Features and Columns · Movies

Blood, Sweat, and Latex: Discovering ‘Star Wars’ in The Age of Enlightenment

By  · Published on May 16th, 2011

by Shannon Shea

For those of you new to the column, I am recalling pivotal events in my life that contributed to what I am today: A Special Make Up Effects Artist searching for relevance in the 21st Century. I had learned about liquid latex; I had my Super 8mm camera. Now, all I needed was the spark, the inspiration to push me. I am 15 years old…

High School is a major adjustment for everyone, and I was no different. Archbishop Shaw High School in Marrero, Louisiana was not known for its liberal arts education. It didn’t have the reputation for being an Ivy League prep school. It was known for its football team. Consisting of an all-male student body you can imagine what life for a pudgy, sci-fi/horror loving, non-athlete was like. I was lucky, however, that when I entered the school as a freshman, my brother was already a senior. I had fallen in with a group of friends that carried over from grammar school that had similar interests, but for the most part, we knew we would have to keep a low profile in order to survive. That was Fall of 1976.

America had enjoyed its big 200th birthday party that July and we movie lovers had a pretty good summer between King Kong, Logan’s Run, and The Omen. Hidden in my books were copies of “Starlog” and “Cinefantastique” magazines, and the margins of my notebooks were illuminated with sketches of creatures and space ships. We still had a few months before any of us would know who Rocky Balboa was much less watch him go the distance.

Since my father’s business was entertainment review, he would receive press kits, promotional items, etc. from the studios. Well before EPKs (Electronic Press Kits), the studios would host expensive “Press Junkets” where entertainment writers from around the world would be whisked away to distant locations, wined, dined, and put into rooms with movie starts to film their interviews. In addition, my father subscribed to “Weekly Variety” (the out-of-state version of Hollywood’s Daily Variety). Being a fan, nerd, geek, whatever-you-want-to-call-it, I had the presence of mind to scan the pages looking for movie ad art or stories that would satiate my hunger for genre films.

While perusing the pages of an issue of Variety, I happened across something that had looked interesting. Different. The artwork in the full-page ad showed heroes of what was to be a Science Fiction Adventure entitled The Star Wars.

For many of you readers, it must be difficult to imagine a world without Star Wars, but I’ll tell you that the months proceeding May 22, 1977, very little about the movie was released to the public (unlike today). It wasn’t until the early Spring of 1977 when I would get my first real taste of what it was all about.

Every year since 1973, a local Star Trek convention would convene in a hotel in downtown New Orleans and without fail, my brother and I would attend. In 1977, a group of friends and I decided to dress as best we could as Sandmen from Logan’s Run in the hope of purchasing Science Fiction memorabilia that was scarce in the Crescent City. While looking through a collection of movie frames, mounted like slides, something caught my eye – a paperback novel entitled “Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker.” With my limited knowledge of what it was, I bought it on impulse (and still own it today, as you can see below).

That night, I read this crazy book with floating land-speeder cars, light sabers, and a space station with artificial mountains and craters called a Death Star. I was hooked.

In early May, I happened across a copy of the Star Wars soundtrack and to my surprise, found a poster painted by the great artist, John Berkey. The film couldn’t come fast enough.

The last piece of evidence before the media explosion was Time Magazine. On the cover was Menachem Begin with the headline: “Israel, Trouble in the Promised Land” and across the corner was a yellow banner that read: “Inside: The Year’s Best Movie.” My knee-jerk reaction was disbelief. “MORE Rocky coverage?!” Rocky had won Best Picture of the Year at the Academy Awards a few months earlier, and so everything on the radio and on television was Rocky and Sylvester Stallone. With a smirk set on my face, I cracked the magazine open and saw my first X-Wing fighter. Time Magazine had proclaimed that Star Wars was the best movie of the year, and it was only May.

I don’t recall seeing any television trailers for the movie. I don’t recall seeing Star Wars on the cover of any magazines. It was like this gargantuan thing shrouded in mystery that would reveal itself in a few weeks.

