For many at Lucasfilm, it’s remarkable to think our films have endured as long as they have; so long, in fact, that the company boasts multiple generations of employees, each new one inspired by its predecessors. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, now celebrating its 40th anniversary, belongs to some of the earliest pioneers within the company, and has been treasured ever since. We at Lucasfilm, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), and Skywalker Sound are looking back on the film that sets the standard in more ways than one.
Employees Share Their Memories as the Classic Film Turns 40
When it comes to seeing Empire for the first time, sound designer Randy Thom has most everyone beat. He saw the film in unfinished form in October, 1979 during his early days working for Sprocket Systems (later renamed Skywalker Sound). “We all know how much George Lucas likes sound and sound people,” Thom commented, “but when we were in post-production on Empire, and he and editor Duwayne Dunham would hear one of us climbing the stairs to ask them a question, it became a running joke for them to greet us with a twist on the ‘Sand People, or worse’ line from Star Wars: A New Hope. ‘Look,’ one of them would say, ‘It’s Sound People, or worse!’”
On the Big Screen
May 21st, 1980 was a fateful day as Empire premiered in theaters around the world. Animator Shawn Kelly was surprised when at five years old his dad took him to opening night. “It knocked my socks off,” Kelly remembered. “Afterwards, I asked if we could visit Hoth and ride the tauntauns, and my dad explained that Hoth wasn’t real. ‘It was made by artists,’ he said. Ever since that night, I knew that I wanted to be one of the artists who gets to make Hoth…ILM became my ultimate dream job.”
A teenager in 1980, editor Kevin Yost of Lucas Video Production saw the film “on a whim” during a family trip to San Francisco, a happening that “made my weekend and changed my grumpy teenager mood. Star Wars is great that way.”
Executive vice president Jason McGatlin was ten-years-old when he and his twin brother went to see Empire with their grandmother while visiting family in Texas. “What I remember most was that the theater was freezing as they had the AC up really high,” he explained. “As the movie started in Hoth, I remember this incredibly immersive feeling of being right there with the characters as I was just shaking in my seat.”
On top of waiting three years since the release of A New Hope, senior concept artist Brett Northcutt’s brother got to see the film first. “To this day,” Northcutt said, “I am so thankful that he kept his mouth shut and never said a thing to spoil the movie.” Senior lighting technical director Patrick Myers wasn’t so lucky. He fell victim when, as he walked in to see the film, his own brother turned to say “I heard that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s dad.”
Waldemar Bartkowiak, a modeler at our Singapore studio, grew up in Communist Poland where in 1984 he and his sister watched Empire by mistake, thinking they were going to see cartoons. “Back in the day, movies from the other side of the ‘Iron Curtain’ were quite rare,” he recalled, “Empire was my first Star Wars movie. I didn’t see A New Hope until many years later.”
It knocked my socks off. Afterwards, I asked if we could visit Hoth and ride the tauntauns…ILM became my ultimate dream job.”
On the Small Screen
Subsequent generations discovered the film on television thanks in part to the wonders of VHS (or even Betamax!). Senior generalist artist David Espinoza (also from our Singapore studio) remembered “my dad just calling my name from the living room repeatedly. He sounded excited so I ran out right as the Millennium Falcon was dodging TIE fighters in the asteroid field. My mind was blown away.”
Technical assistant Cristiane Maia rented both A New Hope and Empire, watched them back-to-back with her siblings, and remembered “being really angry at the ending because the ‘bad guy didn’t die’ after the first and second movies.” Production coordinator Andrew Martin saw the film in eighth grade during a marathon session of movie-watching as he and fellow teenagers participated in a 30-hour fast to raise awareness for world hunger.
Digital paint supervisor Trevor Hazel had a great Thanksgiving weekend at seven years old when Empire premiered on NBC television in 1987. Senior editor Jennifer Heddle of Lucasfilm Publishing recorded the film to VHS during a similar cable broadcast, and “rewound the Han & Leia scenes so many times there was visible tape degradation in those spots. I’d watch over and over in secret, as if it were something to be embarrassed about. Now I wonder how many others around the world were doing the same.”
