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Adstoppi Blog | The Star Wars sequels finally putting the "light" back in lightsabers

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The Star Wars saga is full of iconic imagery, characters, weapons, and spaceships, but perhaps none more so than the lightsaber. They're powerful weapons and tools, and we're told time and again throughout the films how important they are — each weapon marks the personal style of its Jedi wielder — and how critical it is that each warrior never lose theirs.

But it wasn't until the modern sequel Star Wars movies that the lightsaber really came into its own on film. And that has to do with a subtle change that finally gave the weapons their namesake quality by actually casting light.

There's a subtle wrongness that permeates the sabers in both the original trilogy and the prequel Star Wars films that makes them always feel a step removed from the actual events on-screen, thanks to that isolated aspect. But to understand how the sequel trilogy — The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker — got lightsabers so right, we first need to take a trip down memory lane to look at cinematic lightsaber tech of ages past.

For the first film (Star Wars, or later, Star Wars: A New Hope), the lightsabers were largely a real-world effect. As detailed in a 2004 featurette titled "The Birth of the Lightsaber," the early sabers consisted of a rotating pole that had reflective tape applied to it, creating the "glowing" effect. Then, using rotoscoping technology, the overlays for the saber colors were added to the film, creating the first lightsaber effect. But as actor Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) explains in the featurette, if the blades were held at the wrong angle, the lights wouldn't reflect properly, leaving a far less dramatic-looking prop sword. Creator George Lucas would go on to improve the effect with proper CGI blades in future remasters of the film, but limitations of this technique are still apparently in older cuts, particularly in Luke's training scene on the Millennium Falcon and Obi-Wan and Darth Vader's duel on the Death Star.

The problem came around with The Empire Strikes Back, which featured far more advanced lightsaber fighting than the stately duel between Obi-Wan and Vader in A New Hope. As Lucas describes, the spinning reflective tape method couldn't hold up to the rigors of lightsaber combat. In that film (along with Return of the Jedi), the lightsabers were done with a mix of the reflective technology but, increasingly, with plain prop swords that lacked the reflective material.

But thanks to advances in special effects, post-production techniques were used to add the entirety of the lightsaber effect, with the prop blades serving to help accurately choreograph the fights on set. They also provided a reference for where the special effect teams needed to place the animated blades. As Lucas relates, sometimes the prop blades that were used were often much shorter than the final effect-created ones to avoid hitting the set; other times, there was no blade at all (especially for shots that would see the lightsabers igniting or shutting off).

Those techniques from Empire and Return of the Jedi would be refined in the CGI-powered frenzy that took over the prequel films. The faster, more kinetic swordplay meant that the battles were largely shot with actual prop swords, with computer-generated blades added in post to convert the brightly colored plastic into the iconic beams of light. But the largely computer-generated nature of the prequels hindered the ability to do accurate saber lighting, given that nearly all of the major lightsaber battles in the prequels took place on green screen sets. It's much harder to have realistic lighting effects when the only real things being captured on camera are the two actors.

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