It’s well known that George Lucas‘ “Star Wars” trilogy was groundbreaking for film and pop culture in general back in the 1970s and 1980s. The crews used miniatures, puppets, and clever camera tricks to bring these stories to life. There was one tool that these movies used that often goes unappreciated, however: matte paintings.
The “Star Wars” films were made well before the advent of computers, but the stories demanded huge, futuristic landscapes that seem impossible without modern visual effects programs. To get around this, the crews employed an old trick from the early days of Hollywood: using incredibly detailed, very large paintings to serve as backgrounds and set design.
Led by Ralph McQuarrie, the “Star Wars” art teams would paint on glass to create sand crawlers in the vast Tatooine deserts, giant armies of stormtroopers on the Death Star, and even entire cityscapes. This video shows how these glass panes would then be positioned precisely in front of the camera. This creates an effect called forced perspective, where a flat object appears to have depth and distance from the camera due to its size and shape.
This ingenious technique was integral to bringing the “Star Wars” films alive, and is still in use today. While films rarely still use physical paintings, digital matte painting is still an integral part of many visual effect pipelines. This technique is a great way to incorporate visuals that enhance these movies but are either impractical or impossible to recreate in real life. Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the best ones.