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The Art Of The Space Battle

Many people consider RETURN OF THE JEDI to be the weakest of the three present Star Wars films, but there is one thing that many fans seem to agree on about it: ROTJ had one of the best space battles in film history. What about it makes it stand out from the rest? And what lessons can the makers of the prequels (and other films) learn from it? That's what this editorial is about.

First off, and most importantly, you always knew what was going on during the battle. Despite all the chaos, dozens of ships, and other events, it was always perfectly clear (even to a child) what was happening. That was one of the problems I had with INDEPENDENCE DAY. Several times during the dogfights I'd say, "OK, you lost me. What's happening besides total chaos?" The ROTJ battle had several distinct events leading to the conclusion: the arrival, "It's a trap!", chaos ensuing, Death Star II picking off ships, regrouping against the Star Destroyers, shield goes down, fly into the Death Star, blow the sucker to bits. Simple. I imagine the INDEPENDENCE DAY script said something like "the fighters fly into a mass of alien ships and all get blown up". I had much the same reaction to the dogfight at the beginning of LOST IN SPACE. There were absolutely incredible effects, but the camera was so shaky and every scene was jam packed with effects, I became disoriented. Even motion sick! :) I lost track of what was happening.

Second, every shot had a purpose in ROTJ. Every scene in the dogfight took you from point A to point B in the battle. INDEPENDENCE DAY had what I call "money shots". By that I mean they show off how much money they spent in special effects or their capabilities. Many of the shots just showed hundreds of ships buzzing around blasting each other, not much else. Just because you can create hundreds of ships flying at once doesn't mean that's the way to go. Sure, ROTJ had huge effects shots, but they were more coherent, you could tell what was happening, and they moved the battle along. They had a point.

Next, bigger isn't always better. As I mentioned above, just because you can create a million ships doesn't mean you should. ROTJ had huge shots, but for every one of the big scenes there were scenes focusing on one or two ships. Remember the A-Wing hitting the Star Destroyer? The TIE fighter crashing into the ship's bay? Those were as effective as the shots with the Falcon flying through a swarm of TIE fighters.

Finally, good effects are really important. I had the pleasure of meeting Anthony Daniels in Dallas a few weeks ago. During our conversation, he said that a bad special effect is a lot like a scratch on a record. You could be going along totally wrapped up in the music you are listening to, then all of the sudden the record would hit a scratch and totally knock you out of the moment. A bad effect in a movie is the same. The effects in ROTJ are fifteen years old, yet they still hold up to today's standards. I can point to another good movie, THE LAST STARFIGHTER. It has some pretty good space battles, but the effects don't hold up to today's standards. In that situation, the models were superior to computer graphics. I believe that takes away from being totally wrapped up in the space battle.

Well,those are my thoughts. Hopefully the creators of the battles in the prequels are following the Flanneled One's game plan and sticking by his old rules. They still work. But then again, they don't have much choice since he's the boss. :) Scott Chitwood

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