Monday, May 19, 2014

Musings on the Lightsaber

I've spent a long, long time compiling knowledge about lightsabers—both in-universe lore and behind-the-scenes information about the lightsaber props themselves. I figured I'd share.

Behind the Scenes

1. Lightsaber props were made from random junk.
The original lightsaber (Luke/Anakin's in Star Wars) was an old press camera flash handle (a Graflex 3-Cell) with strips of black rubber T-track glued onto its sides to make "grips." Darth Vader's saber was made from a different flash handle (a Heiland MPP), but otherwise followed the same process. Ben Kenobi's saber was made from a shower faucet, a gear, a sink knob, a clamp from a flash handle, and the shell of a World War II British grenade. It wasn't until Luke's second lightsaber showed up in Return of the Jedi that a handcrafted, custom-machined lightsaber prop was first used.

2. Saber props used to actually "glow."
The original "lit" lightsaber props actually had a rotating pole with reflective tape on the blade, so that when a light was shone through the camera lens, the light would bounce back, thus creating a shimmering effect. VFX technology had advanced by the time of The Empire Strikes Back, so this idea was completely thrown out in favor of simply painting over the film footage in post-production.


1. Lightsabers aren't actually made of light
This "fact" is possibly not canon any longer due to the recent continuity changes, but it's been pretty well-established in the Expanded Universe thus far that lightsaber blades aren't "lasers;" they're tightly-wound loops of coiled plasma (the stuff stars are made out of) held in place by a magnetic field. So really, they're plasma chainsaws.

2. Lightsaber blades are opaque
Saber blades apparently block energy, like force fields and blaster bolts. So it makes sense that they'd also block light. This is a screencap from The Clone Wars season 1, "Defenders of Peace:"

Apparently whatever light is shining on Ahsoka is actually brighter than her lightsaber. As someone once put it, "it's like shining a flashlight on a glow stick." It'll still cast a shadow.

3. Lightsabers aren't that bright
For some bizarre reason, lightsabers rarely cast light on other objects near them. Now, in the OT era, this makes sense, as special effects technology wouldn't necessarily allow for that. Or perhaps the science of saber blades is, in fact, much more complicated than we might think, and they really don't cast light on other objects somehow. But then we have scenes like this one from Attack of the Clones:

Clearly, lightsabers actually do illuminate their environment, just to a minor degree. So perhaps they're just not very bright? Maybe the white core of a saber is just an optical illusion of sorts, not actually something bright enough to be white. But The Phantom Menace seems to contradict that.

Here we can see a close-up of Obi-Wan's blade, and (in a brilliant VFX move) it seems that the saber blade is behaving exactly as a white-bright light source does when a camera focuses close to it. In order to counteract the brightness of the blade, the overall exposure is turned down, causing the normally-white blade to appear solid blue. This is proof, of sorts, that lightsaber blades are, in fact, colored blades so bright that they appear white at the center. And they are REALLY bright...

Luke holds his saber up against the sky on Tatooine and it still appears white at the core. So if that's a real representation of the light level of a blade, that means it's brighter than the sky itself, possibly as bright as the sun. And yet it still doesn't actually cast light on other objects.

So yeah. The light levels of a saber blade don't make any sense. The only potential way to justify it is to say that the "camera" is picking up the lightsaber blade the same way cameras often pick up real-world replica lightsabers. Here's an old picture of me holding my Master Replicas Luke FX saber:

Spoilers: it's not actually that bright. At best, it's a solid light blue, but never white like that. The camera overadjusts for the low light and makes it look brighter. Of course, that wouldn't explain why lightsabers in the blinding twin-sun light of Tatooine look white, but oh well.

It seems like for the time being, this is one in-universe mystery that will go unsolved.

4. Sabers move funny

It's a common misconception among geeks that since lightsaber blades are "made of energy," they're weightless, thus when you swing a lightsaber, you're essentially only swinging the handle. That's only partially true, and a lot more complicated.

While plasma is essentially weightless, this doesn't mean that wielding a lightsaber is the same as holding the hilt. George Lucas himself was insistent during the filming of the original Star Wars that lightsabers were supposed to be incredibly heavy due to the incredible amount of energy coursing through them. However, as the OT films progressed and fights became faster, this idea was somewhat dropped. The "official" EU explanation for sabers having weight has been that the magnetic field created by a saber blade causes it to drag through space, essentially simulating mass where there is none.

Now, to be technical, there is a difference between "having mass" and "being heavy." Lightsaber blades do seem to have the inertial effect of mass, as Jedi seem to have to "work with" their blades as any swordsman would. Additionally, lightsabers do have some force of impact on things they hit. Battle droids not only are sliced in half by lightsaber blades, but also buckle under the force of the hit. When Yoda throws his lightsaber at a clone trooper in Revenge of the Sith, the saber "sticks" in the trooper's torso, like a thrown sword or knife.

However, saber wielders don't seem to react to their blades being ignited whatsoever. There's no kickback from the ignition, no sudden weight seems to be applied, no-nothing. It just flicks on as if it were always there, although once it's on, the "simulated mass" inertial effect seems to apply. So the blade itself isn't necessarily "heavy;" it just behaves like a sword when it's swung.

