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Crafting the Illusion of a Wider World

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Most OT fans would probably agree that the way the OT was filmed and told, particularly ANH and ESB, successfully conveyed the illusion that the camera was merely a window into a much wider, vibrant world, and that all sorts of interesting things were happening just off screen. Watching ANH for the first time, I distinctly remember hearing about places we never see, like Anchorhead or Tosche Station, and instantly imagining what those places were like, easily buying into the illusion that things were happening in parallel with the main action off screen. The same with Echo Base on Hoth - even though we only saw a few corridors, a medical clinic and some control rooms, the film successfully conveyed the mental illusion that just off screen members of the Rebel Alliance were running around doing their jobs. Places like Echo Base or Mos Eisley registered to my brain as believably REAL places that I could buy existing in three dimensional space - places I could imagine visiting. Despite the fact that the OT shows us only a small handful of (mostly Earth-like) planets, somehow the illusion of this vast Galaxy of endless interesting locations was successfully conveyed.

I’ve always wondered what combination of story ingredients and film-making techniques enabled the OT to so successfully convey this illusion. (Granted, this is highly subjective; perhaps not everyone feels this way.) But it’s particularly fascinating to me to consider why exactly the Sequel Trilogy somehow failed to produce a similar experience - at least for me (again, highly subjective.)

One interesting comparison is Empire Strikes Back versus The Last Jedi. These two movies have a broadly similar plot outline: Rebel base attacked, Imperials chase Rebels through space, protagonist learns from a wise elder, we visit a cosmopolitan Cloud City/Canto Bight. Both movies have the same number of locations, and the locations are vaguely similar to a certain extent: ESB has Hoth, Dagobah, Bespin; TLJ has Crait, Akto, Canto Bight. The space chase in both movies involves an enormous Super Star Destroyer chasing the Rebels (although the ESB version is certainly more eventful). Visually speaking and plot-wise, these movies have many broad similarities.

And yet for reasons I can’t quite explain, ESB conveyed the illusion that we were observing a small window into a larger world. Yet TLJ somehow completely failed to convey that same illusion to me. I never felt like Crait, for example, was a tangible, physical location, where interesting things were happening just off screen. In fact, I never really felt like anything at all was happening offscreen in the entire Star Wars Galaxy. The whole movie felt somehow small and empty, as if the Universe consisted only of the locations and characters the camera was focusing on at any given time.

I can’t really explain why I experience these two movies so differently. Is it something to do with CGI? The lived-in, realistic sets for Echo Base certainly conveyed a sense of tangibility and physicality that was strangely missing from Crait, for example. But TLJ used lots of practical sets and physical locations (like Akto) as well. Others have suggested it has something to do with the fact that the Sequel Trilogy provides very few details about the state of the Galaxy. But in ESB we really don’t know much about the state of the Galaxy either beyond the broadest of strokes. We know a fleet of Star Destroyers is chasing the rebels, just as in TLJ. Maybe it’s simply the fact that I saw ESB as a child, or perhaps it’s some combination of directing and writing techniques.

Again, this is all highly subjective and perhaps many people feel that TLJ does successfully convey the illusion of a much wider, fascinating universe. The best explanation I have for my own feelings about this is that something about the grounded, straightforward (sometimes almost documentary-like) style of the OT produces this highly realistic aura. Whatever combination of elements enabled this triumph of world building, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the Sequels failed (at least for me) to successfully convey the same illusion of a larger world.

Any thoughts about this?

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Very interesting topic for discussion.

I think you pretty much nailed it. It’s the style that is different. Not only the Original Trilogy but the Prequels as well were all shot in a documentary film style told most often through the point of view of R2-D2. The Sequels forget this established grammar or chose not to use this rule. They followed their own filming grammar to convey the worlds we see and explore. It’s also about rhythm I find as so much of the Sequels is about getting from Point A to B in seconds. Things don’t stay at one part of the story long before we’re onto the next plot thread. Things don’t breathe or happen gradually but instead in a way that doesn’t give us time to establish or know the environments we’re in or the characters.

The Force Awakens in particular I find is very guilty of this. It takes Finn like two minutes to get to Rey. Even The Last Jedi has this problem to an extent as it took Finn and Rose a couple of minutes once they arrived at the casino to find the Master Codebreaker as they stopped looking and BB-8 finds him. On the opposite side of things it took Han time to find Luke. You felt the passage of time and the struggle to find him on Hoth. The same thing with Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and Jar Jar travelling to Theed. You could feel the wonder and sense of discovery with the characters. You don’t get that sense of knowing where you are with the Sequels. The Last Jedi I find gets it right sometimes but in a different style to that of the first six films. J.J.'s films are too rushed and more like any other genetic Hollywood action film. That’s not even close to the style of Star Wars.

