Obi-Wan Kenobi's lightsaber
|Plot element from the Star Wars franchise|
|First appearance||Star Wars (1977)|
|Created by||George Lucas|
A lightsaber is a fictional energy weapon featured in the Star Wars universe. A typical lightsaber consists of a metal hilt (usually around 11 inches (28 cm) in length) that projects a brightly-lit energy blade (usually around 3 feet (91 cm) in length, though the length can usually be adjusted by a control on the side of the hilt).
The lightsaber is the signature weapon of the Jedi Order and their Sith counterparts, both of whom can use them for close combat, or to deflect blaster bolts. Its distinct appearance was created using rotoscoping for the original films, and digitally for the prequel trilogy. The lightsaber first appeared in the original 1977 film A New Hope and every Star Wars movie has featured at least one lightsaber duel. In 2008, a survey of approximately 2,000 film fans found it to be the most popular weapon in film history.
In its most prominent showing, the lightsaber's energy blade can cut, burn, and melt through most substances with little resistance. It leaves cauterized wounds in flesh, but can be deflected by another lightsaber blade, or by energy shields. The blade has even been used as a tool to weld metal substances. Other times, the lightsaber has been shown to cause bleeding wounds in the flesh, sometimes accompanied by burns. Some exotic saber-proof materials have been introduced in the Expanded Universe. An active lightsaber gives off a distinctive hum, which rises in pitch and volume as the blade is moved rapidly through the air. Bringing the blade into contact with another lightsaber's blade produces a loud crackle.
There are several literary precedents in science fiction for a "sword" of pure energy that can cut through anything, notably:
- Edmond Hamilton's story Kaldar: World of Antares (published 1933 in the April issue of The Magic Carpet Magazine). It was reprinted in one of Donald A. Wollheims well-known and widely-read Science Fiction anthologies, Swordsmen in the Sky, Ace Books 79276, 1964, and thus readily available to the Science Fiction reader community of the 1960s and 1970s.
- Fritz Leiber's Gather Darkness (1943): the priests' "rods of wrath" (energy projections) only end where they cut into solid matter, so that a single duel led to numerous casualties of bystanders and charred scores across all nearby walls.
- Isaac Asimov's Lucky Starr series (1952): The force-blade is "a short shaft of stainless steel" which can project a force field that can cut through anything, making it "the most vicious weapon in the galaxy." Asimov's force-blade expands on his earlier invention of "a penknife with a force-field blade," first used in his Foundation novel (1951).
- Gordon R. Dickson's Wolfling (1969): the rod “… something in appearance like a cross between the flame of a welding torch and the arc of a static electricity charge crackled from the end of the rod … even as it burst from the end of the rod … the discharge from Galyan’s rod met the discharge from Slothiel’s head on, and the two lines of white fire splashed harmlessly into an aurora of sparks, …".
- Larry Niven's Ringworld (1970): Louis Wu uses his "flashlight laser" as a sword of indefinite length.
- M. John Harrison's The Pastel City (1971): the energy baan are used by the Methven, an order of knights sworn to protect their empire.
For the original Star Wars film, the film prop hilts were constructed by John Stears from old press camera flash battery packs and other pieces of hardware. The full sized sword props were designed to appear ignited onscreen, by later creating an "in-camera" glowing effect in post-production. The blade is a three-sided rod which was coated with a Scotchlite retroreflector array, the same sort used for highway signs. A lamp was positioned to the side of the taking camera and reflected towards the subject through 45-degree angled glass so that the sword would appear to glow from the camera's point of view.
