Empire at 40 | The Stories Behind 5 Amazing Matte Paintings from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
On May 21, 1980,Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Backmade its theatrical debut. To celebrate the classic film’s landmark 40th anniversary, StarWars.com presents “Empire at 40,” a special series of interviews, editorial features, and listicles.
Seventy matte paintings were created for The Empire Strikes Back by three artists from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). Two of them, Ralph McQuarrie and Michael Pangrazio, were relatively new to the art form. The other, Harrison Ellenshaw, had practically been raised for the task as the son of Walt Disney’s chosen matte painter, Peter Ellenshaw.
Using acrylic and oil paints, some mattes were fragments to complete an existing shot, others were full windows into a galaxy, and quite appropriately, all of them were painted on framed, rectangular glass (a favorite ILM story recounts that shower doors purchased from hardware stores made the best canvas). It’s a precise art, to say the absolute least.
The matte department had its own studio on the second floor of ILM’s “Kerner Optical” facility in San Rafael, California (where even the slightest shakes in the building could affect a shot-in-progress). To create many of the effects, the paintings were combined with elements front-projected onto the clear or neutral areas of the painted glass. Neil Krepela and Michael Lawler were the matte photographers, assisted by Craig Barron and Robert Elswitt (the former just 18 years old). Here are the stories behind five of our favorite matte paintings.
1. Backdrop to a Battlefield
Complications with blue screen photography led the ILM artists to go with a classic technique for the Battle of Hoth, inspired in part by Willis O’Brien’s work on King Kong (1933). The stop motion AT-ATs and other animated models would be photographed directly in front of painted backgrounds. Michael Pangrazio, at 21 years old, was the chief artist for these paintings.
Michael Pangrazio at work on the backdrop for the Battle of Hoth.
Animators Doug Beswick (left), Jon Berg (center), and Phil Tippet (right) at work in front of Pangrazio’s backdrop.
Working from reference imagery of the Norwegian filming locations, Pangrazio’s work was more akin to traditional Hollywood backdrops than modern visual effects mattes (the largest was 35-feet-wide). Though physical backgrounds had become somewhat passé at the time, effects supervisor Dennis Muren explained to Cinefex magazine, “that’s just because they don’t have the right artist to do it.” Pangrazio also created foreground paintings which were physically shot on glass in front of the models to lend additional realism.
2. No Transports Are Away
Though an accomplished artist, Ralph McQuarrie had little experience painting mattes. The department needed additional help to meet its deadline, so he joined the marathon six-day work weeks, and helped mentor the young Pangrazio. McQuarrie was happy to create paintings that would be directly photographed and visible onscreen, unlike his conceptual art.
Ralph McQuarrie’s concept painting of the Echo Base interior may have inspired the final matte’s composition.
Ralph McQuarrie’s matte painting of the rebel transports at Echo Base, in front of which he and fellow crew members appeared.
Ralph McQuarrie paints a view of the exterior entrance to Echo Base.
This view of the Echo Base interior evokes the same composition as one of McQuarrie’s concept paintings, with increasing levels of depth. In the final matte, the X-wings and Millennium Falcon are replaced by the rebel transports, the only time they’re seen hangered within the icy stronghold. The live actors in the foreground (played by art director Joe Johnston, Harrison Ellenshaw, Michael Pangrazio, and effects editor Michael Kelly) discuss the plan to evacuate. McQuarrie himself is seen crossing from right to left, portfolio in hand, dressed as a rebel general. “It was kind of neat to have the guy who actually did the painting moving around in front of his own work,” effects supervisor Richard Edlund explained to Cinefex.
3. Welcome to the Swamp
Soon after completing Empire, effects supervisor Richard Edlund noted this establishing view of Dagobah by Harrison Ellenshaw as his favorite matte painting in the film. “[…] It’s all [a] painting except for a little foreground water with some fog,” Edlund told Cinefex. “All we added was the smoke coming out of the X-wing, and the birds which were animated.” It’s a moment when effects take center stage, courtesy of ILM and Sprocket Systems (later renamed Skywalker Sound). Dagobah is introduced as a world equally frightening and alluring.
Harrison Ellenshaw at work on the view of Luke’s crash landing.
Harrison Ellenshaw’s matte painting (horizontally reversed in the final film), seen with front-projected live-action elements.
Effects cameraman Ken Ralston animated a creature puppet made by Phil Tippet.
For Ellenshaw, this was one of the largest paintings he created for Empire, with half his time usually consumed with supervising the matte department. Small puppets were made by Phil Tippett for the bird creatures, then animated in stop-motion by Ken Ralston on the ILM night crew, whom Ellenshaw later described to former Lucasfilm executive editor J.W. Rinzler as “a crazy group.”
4. Hasty Departure
With increasingly tight deadlines, art director Joe Johnston stepped in to help Michael Pangrazio paint a low-orbit view of Dagobah. This served as the background for Luke Skywalker’s X-wing blasting off into space on its way to Cloud City.
In this candid view just to the right of the camera, the combined layers and background can be seen.
The camera’s direct view of Dagobah at low orbit.
The effect actually required two paintings: one of the greenish-brown planet, the other a thin layer of clouds on plexiglass. Perpendicular to the camera’s view, the clouds were placed inches above the planet, creating shadows across Dagobah’s surface. The photographed illusion was very convincing.
