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Star Wars Stop Motions Still Hold Up Today

Updated on October 14, 2019
Mamerto profile image

Mamerto Adan is an engineer by profession, but a writer by night. He loves toys and knives, and has a martial arts background.

When I first saw it, I never had any idea how the original Star Wars came up with their visual effects. Years ago, stuffs like internet, where people could geek out simply doesn’t exist. Now, how thankful am I for the rise of Youtube, blog sites or and Fandom Wikis. We could know everything we want about our favorite movies. A simple Google search is all it takes.

Why am I saying this because there are many unforgettable visual treats in the original Star Wars trilogy that stood the test of time. They don’t look so outdated; in fact, they could go side by side with modern CGI. And as some fans pointed out, they look better that the CGI cartoons that recent Star Wars movies boasted. Again, going back to the old school visual effects of the original trilogy, I always itched to know what they are made up of. And when I finally got access to Google, I search and search to my heart’s content.

And boy, I was happy with what I dug out.

The original Star Wars series pioneered the early use of CGI, but much was relied on good old miniatures and practical effects. In fact, that assault of the Ice Planet of Hoth was dominated by marching Imperial AT-AT Walkers brought to life by stop motions. Frankly it was my personal favorite, because when compared side-by-side with its CGI counterpart in recent films, it holds up well. Some younger fans thought that those were also CGI too, until Google tells them it’s not.

Firstly, Modern CGI is Not Always Bad

The puppet Yoda (left) and the CGI Yoda (right) in Phantom Menace.
The puppet Yoda (left) and the CGI Yoda (right) in Phantom Menace.

I just came to notice how some fans seem to disdain CGI. Not sure if it’s always like this, but in the office, the older fans are the purist. They think that modern CGI basically ruined the Star Wars franchise. In my case, I don’t see anything wrong with the use of CGI, given that it is used sparingly. For one thing, CGI helps to introduce the Star Wars franchise to the younger generations of fans. For another, the use of CGI allows film makers to pull off shots that is not possible with stop motions, or any other practical effects. Though at some point, CGI did spoil the franchise, it won’t be fair to say that it never made any improvement either.

A good example is in the Episode 1: Phantom Menace.

Originally, Master Yoda was a puppet back then. But in the Blu-ray release, the puppet was edited out and replaced with a CGI version.

And the fans loved it!

When visiting Reddit, some fans noted that the Yoda puppet in Episode 1 looks worse than in earlier films. Honestly, I thought that Yoda looks cartoonish. And to the fans’ delights, the CGI Yoda looks more vibrant, expressive and sharper. As if Yoda now resembles a living creature and not a Jim Henson character. CGI also allowed Yoda to execute complex movements and facial expressions.

Some Stop Motions are Not Convincing Either

CGI is a leap forward indeed, as practical effects and stop motions are limited and far more laborious. I will be frank with you; I hate stop motions. There are few exceptions though, like the fighting skeletons of Jason and the Argonauts. I mean that visual effects from the 1960s made my mouth hang. And looking at more recent films, like the cartoonish Scorpion King from the second The Mummy movie, that old stop motion effects are far more convincing.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons why stop motions was pushed aside by CGI. Again, it is time consuming to do. You need a well detailed model and a frame by frame shot of each move to complete a scene. The movement tend to be robotic and jerky in stop motions, unlike what CGI produces.

Unlike CGI though, texturing in stop motion is more realistic, as we are looking at real life model here.

Stop motions are limited to children’s programs nowadays. But when done right, as in a scene in Star Wars, it could give a whole new level of realism to seemingly fantastic settings.

The Battle of Hoth

Setting up the action for the Battle of Hoth.
Setting up the action for the Battle of Hoth.

The Battle of Hoth is my personal favorite. It feels so real, considering that they don’t use CGI. Much of my friends thought that the marching Imperial AT-AT Walkers are CGI. It looks like one, and it feels like one. It took them some forms of convincing and Google search to show them that they are not computer generated.

The models used for the stop motion here are 18 inches tall, though the special effects team also worked with much smaller models. The moving models must be photographed 24 times, in 24 different positions to produce a single action. Precise positioning of the models was crucial here. Meaning that in between frames, the models must move in tiny and precise increments. The models themselves are made of aluminum.

According to ILM Paul Hutson (chief model maker for The Empire Strikes Back), animators would pop up in trapdoors to position the models for each shot. The background was never a green screen but painted.

And the result was beyond amazing.

The lighting and the settings all worked together for a convincing battle scene. The robotic movements of stop motion also worked well for the Walkers. They are machines after all, and they will move like one.

It Aged Well

And the Walkers march!
And the Walkers march!

It never gets old. The Battle of Hoth still looks visually appealing as it was decades ago. Some CGI in recent films seems to look outdated just after some years. The original Power Ranger movie blew my mind as a child, with its many computer-generated actions. But now, the Megazord scene looks horrendous. Stuntmen in boxy costumes, as what the Japanese originals did looks much better. In the case of Star Wars, some fans recon that those practical effects are far more real. Maybe it is the hate of The Last Jedi that made fans loath CGI. Or simply, fans are too hard to please. CGI and practical effects had their places, but we could all agree that the visual appeal of the original Star Wars trilogy is timeless.

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