My brother graduated from High School that May, and it was understood that he’d be leaving the house, and our room to go to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge in the Fall. Our combined shrine of Star Trek, Doc Savage, King Kong, “Mad Magazine,” The Beatles, Dinosaurs, and Harryhausen would be changed and I was going to find myself with 50% more room in a few months. But on the morning of May 23, 1977 he burst into our room, waking me up with these words: “Boy, did I see a movie made for YOU last night!” He and his friends had driven out to Lakeside Cinema on the East Bank, stood in a long line and had seen Star Wars. I was way too curious to be angry or envious.

He wouldn’t go into details, but his enthusiasm for what he had seen was truly contagious and I had caught the Star Wars fever without having seen the movie. When I went to my father to ask if he would take me, he scoffed. Drive out to the East Bank to see a movie? Not just that, but we’d have to wait in line AND… he’d actually have to pay for it. He never paid for movies because of his press status but this time, his opinions had cost him more than he imagined.

Recently, he had panned too many 20th Century Fox films and they had cut him from their favored critics list. What that meant for him was no press kit, no posters, no interviews, no junkets, no free passes to Star Wars. He had been black listed and there was no way he was going to give any Fox film his hard-earned money. Ugh. Having pity for my situation, my brother promised he’d drive me out the following weekend to see it.

The days dragged on, but the Star Wars phenomenon was not a quick, big explosion but a slow building conflagration that no one in the media or in the public had experienced before (or since). There were some stories about the film on the news and on talk shows, but that first week, it was being treated (at least according to the exposure it was having in New Orleans) as a kiddie film on steroids. By the time my brother, my sister (who HAD to come according to my stubborn father), and I climbed into his Chevy Nova to trek across the city, Star Wars remained primarily an unknown.

We got to the Lakeside Shopping Center and pulled into the parking lot. Across rows and rows of cars we could see the theater and the legendary line of people circling it.

As my brother maneuvered through the parking lot, a car shot out of a parking spot and plowed into the front of my brother’s car.

The woman driving the other car cried in hysterics in an attempt to blame my brother for the collision, even though she had just struck his car. With sick, cold, tentacles of worry coursing through my guts, I knew it would be another week before I would see Star Wars. I was devastated.

That next week dragged on more slowly than any other week in my life. Fate was forcing me to wait to see this film and perhaps that is why I had the reaction I did when I finally saw it.

Soon after, I found myself sitting in a theater full of excited people all waiting to be transported a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The famous titles began and when the Star Destroyer chased Princess Leia’s ship across space in a flurry of blaster-fire, I knew. I knew like when that bat flew into Bruce Wayne’s window as he meditated on the direction of his life. I knew I was to become a Special Effects artist.

Oh, and I saw Star Wars 22 times in the theater. It’s the only movie I’ve seen that many times that way.

NEXT WEEK: Training Dayz

…And Last Time On Blood, Sweat and Latex: An Ode to Super 8mm Film

Shannon Shea, a native New Orleanian educated at The California Institute of the Arts, has enjoyed a 27-year tenure designing, constructing, and performing animatronic creatures and characters for Motion Pictures and Television. He has had the pleasure of contributing to such diverse films as Predator, Dances With Wolves, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Spy Kids, The Chronicles of Narnia, Drag Me To Hell and 2012’s Men In Black 3.

Not limited to the confines of Motion Pictures, he paints (having been shown in New York, North Carolina, and Los Angeles), sculpts, writes and authors a new blog about his motion picture experiences called Monster History 101. Recently, he was tapped by the Stan Winston School of Character Design to be one of their instructors for a lecture series entitled Garage Monsters. When not participating on Hollywood projects, he enjoys producing, writing, and directing his own short films including Hotel Superman, Blind Passion, and his current Internet project Phantom Harbor. Shannon lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tracy, an Operatic Soprano and their daughter, Molly, who attends the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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