Which making-of documentaries are worth watching?
Documentaries on the making of movies have existed long before Star Wars, but as the first big blockbuster franchise of the modern era of cinema, fans have been more interested in its production than with most. Just how much can we learn from these docs, though? And are they worth watching just for a glimpse at the craftsmanship behind our favorite series of space operas or are they also decent films in their own right? Let’s go through them all and see:
The Making of Star Wars (1977)
In the beginning, we got more of a special than a traditional documentary, as C-3PO and R2-D2 host a bunch of behind-the-scenes clips from a spaceship set that looks stolen from Doctor Who. It’s cute, but there’s too much of that structuring device and too much preview material and interviews with the actors. Eventually, there are some worthy looks at the animation done for the holographic chess set and the lightsabers, the miniature effects for the space battles, and how matte paintings work. Narrated by William Conrad and directed by future International Documentary Association co-founder Robert Guenette, The Making of Star Wars is a primer that just barely gets under the surface of how the movie came together. I give it just two pretend Death Stars out of five:
SPFX: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Another person from the movies hosts this making-of TV special, but unlike the droids, Mark Hamill doesn’t have to play it like a skit. He’s just there to provide valuable exposition for the content, which here also is more focused on the craft than plot of the second Star Wars installment. Also directed by Guenette, it’s fine-tuned to highlight the visual effects, showing how they were achieved and in some cases what influenced them. A lot of attention is on the length of time put into shots that will only be on screen for a brief moment, something that will come up a lot throughout these docs.
Half the film details scenes on Hoth, with the second part getting deep on the Millennium Falcon, the Yoda puppet, the lightsaber duel choreography. There’s a tiny bit on sound effects. The doc is especially interested in the stop-motion style of animation used for the tauntaun sequence that it even goes outside the movie at hand to highlight how fans of all ages are making their own stop-motion films. “We really are producing a new kind of film generation,” Hamill says, “young people who are doers as well as watchers.” A perfect quote for how significant this franchise and Empire in particular has been. I wish there was more, so I give it four Death Stars:
Classic Creatures: Return of the Jedi (1983)
The making-of doc for Return of the Jedi begins with Carrie Fisher stating that action, adventure, and special effects “were the trademarks of Star Wars” but for this episode George Lucas focused his attention on creatures. Jabba the Hutt is compared to King Kong only with more advanced engineering, as well as to iconic character actor Sydney Greenstreet. Billy Dee Williams joins Fisher as co-host of the TV special, also helmed by Guenette, as it gets into the creation of the Ewoks from hundreds of sketches to what wound up on screen. Lucas claims he initially fought against the them being cute teddy bears.
“Ugly and bizarre” creatures took over as in Jedi as the main attraction, with all kinds of puppeteering methods on display to achieve the Rancor, Salacious Crumb, Sy Snootles, and others. “The magic of the movies in Star Wars is people,” Williams concludes before naming specific artists, performers, and technicians, “what they do on the screen and what they did to get it there.” I also give this one four Death Stars:
Anatomy of a Dewback (1997)
For the Special Edition release of Star Wars, we have a making-of doc that concentrates on the restoration of and additions made to the first movie, with specific attention on just one of the sequences. So, we get a very focused look at the process of going through the Lucasfilm archive and seeing what could be done with the combination of the original negative and the new technology available 20 years later. Lucas explains how he wanted more movement from the dewbacks on Tatooine, we meet concept artists and CG animators at ILM, see some reshoots, learn about what was needed for the recut of the work print, and follow every step to expanding on what’s really a minor moment. I give this one three Death Stars:
The Phantom Menace Web Documentary (1998)
Kind of a compartmentalized preview of what we get in the feature doc that follows, this 12-part episodic web documentary is a perfect glimpse into the craft of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Each short segment focuses on a different piece in the production, from Lucas’s writing the script on yellow legal pads to the casting of the child Anakin to costume design, and more. As a whole, it’s a true chronicle of how one man’s idea turns into thousands of jobs, not to mention the pay off. If all you want is brief peeks at what those jobs are, this is perfect. I give it five Death Stars:
The Beginning: Making ‘Episode I’ (2001)
“You can destroy these things. It is possible,” George Lucas says prophetically during the making of The Phantom Menace as recorded in this first complete behind-the-scenes doc for the prequels. The Beginning is directed by Jon Shenk, who has now become an acclaimed filmmaker, having directed or co-directed such features as The Island President, Audrey & Daisy, Lost Boys of Sudan, and the upcoming Inconvenient Truth sequel. He’s gotten better, that’s for sure.
