This obscure Bay Area study shaped the ending of ‘Star Wars’

The “Star Wars” universe is full of memorable moments, but in franchise history, the final Death Star in “A New Hope” is just as important as the trench chase.

The recently released six-part Disney Plus streaming documentary “Light & Magic” goes deep into the history of George Lucas’ San Francisco-based special effects studio Industrial Light & Magic, which was founded in 1975. The end of the second episode explores the process behind the Death Star scene, in which the fate of the Rebel Alliance hangs over Luke Skywalker’s ability to accelerate his X-Wing through a narrow gap and detonate a thermal exhaust port. Which is only 2 meters wide.

In fact, the entire surface of the Death Star was a hand-built model measuring about 15 by 40 feet. Subtle craftsmanship contributed to the integrity, but the documentary reveals that the filmmaking techniques that made the scene feel so real are really outside the realm of special effects. It turns out that the entire sequence hinged on a model developed during an urban planning study at UC Berkeley in the early 1970s, which also happened to shape the future of San Francisco’s skyline.

George Lucas with a model for the Death Star.

Sunset Boulevard / Corbis via Getty Images

“The Berkeley Experiment”, as it is referred to in the documentary, was funded by the National Science Foundation and led by Donald Appleyard, an urban planning professor in the school’s Environmental Simulation Lab. Completed in 1972, the project involved the construction of a small-scale model of Marin County and a computer-controlled stop-motion 16 mm camera system. The goal was to achieve a sense of realism as a model car crossed the miniature cityscape, in the hope that the technology could guide civic decision-making regarding construction choices.

“They wanted to do a perception study,” “Light and Magic” director Lawrence Kasdan told SFGATE. “They wanted to know if they showed people the film, and one of the movies was completely artificial and short, did they successfully make it feel real? Was their physical reaction different from seeing the actual footage from the car?”

One of the primary people behind the model was John Dykstra, who oversaw the team behind the original “Star Wars” a few years later. Dykstra’s stint in Industrial Light & Magic was short, but he continued to work on dozens of blockbusters, from “Spider-Man 2” to “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” It turned out that the techniques he brought from his time at Berkeley were incredibly influential for the future of Lucas’ studio.

An archival photograph of the UC Berkeley Environmental Simulation Laboratory.

An archival photograph of the UC Berkeley Environmental Simulation Laboratory.

Courtesy of Imagine Documentary

“That’s the basis of what the ILM has done so far. They want to make you feel like you’re there,” Kasdan said. “John Dykstra wasn’t thinking about this when he was at Berkeley. He wasn’t thinking about how to solve this problem. But it became the ethos of industrial light and magic for 40 years.

Dykstra’s own description of the project sounds like a problem pulled from a photography textbook. The challenge was to simulate human vision at the time, so distant buildings would still be in focus. This requires an extremely high f-stop, which thus demands an incredible amount of light to achieve a uniform exposure. If the miniatures were in focus but the background was blurry, the viewer would intuitively be able to tell that something was wrong.

“It’s a dead giveaway that it’s a miniature,” Dykstra told SFGATE. “We were working on subliminal cues, which was an important part of it to get feedback from the audience. We wanted to make it as optically real as possible.”

An archival photograph of a model of Marin County at the UC Berkeley Environmental Simulation Laboratory.

An archival photograph of a model of Marin County at the UC Berkeley Environmental Simulation Laboratory.


Courtesy of Imagine Documentary

An archival photograph of a model of Marin County at the UC Berkeley Environmental Simulation Laboratory.

An archival photograph of a model of Marin County at the UC Berkeley Environmental Simulation Laboratory.


Courtesy of Imagine Documentary


Archival photographs of a model of Marin County at the UC Berkeley Environmental Simulation Laboratory. (Photos courtesy of Imagine Documentary)

At Berkeley Lab, Dykstra and the rest of the team used a camera on a crane that acted like an inverted periscope. Controlled by a mainframe computer, it moves a fraction of an inch at a time. The goal was to make the audience feel that the camera was traveling at 30 mph, with each inch representing 30 feet. The camera was programmed to move in six motion directions: along the X-axis, Y-axis and Z-axis, plus pitch, jar and roll. Those programming techniques also played a part in making the Death Star sequence a reality.

“The role is something that was really perfected in ‘Star Wars,'” said Professor Peter C. Bosselman, a Berkeley professor who served as the head of the simulation lab from 1976 to 2017. “Traveling on the roads was not so necessary. [Roll] This means tilting your head to one side as you would in an airplane if you are a pilot. ,

Industrial Light & Magic took these ideas and implemented them on a much larger scale, with one foot of the model representing 40 miles. Given that a spacecraft would theoretically be traveling at incredibly high speeds, motion blur would be needed to give the viewer a sense of velocity.

A blueprint of the UC Berkeley Environmental Simulation Laboratory.

A blueprint of the UC Berkeley Environmental Simulation Laboratory.

Courtesy of Imagine Documentary

An archival photograph of the UC Berkeley Environmental Simulation Laboratory.

An archival photograph of the UC Berkeley Environmental Simulation Laboratory.

Courtesy of Imagine Documentary

Once again, Dykstra thought about his time at Berkeley and how he recorded recordings of cars moving between buildings feeling faster than those on the highway. Luke Skywalker simply couldn’t fly above the space station, in order to have a true sense of motion for the Death Star scene. The solution to the problem was clicked after some members of the Industrial Light and Magic team went on a recreational motorcycle trip in the desert, driving through the dark alleys. Everything seemed more exciting being surrounded by a vast peripheral landscape.

“The reason for the trenches in the Death Star was that it was the only way we could get a sense of the motion,” Dykstra said.

ILM Model Shop employee Lorne Peterson took two months to build the Death Star’s surface due to the details required. Six hand-painted module molds were used for the surface, randomly arranged to create a sense of diversity and feel like a living cityscape. The mold contained thousands of small windows, each with glass beads lined with retroreflective tape that reflected light. Originally, the windows were twice the size, until Lucas’ ex-wife Marcia, the film’s editor, stepped in and asked them to be smaller.

Once the models were completed, filming of the epic conclusion of “A New Hope” took place in a parking lot. The team calculated that the camera would need to be moving at 20 mph to get a sense of realism, something the motorized rig could not accomplish.

still from iconic "trench run" The scene during the climax of "Star Wars: A New Hope."

A still from the iconic “Trench Run” scene during the climax of “Star Wars: A New Hope.”

20th century Fox

“The only way we can get cameras to high-enough speeds is with a motorized vehicle, Guerrilla Filmmaking. Put the camera in the back of the truck,” Dykstra said in the Disney Plus documentary.

The results are history, but the ripple effects of the Berkeley Experiment go far beyond “Episode IV.” A 1979 episode of the BBC’s “Tomorrow’s World” connects the dots, showing how further research at Berkeley helped guide San Francisco city planners. At the time, the technology was not sophisticated enough to produce 3D computer models, so a full-scale model of San Francisco was created.

One of the first uses of the model was lobbying for a 20-story limit on the height of new buildings by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. The proposal was in response to the possible construction of a 38-story Crocker National Bank Tower in the Financial District. The proposal failed, resulting in the construction of what is now a Montgomery Tower and paving the way for other divisive high-rises such as the Salesforce Tower.

So although that humble miniature city scene created at the Berkeley lab did manage to save the galaxy from the Galactic Empire, it wasn’t quite as successful in saving the San Francisco skyline.

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