Star Wars Then & Now: A 40+ Year History of the Franchise

“This is more of a walk down memory lane than a true history course.” With this modest disclaimer, Lucasfilm Creative Executive Matt Martin kicked off a look at the over 40-year history of Star Wars. The hotels of the Disneyland Resort hosted the event. Presented on Star Wars Day (May the Fourth Be With You), it was the first of what is hoped will be a series of guest enhancement experiences.

Images were shown on a screen during the presentation

Disneyland Ambassador Mikey Trujillo warmly greeted the crowd of Star Wars fans in the Sequoia Ballroom of the Grand Californian Hotel. He explained that Martin had begun his Star Wars “career” as a volunteer at fan conventions. In 2007 he was officially hired at Lucasfilm as part of Today he is a member of the Story Group.

Mikey Trujillo and Matt Martin

Martin took the stage, saying that there was no better time to be talking about Star Wars. Last year, 2017, was the 40th anniversary of the film that started it all, and in this 41st year a brand new film was set to debut. He then talked about himself and his work with the Story Group, a Lucasfilm division that manages storytelling across all the fields in which the Star Wars story is told.

The Story Group at Lucasfilm

Part of their charge is to maintain the integrity of characters and plotlines, something, he noted, that was not done with Marvel. In addition, Martin also works with the Lucasfilm Store, as well as on digital content. He noted that when they launched on Instagram, their first official post received “only” 72,000 likes.

The first official Star Wars Instagram image

Martin stated that he did not intend to offer a comprehensive history of the franchise, but rather his own perspective—a look at things he loved. The talk would cover the Star Wars phenomenon in six distinct eras: Before Star Wars (1973-1976); The Original Trilogy (1977-1983); The Dark Times (1984-19996); The Prequel Era (1997-2012); The Modern Era (2013-Now); and The Future.

Star Wars was the idea of one man, George Lucas. Before creating this film, he had made just two feature films, THX 1138 and American Graffiti. THX 1138 was a somewhat bleak science fiction film, based on one of Lucas’s own student projects. American Graffiti was a different kind of film, one that examined the intertwining lives of teenagers living in Southern California on the final night of summer in 1962. What united these two very different films was the personal vision of George Lucas.

Posters for THX 1138 and American Graffiti

For his next film, Lucas wanted to make another very personal film, but one that would address bigger themes. It was a return to science fiction, with a mash-up of myth, popular culture, and Lucas’s “need for speed.” Martin also noted that the influence of Akira Kurasawa should be given major consideration.

Ralph McQuarrie, an industrial designer for Boeing, was entrusted to create the look of Star Wars. He began by painting a series of evocative images that captured characters and settings suggested by the story. These images were to form the basis of the Star Wars universe for over 40 years.

The first image created by McQuarrie was the upper left painting of R2-D2 and C-3PO

To ensure that these images would make it onto the screen Lucas created his own special effects studio, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). He hired a young cast, with Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher as his leads. The third lead, Han Solo was more elusive. Harrison Ford was originally hired to feed lines to other actors for the audition process, but Lucas eventually decided he was the best person to play Solo. Shooting began in March, 1976 in Tunisia before moving to sound stages in England.

“Sound is 50% of the movie going experience,” Martin continued. Lucas hired composer John Williams, fresh off his work on Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws. His evocative themes would serve the entire film series, and will again be heard in the newest Star Wars release, Solo. Lucas also recognized that sound effects were just as important in maintaining an audience’s suspension of disbelief. Sound designer Ben Burtt is another member of the team who has remained with Star Wars through the last 40 years.

Ben Burtt creates the sound of blaster bolts by striking power cables with wrenches

Martin explained that Lucas also understood the power of fandom. Before the first Star Wars film appeared he took part in conventions. The first Star Wars poster was sold for one dollar at an early San Diego Comic Con.

Early fan conventions and the first Star Wars poster

While Lucas was out meeting fans directly, 20th Century Fox was marketing the film in a way that Martin described as “a little bit weird.” It was apparent that they didn’t quite know what they were promoting, and fell back on tag lines like, “The story of a boy, a girl, and a universe.” Martin then showed a restored version of the first Star Wars trailer.