5. Stick the Landing
Decades before computer graphics effects allowed ILM to realize Coruscant, Cloud City was a difficult metropolis to visualize. An expansive model had been considered, but there was little time to build one. The bulk of the task fell to Ralph McQuarrie, who created a series of views of the city, including a painstakingly detailed wide shot of the Millennium Falcon on the landing platform.
Ralph McQuarrie paints the arrival, including a two-dimensional Millennium Falcon.
McQuarrie’s finished painting. The black area is where live-action was to be combined via front-projection.
Neil Krepela prepares to project live-action elements onto the painting and photograph them together.
Director Irvin Kershner noted it as one of the most complex shots in the entire film, with live-action footage shot at Elstree Studios across 64 feet of stage space, which was then combined with ILM’s matte painting. Each element of the massive shot was “all done inside a studio,” as Kershner explained to unit publicist Alan Arnold, from England to California. McQuarrie was flexing his muscles with the mesmerizing sunset scene. “What I loved so much about the exterior of Cloud City,” Harrison Ellenshaw would later say in a behind-the-scenes featurette, “was the subtlety of the sky [and] of the lighting. Elegance is what it’s all about. Very few people can pull that off, even today with CGI.”
By February 1980, the matte department began working 24-hour shifts just to complete their work on time. George Lucas stopped by almost daily to check in. The schedule inched closer and closer to the May 21 release, but at last, every painting had been finished and photographed. After Empire, Harrison Ellenshaw returned to Disney where his next effects project was a forward-thinking adventure, Tron. Michael Pangrazio rose to supervise matte painting on future ILM productions before continuing his career at other visual effects studios. And Ralph McQuarrie, well, he continued as an irreplaceable force in Star Wars visual design.
Watch Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and all of your favorite Star Wars movies and series on Disney+.
Lucas O. Seastrom is a writer and historian at Lucasfilm. He grew up on a farm in California’s Central Valley and is a lifelong Star Wars and Indiana Jones fan.
Site tags: #StarWarsBlog, #ESB40
TAGS:Empire at 40, ILM, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
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Welcome to the ‘how to draw Star Wars’ area of the site.
Star Wars has always played some part in my life.
Toys when I was younger, and movies that I continue to watch to this day…
Star Wars is just AWESOME.
And yes – it only makes sense…
If you love Star Wars – and you love to draw… then of course — draw Star Wars! That’s exactly what we’re going to do here.
The Star Wars universe is a vast one, with many different races, g2ships, planets, etc. So yes – there are literally tons of things we could tackle here in the form of drawing lessons.
For now, I’m going to keep this area a ‘character-oriented‘ place with lessons geared around more of the popular people, aliens and creatures. Ah… OK – and a lightsaber lesson too!
Something else to note, similar to the Superhero section here on the site, each character in Star Wars has something special about them that separates them from others.
When it comes to drawing, it’s important to be able to recognize and incorporate such features in the cartoons we create here.
This way, we’ll be able to come up with characters that look the way they’re ‘supposed to’.
Not necessarily perfect as they might look in the movies, but more of a homage to the particular character we’re drawing.
Well, I don’t know about you – but I’m just about ready to get to it.
Take a look at the drawing lessons below – select one – and… I know it’s both cheesy and expected… but yes – may the force be with you! 🙂
Beginner | Intermediate | Advanced
How to Draw an Ewok
Learn how to draw an ewok from Return of the Jedi – or more specifically… wicket, the most famous.
How to Draw a Wampa
Learn how to draw a Wampa – the creature on the planet Hoth that resembles a yeti.
How to Draw a jawa
Learn how to draw the rodent-like native Jawa – of the planet Tatooine.
How to Draw Jabba
Draw the infamous ‘slug-like’ Star Wars universe ganster… Jabba the Hutt!
How to Draw Yoda
Most powerful of all the Jedi, learn to draw Yoda, teacher to Count Dooku, Luke, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon.
How to Draw a Lightsaber
Draw the lightsaber that Luke Skywalker used to finally bring balance to the force, and peace in the galaxy.
Draw the Rancor
Remember the Rancor from Return of the Jedi? Here, let’s come up with a simple cartoonified version of this awesome character!
How to Draw Admiral Ackbar
It’s definitely *not* a trap. Here, learn how to draw Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi, and also from Mono Calamari.
How to Draw Chewbacca
In this drawing lesson, learn how to draw Han Solo’s "right-hand wookie" – Chewbacca.
How to Draw R2D2
Learn how to draw R2D2 from Star Wars. Make yours as simplified or as detailed as you like.
How to Draw Darth Vader
In this Star Wars drawing lesson, learn how to draw the Dark Sith Lord himself — Darth Vader.
How to Draw a Stormtrooper
One of the most iconic images/figures from the Star Wars series, here – let’s learn how to draw a stormtrooper.
AT AT Drawing
In this creative lesson, let’s convert an All-Terrain Armored Transport (AT-AT), into a lightsaber-weilding sith!
How to Draw Jabba the Hutt
Learn how to draw an “Advanced” version of Star Wars gangster villain, Jabba the Hutt. Salacious Crumb, too!
Click here to return from How to Draw Star Wars to Home
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