, cuts in a movie have “pause and action to reset your mind.” With just over 20 seconds of film for each shot, they had to find ways to hide the cuts and maintain a transparent view out the window. “It would be necessary to pay quickly to make the screen blurry [in order] to make a cut between one piece of film and another,” he said, “or have a laser flash through the frame.
Another difference from ILM’s standard feature film workflow was the crew’s ability to work directly with WDI in designing the Starspeeder’s flight dynamics, “as long as we get the story points in there and nobody gets sick,” as Muren explained. Baxter added that George Lucas himself suggested the key moment when the Starspeeder turns in the wrong direction and heads into a restricted maintenance bay.
3. The materials used give authenticity. Before Star toursImagineer Chris Runco had collaborated with Tony Baxter on rides like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The chance to work on a star wars project was an exciting opportunity because, as Runco explained, “the whole [WDI] the model store team were fantastic star wars They were “awed” by what artists like Muren at ILM had accomplished.
During one of Lucas’ first visits to WDI, the filmmaker came up with the idea of including a pilot droid to add more dimension to the driving experience. Runco had seen the quick napkin sketch that Lucas himself had drawn of a “little stick figure robot in front of the screen”. After designing robots for Epcot in Florida, he was asked to develop the driver that would become the RX-24.
“We started small and worked,” Runco explained, from drawing to mockup to life-size animatronics. Follower of the “future second-hand” concept for star wars first designed by Lucas, he adapted used pieces from local flea markets to add detail and authenticity to the character’s appearance. This included the legendary “remove before flight” tape, something he had actually discovered in a pile of surplus aircraft parts. “I had no idea it was actually perfect for him!” Runco said. Additionally, he worked on the droids for the original queue, including adapting the closed attraction’s audio-animatronic geese. America sings and kit-bashing mouse droids with garden-scale model train sets.
4. Imagine how to present a familiar thing in a new way. ILM’s Bill George had first worked on star wars during the manufacture of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in 1982. At the time he began development of new updates for Star tours slated to debut in 2011, three additional films had been released. Together, the ILM and WDI teams aimed to create a revised attraction offering multiple destinations with random combinations. George recalled that Imagineer Tom Fitzgerald described the new format as “like a jukebox”, with new tracks being added all the time.
“We had the base script,” George explained of their approach to new locations like Tatooine or Kashyyyk, “but then we would say, ‘How are we going to show something that’s familiar to us and that we all love…but also at the same time show something different and unique?” That was the philosophy of how we approached it.
5. Advances in technology offer new capabilities. For the origin Star tours, Tony Baxter and his colleagues at WDI had envisioned a roller coaster attraction with switching lanes offering different experiences. The demand for space, however, was too high. When fellow Imagineer Randy Bright visited a military flight simulator developer in England, a new possibility presented itself. After their group tested the advanced technology, “it was clear…it would allow you to feel what Luke Skywalker felt,” as Baxter said.
This innovative move included the need to mount 70mm film projectors in the motion base system, which current Imaginary Meghan Short marveled at. “It always blows my mind that this could work,” she said. The switch to digital projection for the update Star tours the adventures “allowed us to have different movement experiences that we couldn’t really offer with the original”, including favorite moments like the podrace. This extended to the continued expansion of the Star tours route, with places like Crait or Batuu appearing in the attraction even before their corresponding film or land is open to the public.
Lucas O. Seastrom is a writer and historian at Lucasfilm. He grew up on a farm in California’s Central Valley and is a star wars and Indiana Jones fan.
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