Star Wars' SFX Take on Mars (1977)

From technology editor Alexis Madrigal:

News of possible liquid salt water on Mars this week has inspired renewed speculation about the Red Planet. 

The creator of Star Wars' special effects at Industrial Light and Magic created this educational film about our solar system in 1977. It's an amazing work of modeling, mattes, and moving camerawork. Below, he describes the making of the film. 

"I made that film in 1976 with Richard Basehard as narrator and a classical music score recorded in the Soviet Union... this was the film that turned my career toward visual effects. We shot it in a large rented space in the back of a West Los Angeles dress factory. We hung large black curtains to keep out light out from the factory but we could still hear the sewing machine whirring away behind the curtain. They were making bathrobes at the time, out of luffy material.

It took months of preparation before we could shoot our first frame of film. We laid down a forty foot stretch of track of parallel plumbing pipes and put down a camera support whose movements were on a geared guide so every increment of movement could be controlled with the turn of a wheel. Nearly all of the shots involved a moving camera. It was like animation with three dimensional model planets instead of cell images. We found the best material for the planets was hard wood. So we hired a Hollywood cabinet shop to make nine spheres for us, about 18 inches in diameter. These were sanded and painted to match images in astronomy books and observatory photos. Shooting one frame at a time meant we never got more than a few seconds of film shot in a day. One long shot involved the camera moving in on Mars. The first long day’s work was ruined. As the camera came in on the red planet, a large piece of fuzz came into frame, sitting on the planet. It had drifted down on the sphere from the dress factory." -- Tomas G. Smith, via the Internet Archive

The rest of the film can be seen at the Internet Archive

Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.

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