When Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was in production, photo-realistic computer-generated imagery (CGI) didn’t exist. Instead, the team at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) used the same animation techniques it had pioneered in the early 1970s by filming miniature models up close.
The detail on the models, and how they interact with light on set, is part of why the movie still looks so good today. But it’s easy to romanticize this kind of hands-on, real-world filmmaking when today’s blockbusters are filled with CGI of varying quality.
In a recent presentation on the special effects of Star Wars hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, ILM’s Dennis Muren demonstrated that CGI has come a lot further than fans might be willing to give it credit for.
In the clips he showed during the presentation, Muren and the artists performed an ambitious test. ILM added new CGI duplicates of classic ships and vehicles to some of the most iconic moments of Empire, scenes that Muren himself originally worked on back in the late 1970s.
The results are impressive. The CGI Imperial Star Destroyer looks almost identical to the model, and it’s difficult to tell which Millennium Falcon is which. On Hoth, the new AT-AT moves with the same stilted, mechanical heft as its real-world counterpart.
During the talk, Muren explained that these clips were originally created to prove to Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson that he didn’t need to use miniatures for his film, and that CGI could capture the same feeling as the miniatures in Empire Strikes Back.
After seeing Muren’s CGI work next to the model work he had done for the movie originally, Johnson agreed that miniatures wouldn’t be necessary for many shots in The Last Jedi.
Muren himself has been an important figure in the world of visual effects. He was first hired at ILM back in 1976 and has worked at the effects studio ever since. Muren currently serves as the studio’s creative director and senior visual effects supervisor. He’s won nine Oscars, including one for the effects in Empire.
While Muren’s demonstration of CGI vs models was certainly a highlight of the event, he wasn’t the only one to speak during the Academy’s Star Wars presentation. Other speakers included John Dykstra, another pivotal effects pioneer for the original Star Wars movies, John Knoll, ILM’s Chief Creative Officer, Marcia Lucas, Oscar winning editing of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, and Ben Burtt, who has worked on the sound design of Star Wars movies since the original trilogy all the way up through The Force Awakens, and several others.