It will feel different because it is different. The films aren’t shot in the same way anymore. They’re shot how the director of said project wants them shot. They’re not in the established style George set up and executed.

“Heroes come in all sizes, and you don’t have to be a giant hero. You can be a very small hero. It’s just as important to understand that accepting self-responsibility for the things you do, having good manners, caring about other people - these are heroic acts. Everybody has the choice of being a hero or not being a hero every day of their lives.” - George Lucas

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I agree with what you two have said. George Lucas’s work was organic, flowing from his mind with an overall logic and story animating what eventually appears on screen. It generally felt like things didn’t just conveniently happen. Locations didn’t feel like set pieces mimicking something we saw before in Star Wars. People used to complain about the 2nd Death Star - I don’t know if they do anymore - but that made perfect logical sense in the story and not as a mere callback or convenient plot device.

Relatedly, I think editing played a major role. For ANH especially, there was a messier work to start with that was carved into shape at the end. What was cut informed (or was even referenced in) other scenes which contributed to that bigger world feeling. I’m thinking particularly of Biggs and friends.

Part of my theory about the editing relates to the process employed in the prequels where Lucas was able to edit on the fly with digital tools. This informed subsequent shooting and at the end so much was baked in that it was harder to make edits to the story. Everything was connected and couldn’t be undone. Where cuts were made they could be oddly glaring, like Qui-Gon and Anakin running from Darth Maul. I agree with Stardust that TPM was nonetheless written with breathing room and we were with character on almost every parsec of their adventure. And it was still Lucas’s imagination at work for a coherent piece of work. I believe AOTC and ROTS suffered most for the changed production/editing process. The stuff that could be cut (mostly talking scenes) explained the motivations of the main characters.

A well-financed collaborative production of the biggest science fiction franchise, abiding by another grammar, as Stardust says, of modern filmmaking is a different beast.

The blue elephant in the room.

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I think the language/dialogue has a lot to do with it - particularly with Star Wars and Empire. Star Wars not only throws the audience into the middle of the adventure, it tosses around terms like ‘escape pods’ and ‘restraining bolts’ and ‘Bocce’…we’re hearing about the “binary language of Moisture Vaporators” like it’s completely normal/incidental. Tarkin speaks of the ‘Regional Governors’, Han owes money to someone called Jabba, power converters can be obtained at Tosche Station, and Dantooine is too remote to make an effective demonstration. The universe is full and alive. Only the Lightsaber seems to get an explanation - everything else is casually referenced as if everyone knows that losing the ‘lateral controls’ could be chancey during a dogfight.
I haven’t really thought about this in terms of the PT/ST though. Interesting…
Wonderful thread by the way!

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Shopping Maul said:

I think the language/dialogue has a lot to do with it - particularly with Star Wars and Empire. Star Wars not only throws the audience into the middle of the adventure, it tosses around terms like ‘escape pods’ and ‘restraining bolts’ and ‘Bocce’…we’re hearing about the “binary language of Moisture Vaporators” like it’s completely normal/incidental. Tarkin speaks of the ‘Regional Governors’, Han owes money to someone called Jabba, power converters can be obtained at Tosche Station, and Dantooine is too remote to make an effective demonstration. The universe is full and alive. Only the Lightsaber seems to get an explanation - everything else is casually referenced as if everyone knows that losing the ‘lateral controls’ could be chancey during a dogfight.
I haven’t really thought about this in terms of the PT/ST though. Interesting…
Wonderful thread by the way!

I think the Prequels have it just as well as the Originals. Just in a slightly different way.

The Phantom Menace - We hear about the Angels on Iego from Anakin, we know the gungans don’t entirely like the surface dwellers on Naboo at first but we don’t know why, we learn about a race between Anakin and Sebulba before the one we see where Anakin crashed, and really if watched in sequence order we know R2-D2 is a R2 unit, we know C-3PO is a protocol droid meant to help out, and Anakin is destined to fulfill the prophecy talked about in lore the Jedi follow.

Attack of the Clones - We learn Qui-Gon’s master was Dooku, we learn Dooku left the Jedi Order, we learn Jango was recruited on the moons of Bogden, we learn Palpatine is staying in term long after it has expired but Padme contrasts this by giving up her position as queen to serve as a senator as shown, we hear a story of Cliegg Lars and company going to look for Shimi, we learn about Jedi trials, and we have Anakin and Obi-Wan discuss falling into a nest of gundarks in their adventures together.

