Storyboarding the Star Wars universe

The original Star Wars trilogy is known for its iconic imagery, much of which began of course as hand-drawn storyboards. Lucasfilm executive editor J.W. Rinzler has now curated collections of original boards from A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi for a new book called Star Wars Storyboards: The Original Trilogy, a follow-up to a collection of the prequel trilogy storyboards. Some of the artists represented include Joe Johnston (who also contributed the foreword), Ralph McQuarrie, Alex Tavoularis, Ivor Beddoes and Roy Canon. We talked to Rinzler about how the book came together.

Rinzler: Ninety-eight per cent of the boards are in the Lucasfilm archives. But doing the research, one collector contacted me – he had some and then Joe Johnston had a few. Alex Tavoularis had half a dozen or so. Paul Huston, who’s now a senior matte artist at ILM, happened to mention it to (ILM concept artist) John Bell who also still works at ILM, and he came up with these joke panels that we sprinkled in the front of the book and the back.
Rinzler: The difficult part is that they would start storyboarding say the attack on the Death Star and then they would storyboard it again, and they’d take some from the previous version and add others and re-order it and change things around and do it again and again. So people would end up with a photocopy that made sense of the 250 boards for the sequence. The photocopy is in order but to find the original that corresponds to that order would just take forever. So we’d end up having to mix and match from different versions of the sequences. And we were also trying to do the ‘best of’, so the part that was hard was figuring out which ones can we show? We really couldn’t show all of them because there’s thousands!

Rinzler: Well, you go through them – there’s just piles and piles and piles of them in the archives, so you select the ones that look the most interesting and the ones that are in a complete sequence. Or interesting shots that were omitted. Like in Jedi we found one shot of Luke’s severed hand on the sail barge crawling towards his light saber. And that never got in there – it was just that one storyboard.

So they scan them all – they have many more than you can use. I organise them digitally and put them into folders according to scene. And then sometimes you have to impose an order. Then you whittle it down, give it all to a designer and once the designer lays it out, the book is too long, and you go back and forth on honing it down to what you hope is the best book it can be.

Paul Huston, who has been here since 1975, is literally just downstairs at ILM still – so he went through a lot of the earliest storyboards and helped me ID a lot of them.

xg: Having now seen storyboards made for the prequel trilogy and those from the original trilogy, would you say the style of storyboarding had changed much?

Rinzler: In some ways they’ve stayed completely the same – just define the story shot by shot – like sequential storytelling in a comic book. But when animatics came along there was then a question of whether you do storyboards at all. But storyboards are of course still done.

fxg: What were some of the surprises you found in the archives?

Rinzler: What was exciting was that Ralph McQuarrie had done a lot more storyboards than I thought. There were a few matte paintings for Empire that I mistakenly assumed were Joe’s and I showed them to Joe and he said, ‘You know what they’re not mine and I think they’re probably done by Ralph’. Which made sense because Ralph did a lot of matte paintings for Empire. So we found eight or nine of those that are in the book.

We were able to show some matte paintings by a woman who has never been credited before – Ronnie Sheperd. And there were also some for Jedi which we couldn’t find out who did but we found out through a tip that this guy named Brook Temple who was only there for six weeks, that these were his. So there’s been some fun detective work.

fxg: Any other unexpected finds?

Rinzler: There were some really funny storyboards Joe Johnston did of the attack by the X-wings on the Death Star where, you see, nobody knew Star Wars was going to be a big hit then. There’s this kind of irreverence to it where you have the ship exploding and R2 unit is cross-eyed as it’s blown to pieces and the helmet is flying out of the ship, and some of it is done in a Moebius style with sections of the ship disintegrating.

Paul Huston did one where you’re looking out of the cockpit but on the dashboard there’s a rotary phone dial. And there’s one I found that we included that Joe can’t remember why he did it – it’s a big picture of Darth Vader and he’s got ‘Snoopy’ written on his collar and it’s signed Charles Schulz. And Darth Vader is wearing some sort of WWI medal on his chest. I said to Joe, ‘What was going on there?’ And he said, ‘I just don’t know!’

Star Wars Storyboards: The Original Trilogy, published by Abrams, is available on Amazon from May 13th. All images copyright 2014 Lucasfilm Ltd. And TM. All Rights Reserved. Used Under Authorization.

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