This one isn’t bad at all, but it is very choppy, attempting to cover every facet of the pre-production, shooting, and post-production on something so complex as a Star Wars movie. If you’re interested in the artistry, the pre- and post- segments are worthwhile, and the filming is not. It’s almost fortuitous, if only for this doc, that they had a bad storm in Tunisia so we could see more attention on the work behind sets and pod racers that we might not have otherwise if it wasn’t for the damage control and repairs.
I have to say, though, that watching the work that went into The Phantom Menace makes me appreciate the film despite how faulty it is altogether. It makes me want to re-watch the movie and focus on what is done well or at least what was ambitiously attempted if not achieved. It’s funny at the start when the ILM guys admit, “We don’t really have a good way of doing that now,” recognizing that they’re not prepared for Lucas’s ideas but are game to try and figure it all out. ILM’s John Knoll and editor Ben Burtt are particularly fun to watch as they express amazement at where Lucas is taking them with their crafts. I give it three Death Stars:
Attack of the Clones Web Documentary (2001)
Just like the web documentary for The Phantom Menace, this one takes us through the making of a movie in compartmentalized episodes, and it’s a terrific way to experience that chronicling of the craft. Two things that make it notable are, unlike with the previous prequel, Attack of the Clones doesn’t have as thorough a making-of feature and also this never feels like a repeat of the first episode’s web documentary, even while covering many of the same processes. The only downside is many of the parts feel more like promotional featurettes, less artist-oriented and with too many interviews with the actors on what they think of the sets and costumes and everything. I give it three Death Stars:
From Puppets to Pixels: Digital Characters in ‘Episode II’ (2002)
Shenk returned, uncredited, to direct the documentary for Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, and it’s a very different animal. This time they’re extremely focused on chronicling the process of turning Yoda into a completely computer-generated character. At first, this is a fascinating situation because it is a very difficult task, and we know that when Clones was first released the character wasn’t widely accepted by fans for how different he looked. Early into the pre-production, Lucas acknowledges how complicated an issue it is to want to make Yoda look “better” than a puppet but how the fans prefer he look like the puppet they know and love.
Unfortunately, what begins as an interesting premise and theme – there’s also a lot involving other CG characters, CG doubles of actors Ewan McGregor, compositing actor Christopher Lee’s face on his stunt double’s body, and the general advancements of practical to digital performance – doesn’t progress as a compelling making-of story alongside the progress of the technology. Halfway in, most of what we’re shown is people at computers discussing what needs to be improved but the craft itself isn’t easily appreciated. It’s quite tedious aesthetically.
In contrast to The Beginning, what’s briefly more interesting here is the main production footage, particularly the parts with Lee talking about the difference between the old days and now. And the issues for actors working with characters and other materials they can’t see during the shooting. Even a minor bit with original Yoda puppeteer Frank Oz is frustrating because it’d be nice to know more what he thinks of the idea before, during, and after. But maybe that’d have been awkward. I give this just two Death Stars:
State of the Art: The Pre-Visualization of ‘Episode II’ (2002)
Although less fascinating in theory than the digital character focus of From Puppets to Pixels, this doc on the digital settings and the storyboards and animatics that pre-visualize those settings is benefitted by its shorter running time. And if you’re not familiar with how all that pre-planning for scenes mixing actors and all CG worlds works, it’s plenty informative. There’s just not a lot of watching the artists at work. It’s a doc that tells more than it shows. I give it three Death Stars:
Films Are Not Released, They Escape (2002)
So much attention is given to the visual effects achievements of the Star Wars movies, but sound has been just as significant since the beginning when Ben Burtt won a special Oscar for his efforts. So, even if Attack of the Clones is the first installment not to be nominated in either of the sound categories, this short is still a worthwhile look at Burtt’s work here, in addition to a glimpse at the ADR process. The doc should get some extra points for being the rare Star Wars film directed by a woman, Mary Beth Bresolin. I give it four Death Stars:
Revenge of the Sith Web Documentary (2004)
Improving on the Attack of the Clones web doc, this one that ups the amount of episodes to 15 is back to recognizing the artists more than the people wearing their costumes or holding their props. There’s also more footage of the actual principal photography shooting of Revenge of the Sith without that same kind of publicity feel to it. It doesn’t feel as comprehensive as the Phantom Menace web doc, but it’s got a lot of great stuff, including an episode devoted to the return of Chewbacca along with his fellow Wookies. I give this four Death Stars:
Within a Minute: The Making of ‘Episode III’ (2005)
Another Star Wars film directed by a woman, Tippy Bushkin’s feature-length offering is by far the most conventional making-of documentary, but it’s also the sharpest and most cohesive as far as what it’s about. There’s a story here. As the title suggests, it’s all about a minute of screen time. And yet it’s a microcosmic experience of how the whole production operates. The sequence in focus is the lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker on the volcanic planet Mustafar at the climax of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. It’s sort of like The Beginning in its chronological choppiness but it has to fit everything to make the point about how many hundreds of people are employed at each step to the creation of that one minute.