Revenge of the Sith - We hear about Anakin and Obi-Wan dealing with some kind of business on Cato Neimoidia, Yoda talks about having good relations with the wookiees, we learn about Darth Plagueis being able to potentially influence Midi-Chlorians to create life alluding to Anakin - which ended of being the Whills and Midi-Chlorians in reality, and we learn some character could cheat death.

There’s more of course but it’s been awhile since I’ve watched them.

George alluded to the subtle differences:

“I didn’t want to do the craziness or, as someone once described it, the ‘effervescent giddiness’, of the first film. I knew the story eventually had to go to a dark place, so I purposely darkened it down. I realised early on that the original trilogy was a plot driven, fable. The new trilogy is a history, a backstory, a personal dossier of all these characters.”

There’s a history and story that takes place alongside the confines of the stories we are shown on screen as there’s things going on that we only ever hear about or maybe see later in The Clone Wars series. However in sticking with just the films it adds a sense of realness and authenticity to the world building and characters. The Sequels have a couple of moments like this but not to the scale or scope of the first six films where there’s more going on and a real history to it. It really hurt things not having a time gap between the films. It really limited what could happen off screen and character motivations.

“Heroes come in all sizes, and you don’t have to be a giant hero. You can be a very small hero. It’s just as important to understand that accepting self-responsibility for the things you do, having good manners, caring about other people - these are heroic acts. Everybody has the choice of being a hero or not being a hero every day of their lives.” - George Lucas

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Stardust1138 said:

Shopping Maul said:

I think the language/dialogue has a lot to do with it - particularly with Star Wars and Empire. Star Wars not only throws the audience into the middle of the adventure, it tosses around terms like ‘escape pods’ and ‘restraining bolts’ and ‘Bocce’…we’re hearing about the “binary language of Moisture Vaporators” like it’s completely normal/incidental. Tarkin speaks of the ‘Regional Governors’, Han owes money to someone called Jabba, power converters can be obtained at Tosche Station, and Dantooine is too remote to make an effective demonstration. The universe is full and alive. Only the Lightsaber seems to get an explanation - everything else is casually referenced as if everyone knows that losing the ‘lateral controls’ could be chancey during a dogfight.
I haven’t really thought about this in terms of the PT/ST though. Interesting…
Wonderful thread by the way!

I think the Prequels have it just as well as the Originals. Just in a slightly different way.

The Phantom Menace - We hear about the Angels on Iego from Anakin, we know the gungans don’t entirely like the surface dwellers on Naboo at first but we don’t know why, we learn about a race between Anakin and Sebulba before the one we see where Anakin crashed, and really if watched in sequence order we know R2-D2 is a R2 unit, we know C-3PO is a protocol droid meant to help out, and Anakin is destined to fulfill the prophecy talked about in lore the Jedi follow.

Attack of the Clones - We learn Qui-Gon’s master was Dooku, we learn Dooku left the Jedi Order, we learn Jango was recruited on the moons of Bogden, we learn Palpatine is staying in term long after it has expired but Padme contrasts this by giving up her position as queen to serve as a senator as shown, we hear a story of Clegg Lars and company going to look for Shimi, we learn about Jedi trials, and we have Anakin and Obi-Wan discuss falling into a nest of gundarks in their adventures together.

Revenge of the Sith - We hear about Anakin and Obi-Wan dealing with some kind of business on Cato Neimoidia, Yoda talks about having good relations with the wookiees, we learn about Darth Plagueis being able to potentially influence Midi-Chlorians to create life alluding to Anakin - which ended of being the Whills and Midi-Chlorians in reality, and we learn some character could cheat death.

There’s more of course but it’s been awhile since I’ve watched them.

George alluded to the subtle differences:

“I didn’t want to do the craziness or, as someone once described it, the ‘effervescent giddiness’, of the first film. I knew the story eventually had to go to a dark place, so I purposely darkened it down. I realised early on that the original trilogy was a plot driven, fable. The new trilogy is a history, a backstory, a personal dossier of all these characters.”

There’s a history and story that takes place alongside the confines of the stories we are shown on screen as there’s things going on that we only ever hear about or maybe see later in The Clone Wars series. However in sticking with just the films it adds a sense of realness and authenticity to the world building and characters. The Sequels have a couple of moments like this but not to the scale or scope of the first six films where there’s more going on and a real history to it. It really hurt things not having a time gap between the films. It really limited what could happen off screen and character motivations.

I agree. I think that’s Lucas’ strength really - building lore and worlds and context. For me the only thing that really detracted from this was making everyone related via the Luke/Leia/Vader thing. It kind of shrank the universe when initially Luke had been just one thread in a vast setting rather than the thread.

