'Star Wars' at Thirty: Five Lessons for the Micros

Thirty years ago today Star Wars was released upon an unsuspecting public. The story of the farm boy in space that unseats an Empire changed Hollywood, and created a cultural phenomenon. Oh yeah, and it made some kid named George Lucas very rich (due to his merchandising rights), and one very powerful player. It was the death of the quest for The Great American Film, and the birth of the instant Great American Hit. Jaws may have been the first blockbuster, buy how many kids in the current generation are familiar with the phrase “You’re going to need a bigger boat”?

So what can we learn from this trend-setting film, and how do we apply it to our low budget flicks? I realize we’re talking about an effects-laden space epic, but just because something is big doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. All of us have been influenced by big Hollywood movies (I’d venture to guess it’s those that have set us on the road to filmmaking--not indies), and boiling a big film like this down to it’s component parts can help us with our projects, budget notwithstanding.

Here are five things that helped Star Wars work, that we can implement as well:

A Small Cast of Core Characters
The basic cast of Star Wars is really only five people (Luke, Ben, Han, Leia, Vader). These people make all the decisions that drive the story, and impact the sub-characters (Threepio, R2-D2, Chewbacca, Tarkin). Keep your cast small (no matter how big the plot), and your audience will remained focused. The Star Wars prequels made a big mistake by expanding the cast, which diluted interest. Writing and casting five characters in your movie is very doable, even with few resources.

A Simple Story
Steven Spielberg one said that he likes ideas he can hold in the palm of his hand. The synopsis of your film (or logline) should be one sentence long. Star Wars, while a sweeping space opera, fulfills this requirement as well. “A young farmer on a distant planet becomes involved in an galaxy-wide rebellion, thwarting an evil empire by destroying their ultimate weapon.” I’m sure this could be written better, but you get the idea: keep things simple and straightforward. Lately, I’ve been learning this lesson the hard way.

The Wow Factor
Star Wars revolutionized the special effects industry with the advent of “motion-controlled” cameras. These were basically computer controlled robotics with cameras attached, allowing identical multiple passes. In this way you could create composites using a moving camera, opposed to just static composites. CGI technology has replaced motion control, but it was new then and allowed a lot of cool stuff. I’m not saying that you need to invent some kind of movie tech, but do something people haven’t seen much of, and your stock will go way up. This is especially true if it actually supports the story, and isn’t just visual junk food.

Great Sound Design
Ben Burtt was the sound effects guy on Star Wars and he went out an recorded lots and lots of original effects required by the script. No one really knew what a blaster sounded like, and he had to create them by tapping on the high tension wires that supported telephone poles with a metal object. Tweaking in post created what we associate today with that “laser-gun” sound. Your movie will benefit greatly as well, with care taken in the sound department. Even if it’s just ambient noise in a restaurant, sound is oh, so critical. Find a good sound guy (and a good post production mixer), and you’ll be amazed at the depth of believable atmosphere they give you.

An Awesome Score
Equally important is music. Lucas’ original idea for the score of Star Wars was to use a synthesizer, but he made a wise choice with a classical-type sound that made it timeless. Can you even think of that movie without the famous theme going through your head? Even if you don’t have access to John Williams, there are lots of composers out there that will give you an original score that will elevate your film to the next level. I was very fortunate in one that I found, and you can be too. Just don’t think of a composer as a luxury, but a necessity. The difference they make is huge.

Of course I could also make a list of the five things Star Wars teaches us to avoid (hammy acting, cornball dialogue, a slow first half, an uninvolved director, and "special edition" tampering), but it's not nice to pick on someone when it's their birthday...