Before the film was available on home video, toys were the best option for a kid who, as senior art director James Clyne noted, “wanted to live in the film!” Clyne remembered visiting the toy store in 1980 only to find all but one of the Star Wars figures sold out! The only toy available, the AT-AT Commander, became a favorite. Concept design supervisor Christian Alzmann remembered bringing his Empire toys to visit family in Michigan one snowy winter. “I played the Battle of Hoth until my hands were blue and I was shivering with cold,” he said.
Finance’s Lori Ann Tretasco shared a birthday with her brother, for which they both received the coveted Rebel Transport. “Star Wars, Barbie, He-Man, She-Ra and Rambo all coexisted harmoniously inside that Rebel Transport!” she remembered. For really lucky young fans, like desktop systems lead Billy Mitchell, your dad made you a custom AT-AT vehicle to go with your action figures!
Others like senior writer Pete Vilmur collected ephemera, including the Topps bubble gum cards. “I’d use my allowance to buy them at a convenience store,” Vilmur recalled. “I did end up completing all three sets, but some of the stickers eluded me.” Compositor Javier Fernandez from ILM’s London studio remembered the Empire collector magazine wherein photos of effects supervisor Dennis Muren and director Irvin Kershner inspired his young mind. (Fernandez later interviewed Kershner for his own sci-fi fanzine).
Impressions We’ll Never Forget
More than one of us were amazed by the towering AT-ATs. “I was in awe and fascinated with that whole sequence,” said associate virtual production manager Lindsay Pflum. “When I found out ILM created them using miniatures and special effects, I immediately knew I wanted to do that when I grew up.”
Yoda’s lifting the X-wing from the Dagobah swamp was another stand-out moment. “It really made me think that anything is possible if you apply yourself and believe,” said audio designer Juan Peralta of Skywalker Sound. “That moment has shaped the way I think on a daily basis.”
Digital paint supervisor Alan Travis’ favorite memory was “when the voice comes over the PA system at Echo Base and announces, ‘The first transport is away,’ and a cheer comes from all the Rebels. It gave me goose bumps when I saw it as a kid. It still does as I type this.” Joshua Rimes, director of animation development, remembers Han Solo briefly using Luke’s lightsaber on Hoth. “What a gnarly moment for a film full of gnarly moments.”
Publicity coordinator Lillian Noble, who first saw Empire at age two, still remembers the duel on Cloud City as a memorable scene. “I’ve always loved one of Darth Vader’s lines, ‘Luke, you do not yet realize your importance,’” she explained. “Yes, Vader was trying to persuade Luke to join him, but I think (in a way) that line reminded Luke of his own strengths and his potential. He had only just begun to discover his power.”
“The message to not judge anyone, as Luke did early on with Yoda,” was an important lesson for production coordinator Jonathan Beres of ILM Vancouver. “Size may matter not, but it spoke to a larger theme of acceptance and not judging a book by its cover.”
The Empire Strikes Back is always my answer to “what’s your favorite movie?” as well as the answer to which movie I’ve seen the most often. There are plenty of other movies I love, but nothing else even comes close.
The Legacy Goes On
Senior art director Alex Jaeger has been inspired by Empire since childhood, and in his tenure at ILM he’s had the opportunity to actually explore further storytelling within the film itself. “I was always intrigued by the warriors in the trenches and what was going on in other parts of the base during the Battle of Hoth,” Jaeger explained. In collaboration with Zachary Sherman, Jaeger published the story “Entrenched,” included in Star Wars: Visionaries, published in 2005.
As many of us caught the bug from our parents, we now pass on that same love to the next generation. Pipeline technical director Megan Mendelson’s 19-month-old is “currently obsessed with Star Wars after recently hearing the ‘Imperial March,’” to which he enjoys dancing. Mendelson’s family recently watched Empire together for the first time in their backyard. “We start them young at our house!” she said.
From everyone at Lucasfilm, happy 40th anniversary to The Empire Strikes Back!