I agree with Rocknroll about the empty planets of TFA. Jakku should have been a true junkyard planet rather than Tatooine II, and the whole ‘Starkiller hyperspace laser that can be seen from all points in the Galaxy’ thing made the entire SW universe seem small and illogical. And who gives a damn about Hosnian Prime anyway?

TROS felt like the SW of old to me though. The references to Poe’s dodgy past and Lando’s account of post-ROTJ adventures with Luke gave the SW universe that ‘peripheral stuff happening’ vibe of the earlier movies IMO.

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Stardust1138 said:

It really hurt things not having a time gap between the films. It really limited what could happen off screen and character motivations.

Yeah, agreed. It seems TLJ had to begin immediately after TFA, with no time gap, because TFA ended with a cliff-hanger that required an immediate follow-up in real-time. It would be tricky to write TLJ with a time-gap, because you really have to show what happened immediately after Rey arrived on Akto at the end of TFA.

Anyway, I recall the Sequel Trilogy did occasionally make references to offscreen places or entities. All the various gangs (Kanja club or something) that chase after Han at least imply a larger criminal underworld. But somehow it came off feeling somewhat shallow or empty, probably because, as you said, everything happens so fast.

Another issue that works against the Sequel Trilogy’s ability to convey a larger off-screen world is this constant use of “meta” humor or meta-storytelling, bordering on breaking the fourth wall. TLJ is especially guilty of this. Luke asks Rey what she thinks about the Force, and she says “isn’t it basically just lifting rocks?” I mean, sure it’s funny, but why would Rey ever say that? Did she watch Empire Strikes Back? The audience saw Luke lifting rocks in Empire Strikes Back, but why would Rey have that idea? There’s many other instances where this happens. Finn and Rey just happen to find the Millennium Falcon, which means a great deal to the audience, but means nothing to the characters. And Chewie finally gets a medal in Rise of Skywalker. All of these things are basically winking at the audience, saying “hey this is a Star Wars movie!”, which works against suspension of disbelief and fails to convey the illusion of a larger off-screen world.

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rocknroll41 said:

For me TFA is the only piece of the franchise that has this issue of the planets feeling “empty.” The nostalgia overload and pointless mysteries and lack of political context don’t help that movie either…

Adding to the above; rotj’s worldbuilding could’ve been a bit tighter too, now that I think about it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Budu1ux09Rs

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Yeah its lame it returns to Tatooine, and other than Endor their isn’t anything new. George always planned a bunch of different locales in the OT but because of the budget their was very few. We never got to see Alderaan, even Imperial Center aka Coruscant wasn’t added until the Special Edition.

What the OT did well was the used universe or worldizing. What Donner called Verisimilitude.

The prequels looked like a videogame. And the Disney movies are far too perfect looking and digital, even rogue one which comes the closest isn’t as gritty looking as it should have been.

The only places that seem kind of believable are Jakku and Ach-To in the sequels.

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The Sequel Trilogy is full of these same type of random nods to events and places though, off the top of my head I can think of the Trillia Massacre, the Battle of Chyron Belt, the Pits of Griq, etc. As well as all of the techno jargon such as ingnition line compressor, thermal oscillator, dedicated power breaker, complete redactive memory bypass, etc. On this aspect I think the ST is on point with the living universe vibe of the OT & PT.

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Burbin said:

The Sequel Trilogy is full of these same type of random nods to events and places though, off the top of my head I can think of the Trillia Massacre, the Battle of Chyron Belt, the Pits of Griq, etc. As well as all of the techno jargon such as ingnition line compressor, thermal oscillator, dedicated power breaker, complete redactive memory bypass, etc. On this aspect I think the ST is on point with the living universe vibe of the OT & PT.

Yes, the ST got the “jargon” part right but I was referring more to how the planets “feel.”

In ANH, Tattooine has Tuskens, Jawas, a dragon skeleton, a city, a moisture farm, mentions of Tosche Station, etc. In addition, Yavin IV has the ancient temple that the rebels occupy plus a bunch of other ancient temples in the background. Both planets feel “alive.”

Now compare that to TFA. Jakku has the junkyard and that one other village that gets attacked. Maz’s planet feels like it’s just her castle surrounded by an endless forest. Leia’s planet feels like it’s just her base surrounded by endless grass. Luke’s planet feels like it’s just his island surrounded by endless ocean (TLJ added a bit more “life” to it though). You get the idea.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Budu1ux09Rs

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You could say the same of Bespin, seems like just the one city surrounded by endless clouds. Same for Hoth & Endor, they’re all very basic. Yeah Tatooine is a bit more fleshed out, but likewise Jakku seems pretty alive, the masive wreckages tell the story of a battle long past, we get a day in the life of a scavenger that shows the regular routine on Niima Outpost (which looks pretty alive and busy), and there’s also talk of Sinking Fields, Kelvin Ridge & the Goazon Badlands.