And I think despite each piece of the puzzle being briefly addressed, there’s just enough of every aspect, including conception, catering, and camerawork, without overkill, that it’s totally effective. Fortunately it’s allowed to be longer than the other making-of docs and it needs that extra time, never dragging. I also love that compared to the last two prequel making-of docs, the people in this one appear more confident about what they’re doing. It makes sense that Sith looks so much better than the other two films in the trilogy.
Within a Minute serves as a good primer at the very least on all the different jobs involved in making a movie. Some of the style of the doc is a little dated, with a webbing animation illustrating the connectivity of all the facets of production that seems more fitting for a multimedia web documentary, but that hardly takes away from the weight of the film’s positives. This would be the Star Wars doc to show to film students, if any one had to be chosen. I give it five Death Stars:
It’s All For Real: The Stunts of ‘Episode III’ (2005)
Buskin also directs this short doc on the stunt work of Sith, and it’s basically a more detailed addendum to Within a Minute but also expanded somewhat to include other fight sequences. Here we get to admire the Nick Gillard’s fight coordination and his stuntmen/swordsmen employed for the multiple lightsaber duels, including the Mustafar sequence and appreciate the physicality that makes the third prequel more thrilling than the other even when the set pieces seem even less tangible in their computer-generation. It’s also neat to see how much is the stunt men with the actors’ faces added on like digital masks. I give it five Death Stars:
The Chosen One (2005)
Buskin’s final doc for Sith is much more of a generic DVD featurette, but it’s worth including because the short doc is the rare one among the bunch to focus on acting as a craft and characterization as a craft. It’s about Lucas the creator of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader and Hayden Christensen as the main human performer of the role, responsible for portraying his arc from hero to villain. Alas, it’s difficult to appreciate because neither Lucas nor Christensen’s work on crafting the character is very good, and the doc isn’t able to do much with what it’s given. Only Dave Elsey’s makeup effects are of interest. I give this only one Death Star:
Star Wars Tech (2007)
Produced by Lucasfilm for The History Channel for the 30th anniversary of Star Wars, this is an interesting doc that focuses on the authenticity of the craft of the franchise. No, you can’t hear spaceships and laser blasts and explosions in space. Yes, ion engines are real. And so on. It’s not so much a making-of doc as it is a scientific checklist for what makes sense and what doesn’t – by today’s technologies, if not those of three decades ago. It’s an appreciation of a lot of concepts and designs, especially Darth Vader’s prosthetics, the various forms of robotics, and cryogenics, recognizing an extra level of the craftsmanship of the movies beyond their narrative contexts. I give this one three Death Stars:
A Conversation with the Masters: The Empire Strikes Back 30 Years Later (2011)
Does this retrospective look at The Empire Strikes Back 30 years later count as a making-of documentary? Yes, but it’s not a chronicle of the crafts as it’s happening, so it is a different sort. There’s not a whole lot of material that seems previously uncovered. Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan discuss the writing of the episode and the creation and eventual cult popularity of Boba Fett, director Irvin Kershner recalls the creation of Yoda and taking over the franchise, and John Williams has some interesting things to say about the score. But it’s not essential at all. I give it one Death Star:
Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey (2016)
The new generation of Star Wars in the Disney era gives us the most conventional, fluff-piece, token DVD-feature making-of doc of the franchise, and it’s got all the stuff you want in a this sort of thing without going too much into detail or showing too much of the artistry behind any of it. Directed by making-of specialist Laurent Bouzereau, it’s filled with stars doing talking head interviews and providing a lot of the plot and character-based trivial bits of the production of The Force Awakens from casting through principal photography clips and some behind the scenes looks at how BB-8 works, of course. I give it only two Death Stars: