'Empire' - building with Sci-fi effects

"When man first walked on the moon, it had a big effect on me," says filmmaker Irvin Kershner. "I used to think the moon was made of green cheese. Now they say it's made of some nasty dust! I'm not sure I like that. . . ."

Clearly, this is a man who knows how to fantasize. In fact, he makes his living at it -- most recently in "The Empire Strikes Back," the second entry in the "Star Wars" series.

As Kershner sees it, mankind's achievements in space have caused science fiction to escalate. "Our space adventures have shown us how earthbound we really are," he said during a recent interview. "Now we realize that no matter how speedily we travel, we're still stuck in our little corner of the galaxy. You simply can't get any farther in the span of a lifetime.

"So we're adjusting our fantasies. Spacemen used to get in their ships and go fast.m Remember fast? Now we know that even the speed of light is too limited. So we come up with ideas about 'hyperdrive' and the instant transmission of matter. Fast just isn't enough any more!"

Nods of agreement come from our companion at the luncheon table: Gary Kurtz, producer of the "Star Wars" saga. In his view, we need both sides of the space vision. "On one hand, there's the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's landing on the moon. On the other, there's the tradition of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughts, of 'Forbidden Planet' and 'Star Wars.' Each aspect is essential to the young people of today, who will actually be flying the spaceships of tomorrow."

Kurtz is proud of "Star Wars" for soaring above the nuts and bolts of science fiction -- for not getting mired in its own mechanics. "Technology is not the driving force of the story," he maintains. "It's a good element or a bad one, depending on how it's taken and used. We don't take the fashionable attitude that technology is some kind of plot to overwhelm humanity. Instead, it's one of the givens. After all, this is a fantasy, a fairy-tale allegory that takes place in outer space. . . ."

Kershner illustrates the point by recalling a scene in "The Empire Strikes Back" when the Han Solo jumps into his ship, the Millennium Falcon, for an emergency takeoff. He throws the matter switch, and the control broad promptly breaks down. Exasperated, Han slams the wall with his fist, and all the lights and dials whirr instantly into life! "That's the joke about technology in the picture," chuckles Kershner. "It's all just a pile of junk!"

Through "The Empire Strikes Back" is definitely a chip off the "Star Wars" block, it shows real development in a couple of areas. The emotional lives of the characters are allowed to blossom a bit, and the struggle between hero and villain -- Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader -- becomes more intense and more resonant. Most important of all, the ending is ambiguous, leaving certain plotlines deliberately unresolved.

This is partly because "The Empire Strikes Back" is not a sequel in the usual sense. Rather, it's the fifth episode -- the centerpiece -- in what will someday be a ninefilm cylce. The first "Star Wars" film will be installment No. 4 in the finished series.

"This is a continuing story," says Kurtz. "So the characters need to deepen, to develop. It would be the easiest thing in the world to make a carbon copy of the first film -- the James Bond routine, where you use the same story over and over, with different faces. But the only reason for people to see these characters again is to get an insight into where they're going, and where they'll eventually end up. . . ."

One of the biggest challenges faced by Kershner and Kurtz was to master and refine the gigantic battery of special efffects needed in the film, "You have to be able to visualize," says Kershner. "Then, and only then, can you accomplish what you're after. In fact, that's what special effects are: visualizing the incredible."

The "enormous danger" is that "you'll let the actors disappear in a mass of rigid technology, and the picture will look mechanical. In most science-fiction pictures, the attitude is: If the actor works and the gadget doesn't it's perfectly satisifactory."

How does Kershner resolve this situation? "I want the gadgets to work, and actors to work even better!"

Above all, science fiction must not be "pretentious" and "full of heavy ideas." As Kurtz puts it, "Nothing is more boring than talking heads discussing abstractions. The characters must make decisions based on real things that really happen."

Here, as in so many others areas of the picture, special efects added special complications. "Actors wore themselves out doing a scene over and over," says Kershner, "Because some machine wasn't letting out a puff of smoke at the proper time," Still, the filmmakers are proud of the results they achieved, including many effects that hadn't been possible when the first "Star Wars" was filmed just a few years ago. "A lot of our best effects were done right on the set," gloats Kirshner, "and the people don't even realize they are effects!"

Naturally, elaborate preparations were necessary to accomplish all this. "I'm normally a big planner, but I never planned like this!" says the director, referring to about six months of steady preparatory work, with some effects discussed nearly a year before shooting began.

"Even though we changed things on the set and introduced as much spontaneity as we could," says Kershner, "it all had to be worked out in advance. So we had all kinds of limitations when it came to the rhythm of a scene, and the movement of camera, actors, and gadgets. And the whole point was to make it seem effortless. You don't want viewers saying. 'Wow, what a shot.' That spoils the flow of the picture and detracts from the content. You want it all to speed along with as little interruption as possible.

The original creator of "Star Wars." George Lucas, stayed on the sidelines when "The Empire Strikes Back" was filmed. After writing and directing the first movie, he withdrew to the position of executive producer on the second one. The plot comes from his nine-episode master plan, and he worked with the late Leigh Brackett on the first drafts of the screenplay. Later, he held story conferences with the other filmmakers and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. But when Kershner and Kurtz went to england "to make the real movie," as they put it , the home-loving Lucas stayed in California and worked on the miniature effects. As shots were completed in England, they were sent to Lucas on black-and-white video cassettes, so he could inspect them and match his work to images.

Thus, "the Empire Strikes Back" is very much a collaborative effort that mirrors the fantasies and fascinations of all its makers. For Kershner, who occupied the prime position of director, it's a "chase movie" that moves from "outer space" to "inner space" -- from interstellar dogfights to Luke's exploration of "the Force," or the latent power, within his own being.

For Kurtz, the "Star Wars" saga is an opportunity to introduce "story content based on mythological elements" into today's movie world. "Space is the ideal frontier of this," he says. "It's an esoteric world that's just great to fantasize about."

But in the end. Kurtz reminds us. "It's easy to get into overanalyzing things, and imparting heavy philosophical connotations. "After all, it's only a movie! And the important thing is that we all have a good time when we're looking at it. . . ."

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