The one thing Jakku doesn’t have much is wildlife, which I feel is intentional in making the planet feel desolate, but still we see that red-eyed “Kojima” alien, that pecking vulture creature (a literal “scavenger”), and the giant pig drinking the water, though that one seems more domestic.

Saying Jakku is only a junkyard and a village is like saying Tatooine in ANH is only a Moisture Farm and a Spaceport. And as you said Ahch-to is like the inverse of Jakku, teeming with all sorts of wildlife, including those cool skeletons that made Tatooine feel so alive.

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Burbin said:

You could say the same of Bespin, seems like just the one city surrounded by endless clouds. Same for Hoth & Endor, they’re all very basic. Yeah Tatooine is a bit more fleshed out, but likewise Jakku seems pretty alive, the masive wreckages tell the story of a battle long past, we get a day in the life of a scavenger that shows the regular routine on Niima Outpost (which looks pretty alive and busy), and there’s also talk of Sinking Fields, Kelvin Ridge & the Goazon Badlands.

The one thing Jakku doesn’t have much is wildlife, which I feel is intentional in making the planet feel desolate, but still we see that red-eyed “Kojima” alien, that pecking vulture creature (a literal “scavenger”), and the giant pig drinking the water, though that one seems more domestic.

Saying Jakku is only a junkyard and a village is like saying Tatooine in ANH is only a Moisture Farm and a Spaceport. And as you said Ahch-to is like the inverse of Jakku, teeming with all sorts of wildlife, including those cool skeletons that made Tatooine feel so alive.

Those are all good points actually! I appreciate the added perspective.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Budu1ux09Rs

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For me the only place that felt alive in this way was the original version of Tatooine, echoing posts above. The Dune Sea bones, the Jawas, Sandpeople, farmers, the space port. The movie spends a lot of time here and it’s all really interesting, while leaving a lot of unknown empty spaces in the desert. It’s one of my faves. But only the first time around tbh. I don’t care for the newer iterations that turn into a feudal world ran by space slugs and cartels.

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Interesting topic and I agree with the OP and other posters as well. Mostly it comes from writing and how all the trilogies have been written in different eras. In the 70s and 80s if you left your hometown without a map you really were lost, and the world was a big place just behind a corner. Now when you have Google Maps, GPS and you can track anyone around the world, this place has gotten a lot smaller. And it shows as the writers are living in this world, everything is a click away so that is how they also write, unintentionally.
The same could be said about many aspects regarding 70s vs. now. Many people for example had military background or at least grew up with people who did. It showed on screen, people respected each other, standed correctly and silent, made no extra remarks or stupid facial expressions, had formal announcements (Death Star, rebel hangar, in combat). Contrast to now when everyone acts like they’re on YouTube, as it’s written.

And in the time of greatest despair, there shall come a savior, and he shall be known as the Son of the Suns.

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LexX said:

Interesting topic and I agree with the OP and other posters as well. Mostly it comes from writing and how all the trilogies have been written in different eras. In the 70s and 80s if you left your hometown without a map you really were lost, and the world was a big place just behind a corner. Now when you have Google Maps, GPS and you can track anyone around the world, this place has gotten a lot smaller. And it shows as the writers are living in this world, everything is a click away so that is how they also write, unintentionally.

This is a really good point which I’ve never considered.

“Remember, the Force will be with you. Always.”

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LexX said:

Interesting topic and I agree with the OP and other posters as well. Mostly it comes from writing and how all the trilogies have been written in different eras. In the 70s and 80s if you left your hometown without a map you really were lost, and the world was a big place just behind a corner. Now when you have Google Maps, GPS and you can track anyone around the world, this place has gotten a lot smaller. And it shows as the writers are living in this world, everything is a click away so that is how they also write, unintentionally.
The same could be said about many aspects regarding 70s vs. now. Many people for example had military background or at least grew up with people who did. It showed on screen, people respected each other, standed correctly and silent, made no extra remarks or stupid facial expressions, had formal announcements (Death Star, rebel hangar, in combat). Contrast to now when everyone acts like they’re on YouTube, as it’s written.

+2.

Absolutely. The way new places and settings are shown in modern films doesn’t quite have that wonder, uncertainty, the unknown, maybe even a mystery quality, that many earlier pre-digital stories did.

The Secret History of Star Wars | Star Wars Visual Comparisons | George Lucas: Star Wars Creator, Unreliable Narrator & Time-Travelling Revisionist