Set Decorator Roger Christian found the handles for the Graflex Flash Gun in a photography shop in Great Marlborough Street, in London's West End. He then added cabinet T-track to the handles, securely attaching them with cyanoacrylate glue. Adding a few "greebles" (surface details), Christian managed to hand-make the first prototype of a lightsaber prop for Luke before production began. George Lucas decided he wanted to add a clip to the handle, so that Luke could hang it on his belt. Once Lucas felt the handle was up to his standards, it went to John Stears to create the wooden dowel rod with front-projection paint so that the animators would have a glow of light to enhance later on in post production. Due to lack of preparation time, Christian's prototype and a second spare were used for the shooting in Tunisia, where Star Wars filming began. It was discovered, however, that the glowing effect was greatly dependent on the rod's orientation to the camera, and during the Obi-Wan Kenobi/Darth Vader duel, they could clearly be seen as rods. Because of this, the glow would be added in post-production through rotoscoping, which also allowed for diffusion to be employed to enhance the glow.
Korean animator Nelson Shin, who was working for an American company at the time, was asked by his manager if he could animate the lightsaber in the live action scenes of a film. After Shin accepted the assignment, the live action footage was given to him. He drew the lightsabers with a rotoscope, an animation which was superimposed onto the footage of the physical lightsaber blade prop. Shin explained to the people from Lucasfilm that since a lightsaber is made of light, the sword should look "a little shaky" like a fluorescent tube. He suggested inserting one frame that was much lighter than the others while printing the film on an optical printer, making the light seem to vibrate. Shin also recommended adding a degausser sound on top of the other sounds for the weapon since the sound would be reminiscent of a magnetic field. The whole process took one week, surprising his company. Lucasfilm showed Shin the finished product, having followed his suggestions to use an X-Acto knife to give the lightsaber a very sharp look, and to have sound accompany the weapon's movements.
The lightsaber sound effect was developed by sound designer Ben Burtt as a combination of the hum of idling interlock motors in aged movie projectors and interference caused by a television set on a shieldless microphone. Burtt discovered the latter accidentally as he was looking for a buzzing, sparking sound to add to the projector-motor hum.
The pitch changes of lightsaber movement were produced by playing the basic lightsaber tone on a loudspeaker and recording it on a moving microphone, generating Doppler shift to mimic a moving sound source.
Lightsabers were present in the earliest drafts as mundane laser weapons that were used alongside laser guns. The introduction of the Force in a later revision made the Jedi and the Sith supernaturally skilled; initially they were only portrayed as swordsmen. The lightsaber became the Force-user's tool, described in A New Hope by Obi-Wan Kenobi as "not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age."
Lightsabers are depicted as hand-built as part of a Jedi's or Sith's training regimen. Each lightsaber is as unique as the one who built it, though some may bear resemblance to others, especially if there's a connection between the builders. The Phantom Menace introduced a dual-bladed lightsaber wielded by Darth Maul. The video game The Force Unleashed introduced two other variants: a lightsaber pike (a lightsaber with a shorter blade but a long handle, resembling a spear) and a Tonfa-style lightsaber with right-angle hilt.
The Star Wars Expanded Universe adds several lightsaber types, including short and dual-phase (adjustable length) weapons. In Star Wars Rebels, Ezra Bridger's lightsaber is a hybrid that features a fully functional blaster pistol built into the handle. Kylo Ren, from The Force Awakens, uses a lightsaber that features two crosshilt blades, giving it the appearance of a greatsword.
Some parts of the Expanded Universe as well as The Clone Wars contain depictions of a "lightwhip," which consists of energized tendrils that can slice or grip.
Lightsabers depicted in the first two released films, A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, had blades that were colored blue (for the Jedi) or red (for the Sith). In Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker's new lightsaber was colored blue during the initial editing of the film, and appears so in both an early movie trailer and the official theatrical posters, but it was ultimately colored green in the film. This was done so it would better stand out against the blue sky of Tatooine in outdoor scenes, and this color change is also reflected in the film's re-release posters. Mace Windu's purple-bladed lightsaber, as first seen in Attack of the Clones, was requested by the actor Samuel L. Jackson as a way to make his character stand out among other Jedi. Jackson's favorite color is purple and he frequently requests that the characters he plays use an item of that color. The Clone Wars and Rebels animated series introduce additional colors, with the "Darksaber" featuring a unique blade of a thin white outline around a black blade, and yellow bladed sabers appearing in Clone Wars, while Ahsoka Tano wields white colored lightsabers in Rebels.
