Why Star Wars Is Industrial

Ask yourself: Would the Force be so pervasive without plastic injection molding?
IM_Star_Wars_Industrial

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much that’s industrial about Star Wars. The story takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away and we rarely see anyone — or anything — producing anything or worrying about how to move goods through the supply chain (other than perhaps Han Solo’s smuggling efforts). Sure, droids perform assorted repairs, Jawas harvest discarded machinery, and there are presumably a lot of suppliers and technicians involved in making the Death Star “fully operational.” But we don’t see much of that.

On the contrary, the image of the world that comes alive in the Star Wars movies is more pre-industrial than industrial. A sort of Western in space, the first trilogy starts in a vaguely frontier agricultural settlement on Tatooine and ends with a celebration hosted by hunter-gatherer Ewoks who live in a lush redwood forest.

Tropes and story aside, though, Star Wars is eminently industrial. To find out why, we just have to examine the techniques used to make the movies and build the brand. To start, let’s take a look at the special effects studio George Lucas established in 1975 in order to make the first crop of Star Wars movies — none other than Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).

Industrial Light & Magic

At first glance, the name “Industrial Light & Magic” suggests a strong tie between Star Wars and the industrial sector. But the name was originally intended as a ruse meant to misdirect attention from his fledgling special-effects team’s revolutionary filmmaking work.

Setting up shop in a warehouse in Van Nuys, California — a manufacturing center dominated by a General Motors automobile factory at the time — Lucas named the special-effects company “Industrial Light and Magic” to “disguise the warehouse’s function and suggest it was simply in the business of wholesaling electronic components rather than making movies,” according to Wookiepedia, the Star Wars wiki.

This attempt at misdirection would seem to indicate that Star Wars is anything but industrial, but there was, in fact, a truth hidden in the attempt at deception. As “Inside the Magic Factory,” the title of the June 2015 WIRED cover story celebrating the fortieth anniversary of ILM, makes clear, ILM and Lucas seemed to know at the outset what would become apparent as the decades went by: they were in the business of mass producing wonder.

In an odd way, then, ILM was a pioneer in expanding the notion of what a factory is and what it is capable of. They found amazing new uses for model making, robots, and computer-generated imagery — all technologies that are at the heart of today’s manufacturing.

Making the Star Wars Universe

Star Wars’s debt to the industrial world extends well beyond analogy; it’s also deeply material. As has often been noted, Star Wars created a new type of science-fiction filmmaking — one that felt like it was real, material, present. You’ll see this assertion crop up again and again in discussions of the important role practical effects (using physical models and sets instead of computer-generated imagery [CGI]) have played in all of the films, including the prequel trilogy, despite its reputation for bring over-reliant on CGI.

Many go further, though, to assert that a big part of achieving this strongly felt sense of a real alternate reality comes from the way the films’ model makers have pursued world building. Referred to as a form of “industrial collage” by Gary Tompkins, senior art director on Star Wars: The Force Awakens in Lev Grossman’s TIME magazine cover story on the franchise, the process involves “scaveng[ing] interesting-looking spare parts from model kits and junkyards to make the ships and vehicles.”

By using found, manufactured parts — “be it parts from an airplane breaker’s yard or from a plastics-molding company or a dismantled photocopier,” per Tompkins — the incredible machines of the Star Wars universe establish what Star Wars model maker Fon Davis calls, “a subconscious link between the real world and the fantastical one on the screen.”

As an integral part of the Star Wars aesthetic, these parts acquired a special importance early on in the franchise’s history. Called “greebles” or “greeblies” (or sometimes “nurnies”), they are arranged by designers and model makers in patterns that suggest functionality. “It’s not a random collection of pieces,” says Davis, “you’re actually trying to connect hoses to boxes to fans to vents to things that look like they’re serving a purpose.”

Star Wars’s copious droids, ships, vehicles, and weapons are therefore attempts to engineer a new world by reengineering actual mechanical equipment. Often, the parts used will have been involved in manufacturing before being transformed into a Star Wars object. Inevitably, almost all of them were manufactured.

Building the Star Wars Brand

When we talk about Star Wars, we usually talk about the movies and the world onto which they give us a window. But we probably experience Star Wars most of the time through its unavoidable merchandise, which totals something like $20 billion worth of branded commodities. Star Wars books, games, and toys are everywhere in our world.

While this seems obvious almost forty years after the release of the first film, it wasn’t so back in the 1970s, when banking on the sale of licensed goods derived from a film property was anything but a sure bet. Star Wars proved that merchandising around films could generate substantial revenues. Without it, we wouldn’t have Harry Potter sticker books, Frozen dollhouses, Minions board games, or the myriad other novelty items that dominate toy store shelves today.

But how did Star Wars make this revolutionary move? The answer is: plastic injection molding. Without the iconic Kenner action figures tied to the first trilogy, Star Wars’s merchandising program would have been a lot less impressive (per Wikipedia, over 300 million original Kenner action figures were sold between 1978 and 1985). In a way, a manufacturing technique is responsible for ingraining Star Wars in our everyday lives.

The ongoing importance of these first toys is signaled by the passion of the active collector community that re-sells and trades them. Some of the most valuable Star Wars action-figure collectibles are the urethane prototypes cast from the original wax molds, as well as pre-production prototypes used for stress testing. These rare items motivated Nicolai Klimaszewski, who worked as a toy sculptor on the original action-figure line, to document “Star Wars Toy Production at Kenner” on his website. The post is — and reads like — a typical production overview for a manufacturing process.

The Star Wars Industrial Future

On the threshold of its new trilogy, there’s no reason to doubt that Star Wars will continue to be industrial.

In the first place, Industrial Light & Magic isn’t going anywhere and continues to mass-produce wonder, expanding its reach into more and more films, including popular franchises such as Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesTransformers, and many of the upcoming Marvel Universe films.

Meanwhile, J.J. Abrams, the new steward of the Star Wars films under Disney, has committed to using practical effects . Look for plenty of greebles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as well as the next two installments.

Lastly, it goes without saying, but there will never be a deficit of Star Wars merchandise, almost all of which will require manufacturing of one form or another.

In short, Star Wars‘s industrial credibility will remain intact.

Leave a comment and tell us how you think Star Wars is industrial. And may the Force be with you!

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Jake Gerli


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