The original trilogy opened with Star Wars in 1977. It was shown in 40 theaters, first in 70mm, then in 35mm. Audience members could have prepared themselves for the experience with either the novelization or the limited run comic book series, both of which appeared just before the film opened.

The audience reaction was somewhat unexpected for the studio. Fans lined up outside theaters and filled theaters where it was shown. It became an event in its own right. Press coverage noted the popularity of the film and the passion of its fans.

Star Wars fans outside the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood

The first Christmas following the opening of the film found retailers unprepared for the demand for Star Wars-themed gifts. Kenner actually sold a handsomely decorated box, containing a display stand and certificate that guaranteed delivery of the toys within 3-5 months. A board game was rushed into production, essentially because it was based on an existing item in the inventory. Lucas’s favorite item was a mug based on Chewbacca.

After the success of Star Wars, a sequel was inevitable. Before the appearance of Empire Strikes Back, however, one important character, Boba Fett, was seen in a parade in Marin County,

Martin quickly scrolled through a series of images of Wookies at home as he explained that Boba had made one other appearance ahead of the sequel. The audience, in on the joke, realized he was skipping as quickly as possible through the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, a TV production that has since been disavowed by Lucas. The rapid display of images ended with a still shot from the animated portion of the show, with a closeup look at Boba Fett in cartoon form.

Animated Boba Fett from the Star Wars Holiday Special

In a final animated note from 1979, Martin mentioned the appearance of a short film, The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. The experimental film was produced by a spin-off from ILM named Pixar, directed by a former Disney animator, John Lasseter.

The Adventures of Andre and Wally B

That same year, filming began on Empire Strikes Back in Norway, this time in -20 degree weather. The schedule had been delayed after a fire on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining held up the arrival of some key personnel. The film itself debuted on May 21, 1980.

Production stills from The Empire Strikes Back

Following the second film, it would be three years before anxious Star Wars fans would learn whether or not Darth Vader really was Luke Skywalker’s father. During that time, Lucas produced the first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. And in the interim, Star Wars penetrated virtually every facet of popular culture, with characters and references turning up in such diverse places as Sesame Street, Saturday Night Live, The Muppet Show, and the Donny and Marie Osmond variety show.

Star Wars swept the nation

Production began on what was assumed to be the final Star Wars movie in January, 1992. The first day was shot in a sandstorm, although the scene ended up being cut from the film. The rest of the shoot went smoother, and the last film, originally announced as Revenge of the Jedi, was released on May 25, 1983 as Return of the Jedi.

“And then things got a little quiet,” said Martin. The next 12 years are referred to as “The Dark Times” by fans. For many (including our host), this was when they first discovered the world of Star Wars, despite the fact that no feature films were on the horizon. There were two TV films starring the Ewoks– Caravan of Courage in 1984 and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor in 1985. Each did receive a limited theatrical run after their appearance on American television. This was followed up by two animated series in 1985, Ewoks and Droids: The Adventures of R2-D2 and C-3PO. You could even see Ewoks on Ice in a touring arena show.

During this period of time Lucas was also busy with feature films, including two more Indiana Jones adventures, Willow, and the comic-book-to-film version of Howard the Duck in 1986. The same year he collaborated with Disney, Francis Ford Coppola, and the King of Pop Music Michael Jackson to bring Captain EO to Disneyland. The following year he returned to Disney theme parks with Star Tours.

These images promoted Star Tours and Captain EO

LucasFilm entered the burgeoning field of home video games, developing the SCUMM Engine for Maniac Mansion. Martin noted that another title, Monkey Island, had obvious influences on the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise. Star Wars games also appeared, kicking off a series with X-Wing in 1993.

First titles from LucasFilm Games

Star Wars: X-Wing kicked off a popular series of video games

Another way the franchise was kept active during The Dark Times was through literature. The Expanded Universe (now Legends) included original novels and comic books. In 1995 action figures returned to toy shelves. In 1996 the first Star Wars websites appeared. At this time Star Wars also touted their first “trans-media” property, Shadows of the Empire, a story that was told across a variety of platforms.

It is possible to assemble a whole Star Wars library