The Star Wars saga is full of iconic imagery, characters, weapons, and spaceships, but perhaps none more so than the lightsaber. They’re powerful weapons and tools, and we’re told time and again throughout the films how important they are — each weapon marks the personal style of its Jedi wielder — and how critical it is that each warrior never lose theirs.
But it wasn’t until the modern sequel Star Wars movies that the lightsaber really came into its own on film. And that has to do with a subtle change that finally gave the weapons their namesake quality by actually casting light.
There’s a subtle wrongness that permeates the sabers in both the original trilogy and the prequel Star Wars films that makes them always feel a step removed from the actual events on-screen, thanks to that isolated aspect. But to understand how the sequel trilogy — The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker — got lightsabers so right, we first need to take a trip down memory lane to look at cinematic lightsaber tech of ages past.
For the first film (Star Wars, or later, Star Wars: A New Hope), the lightsabers were largely a real-world effect. As detailed in a 2004 featurette titled “The Birth of the Lightsaber,” the early sabers consisted of a rotating pole that had reflective tape applied to it, creating the “glowing” effect. Then, using rotoscoping technology, the overlays for the saber colors were added to the film, creating the first lightsaber effect. But as actor Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) explains in the featurette, if the blades were held at the wrong angle, the lights wouldn’t reflect properly, leaving a far less dramatic-looking prop sword. Creator George Lucas would go on to improve the effect with proper CGI blades in future remasters of the film, but limitations of this technique are still apparently in older cuts, particularly in Luke’s training scene on the Millennium Falcon and Obi-Wan and Darth Vader’s duel on the Death Star.
The problem came around with The Empire Strikes Back, which featured far more advanced lightsaber fighting than the stately duel between Obi-Wan and Vader in A New Hope. As Lucas describes, the spinning reflective tape method couldn’t hold up to the rigors of lightsaber combat. In that film (along with Return of the Jedi), the lightsabers were done with a mix of the reflective technology but, increasingly, with plain prop swords that lacked the reflective material.
But thanks to advances in special effects, post-production techniques were used to add the entirety of the lightsaber effect, with the prop blades serving to help accurately choreograph the fights on set. They also provided a reference for where the special effect teams needed to place the animated blades. As Lucas relates, sometimes the prop blades that were used were often much shorter than the final effect-created ones to avoid hitting the set; other times, there was no blade at all (especially for shots that would see the lightsabers igniting or shutting off).
Those techniques from Empire and Return of the Jedi would be refined in the CGI-powered frenzy that took over the prequel films. The faster, more kinetic swordplay meant that the battles were largely shot with actual prop swords, with computer-generated blades added in post to convert the brightly colored plastic into the iconic beams of light. But the largely computer-generated nature of the prequels hindered the ability to do accurate saber lighting, given that nearly all of the major lightsaber battles in the prequels took place on green screen sets. It’s much harder to have realistic lighting effects when the only real things being captured on camera are the two actors.
Enter the sequel trilogies, which would achieve the pinnacle of lightsaber effects by merging the various techniques from over the years. Like the prequels, the blades of the lightsabers on-screen would be added digitally, with the on-camera fights taking place with plastic prop stand-ins. Also like the original trilogy, the battles were still fought on actual sets as part of the Star Wars sequels’ commitment to trying to embrace more practical effects.
That meant that the prop swords in sequel trilogies (along with the various modern spinoffs, like Rogue One) could finally solve the lightsaber’s long-standing light problem in a surprisingly low-tech way: using illuminated prop blades on set, which is similar to the original reflective tape they used back in the ‘70s, with the final effects grafted on top.
At this point, you may be wondering: who cares if the physics-defying laser swords in the space wizard franchise are optically realistic?
For starters, it just looks better, giving the newer films the opportunity to offer far more dramatic lightsaber shots, particularly in darker locations. For example, take Rey and Kylo’s duel in the forest from The Force Awakens, which culminates in a shot of their respective blue and red blades locked, colors flashing across their faces in a reflection of the conflict on-screen.
Or perhaps even simpler: the fan-favorite ending of Rogue One, where fleeing Rebel soldiers are cornered in a horror movie-dark hallway that’s only illuminated by Vader’s blood-red blade?
But the accurate lighting goes beyond artistic style. While glowing prop sabers may not seem like a huge deal when compared to the vast digital effects that go into making a modern sci-fi epic like The Rise of Skywalker, they’re a key part of making these fantastical weapons look and feel like real-world objects.
It’s that lived-in, real-world look that’s so key to the Star Wars aesthetic, which is something that the newer films have spent so much time and effort chasing over the years with massive practical sets and effects. Conversely, it’s a big part of why the artificially generated and sanitized prequel movies fall so flat in many respects.
In “The Birth of the Lightsaber” featurette, Hamill describes how Lucas had insisted that the characters always wield their weapons as though they were heavy and weighted — more like a broadsword than the plastic props that they were. John Boyega and Daisy Ridley similarly relate to how heavy the prop weapons were, in order to help realistically convey the power of the sabers. “The sabers feel heavy, they feel powerful — every time I swung it, the saber would carry you one way, and you’d have to bring it back,” Boyega describes.
The illuminated saber blades of the modern Star Wars movies fill a similar role, helping bridge the gap between fantasy and reality in a way that makes them look more realistic, even if your brain isn’t consciously aware of it. It’s the same way that the grime and dirt of the Mos Eisley Cantina or the exposed wiring on the Millennium Falcon’s panels help sell the Star Wars universe as a real place.
The impending release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will bring the 40-year-plus Skywalker Saga to a close, promising to bring full circle all of the characters and stories across the nine episodic films. But with regard to the lightsabers, it’s safe to say that the final movie already has succeeded by drawing on the effects of technology and techniques from across the decades to perfect the iconic weapon.
“An elegant weapon for a more civilized age,” indeed.