A multitude of visible spectrum blade colors appeared in the Expanded Universe and in other Star Wars products. The original Kenner figure of Luke Skywalker in his Tatooine costume from Star Wars was released with a yellow-bladed lightsaber. While no lightsaber blade colors beside blue, green, or red appeared in the films before Attack of the Clones, they have appeared in several computer games.
The technical lightsaber choreography for the original Star Wars trilogy was developed by Hollywood sword-master Bob Anderson. Anderson personally trained Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) and, in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, performed all the stunts as Darth Vader during the lightsaber duels wearing Vader's costume. Anderson's role in the trilogy was highlighted in the film Reclaiming The Blade where he shared his experiences as a fencer developing the lightsaber techniques for the three original movies.
The lightsaber duels in the Star Wars prequel trilogy were specifically choreographed by stunt-coordinator Nick Gillard to be miniature "stories". For these films, Gillard was the primary sword instructor for Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn), Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader) among other actors. His goal in choreographing the action for The Phantom Menace was to create stunts that flow from the story; "You can't just think, 'I'm a stunt coordinator, I'm going to make a big stunt happen'," Gillard said. "It's all about making it tie in nicely with the film so that you don't notice the stunts."
In writing the prequel trilogy, George Lucas said he wanted the lightsaber combat to be "reminiscent of what had been done in the previous films but also something that was more energized. We'd seen old men, young boys, and characters who were half-droid, but we'd never seen a Jedi in his prime. I wanted to do that with a fight that was faster and more dynamic – and we were able to pull that off."
According to Gillard (who would later go on to perform a cameo role in Revenge of the Sith), various lightsaber combat styles were devised for the prequels and intended to further characterize their practitioners.
I developed different styles for the characters, and gave each of them a flaw or a bonus. So with Obi-Wan Kenobi, for instance, he's got a very business-like style – when he was younger he could border on the flashy and might twirl his lightsaber a bit, because he was taught by Qui-Gon. Qui-Gon was brash, that rubbed off on Obi-Wan and Obi-Wan then taught Anakin, who was way too old to learn anyway... I think the style really worked well. The Jedi style of fighting is an amalgamation of all the great swordfighting styles. Melding them together is the difficult part – to move from a Kendo style to, say, rapier requires a complete change in body and feet movement, and this must look effortless. The style moves seamlessly between the different disciplines, but remains technically correct throughout.
For The Phantom Menace, Gillard set out certain styles and faults for the saber-wielding characters. He added that the Jedi's use of such "a short-range weapon" meant "they would have to be very good at it"; combining a variety of disciplines from various sword fighting styles to martial arts "with a touch of tennis and tree chopping", he created the style seen in the Episode I lightsaber battles.
Since the release of the first film, replicas of lightsabers have been a popular piece of Star Wars merchandise, ranging from inexpensive plastic toys to the "Force FX" series from Master Replicas, deluxe replicas which use LED lighted tubes and sound effects to create a close audio-visual representation of what is seen on screen.
The Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple is a live show where children are selected to learn the teachings of the Jedi Knights, the Force, and the basics of Lightsaber combat to become Padawan learners. The show is present at the Rebels stage at Disney's Hollywood Studios and at the Tomorrowland Terrace at Disneyland.
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...a material called Scotchlite. Covered with millions of tiny glass beads, it has the property of reflecting light directly back to its source. It's the same material used for reflective road signs (and the glowing light sabers in Star Wars, which were sticks wrapped in Scotchlite).
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...the microphone passed right behind the picture tube and as it did, this particular microphone produced an unusual hum. It picked up a transmission from the television set and a signal was induced into its sound reproducing mechanism, and that was a great buzz, actually. So I took that buzz and recorded it with the projector motor sound and that fifty-fifty kind of combination of those two sounds became the basic Lightsaber tone."
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