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How they did it: Blue screen special effects in the 1980s

The original Star Wars trilogy, Dune, and other 1980s science fiction movies have formed the basis of what we think of when someone talks about sci-fi. Today, it is all about green screen sets and CGI effects, but back then, blue screen technology was the cutting-edge process — and a complicated one at that.

Mark Vargo was on the team at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) that worked on Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back and its massive amounts of blue screen work, for an effect known as chroma keying. Vargo posted a video on his Vimeo channel detailing the extensive, painstaking, and complicated process of using blue screen technology during production. Compared to the digital production methods used today, it’s a wonder some of these movies with extensive blue screen usage got made at all, but this video gives a newfound appreciation of what these filmmakers accomplished back in the day.

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To begin, Vargo takes us on a quick history of compositing and special effects in cinema. Starting all the way back in the early 1900s with in-camera multiple exposure tricks, all the way up to the 1980s and the then “cutting-edge” technology used in films like The Empire Strikes Back.

One single blue screen object would require nine or so elements that had to be combined in various ways in order to composite the object onto the film, a process that took four passes. This would then have to be repeated for every object being added to the frame, which gives us a headache just thinking about it — just imagine all the blue screen objects in a movie like Empire or Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.

If you are interested in filmmaking technology, the roughly 10-minute video is a great watch. It will really give you a new respect for the crews that slaved away on these movies, and a new appreciation for the effects that they were able to achieve. We think it is also probably safe to say that special effects specialists today are pretty happy they don’t have to work with blue screens anymore.