Random interesting note: In the Clone Wars season 1 episode, "Hostage Crisis," Padmé holds Anakin's lightsaber hilt and notes that it's heavy. This might be a reference to the behind-the-scenes "weight" aspect, although realistically speaking, the hilt would actually need some weight in order to provide adequate balance for the "mass" of the blade. Otherwise it'd handle like a baseball bat.

Of course, the "real" reason lightsabers seem to have mass is because the actual props used by the actors do, in fact, have mass, and there's no way to film around that and have it look real. But then again, lightsabers are intended to behave like swords anyway. Lucas himself was insistent upon that fact. So in the end, lightsabers are a bizarre intersection of myth, wonky science fiction, and real sword physics.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Expanded Universe: A New Dawn

Last week, Lucasfilm posted a news article detailing their plans for the future of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. I've quoted it below, with the important bits bolded:

For over 35 years, the Expanded Universe has enriched the Star Wars experience for fans seeking to continue the adventure beyond what is seen on the screen. When he created Star Wars, George Lucas built a universe that sparked the imagination, and inspired others to create. He opened up that universe to be a creative space for other people to tell their own tales. This became the Expanded Universe, or EU, of comics, novels, videogames, and more. 
While Lucasfilm always strived to keep the stories created for the EU consistent with our film and television content as well as internally consistent, Lucas always made it clear that he was not beholden to the EU. He set the films he created as the canon. This includes the six Star Wars episodes, and the many hours of content he developed and produced in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. These stories are the immovable objects of Star Wars history, the characters and events to which all other tales must align. 
Now, with an exciting future filled with new cinematic installments of Star Wars, all aspects of Star Wars storytelling moving forward will be connected. Under Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy's direction, the company for the first time ever has formed a story group to oversee and coordinate all Star Wars creative development.
"We have an unprecedented slate of new Star Wars entertainment on the horizon," said Kennedy. "We're set to bring Star Wars back to the big screen, and continue the adventure through games, books, comics, and new formats that are just emerging. This future of interconnected storytelling will allow fans to explore this galaxy in deeper ways than ever before." 
In order to give maximum creative freedom to the filmmakers and also preserve an element of surprise and discovery for the audience, Star Wars Episodes VII-IX will not tell the same story told in the post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe. While the universe that readers knew is changing, it is not being discarded. Creators of new Star Wars entertainment have full access to the rich content of the Expanded Universe. For example, elements of the EU are included in Star Wars Rebels. The Inquisitor, the Imperial Security Bureau, and Sienar Fleet Systems are story elements in the new animated series, and all these ideas find their origins in roleplaying game material published in the 1980s. 
Demand for past tales of the Expanded Universe will keep them in print, presented under the new Legends banner. 
On the screen, the first new canon to appear will be Star Wars Rebels. In print, the first new books to come from this creative collaboration include novels from Del Rey Books. First to be announced, John Jackson Miller is writing a novel that precedes the events of Star Wars Rebels and offers insight into a key character's backstory, with input directly from executive producers Dave Filoni, Simon Kinberg, and Greg Weisman. 
And this is just the beginning of a creatively aligned program of Star Wars storytelling created by the collaboration of incredibly talented people united by their love of that galaxy far, far away....

To summarize:

-The Expanded Universe is effectively getting a refresh.

-The six live-action films and the 2008 Clone Wars TV series are now the only "past" stories considered to be absolute canon.

-Moving forward, ALL Star Wars stories, including films, TV series, novels, comics, video games, will ALL work together as one single canon.

-Future Star Wars stories can and will lift elements from past EU stories, bringing them forward into the new canon.

-Past EU stories will remain in print, now with the "Legends" banner to denote their separate-canon nature.

As someone who's read quite a few Star Wars novels, plenty of comics, and played nearly all the video games, I'm entirely cool with this. Yes, it definitively puts the "non-canon" label on the 35-year history of the EU, but that doesn't mean that the story "didn't happen"; it only means that future stories will be different. And that's fine. Honestly, I don't think I would want the Star Wars sequel films to be mere adaptations of old novels, or need to dodge and weave between hundreds of post-Return of the Jedi storylines in order to tell an original story.

One thing that's nice to see is how reverent Lucasfilm is being towards the EU even in spite of the new status of canon. They even put out a video that's essentially a montage of Lucasfilm employees gushing about the EU.

This "reset" or "reboot" of continuity is something that honestly needed to happen. George Lucas was never particularly willing to work with EU authors in the past, and as a result, the EU and film canon grew in different directions. Now that Post-ROTJ stories are being told in film, it's time to honestly re-evaluate what's best for the entire saga.

What I find most exciting about this announcement is the fact that from this point forward, every single Star Wars book is just as "real" as any Star Wars film. We can now read new Star Wars books and know for certain that what we're reading matters to the entire saga.

They've already announced the lineup of new novels coming out over the next couple of years:

The first book, A New Dawn, is a direct prequel to the upcoming TV series, Star Wars: Rebels. Heir to the Jedi is a Luke Skywalker story written in first-person and set between ANH and ESB. Lords of the Sith is a teamup story where the Emperor and Vader join forces. Tarkin is... about Tarkin, I guess.

I can't wait to read these new books. As a matter of fact, I completely plan on reading each and every Star Wars novel from now on. After all, if there's no gigantic backlog of books to go through (as there currently is with the past EU), why not start right now, at square one?

It's a very exciting time to be a Star Wars fan.