Star Wars Buttons You May Have Missed
A long time ago, an interface far, far away.
Star Wars is set in a world of wildly advanced technology. But take a good look at the machinery of Star Wars, and you may be surprised to see how wonderfully analog it all is—buttons! levers! vector graphics!
Yes, there are hyperdrives and lightsabers and hologram Princess Leias and droids that know six million languages (including the language of moisture vaporators, along with various etiquette and diplomatic protocols useful across the galaxy). But of course it's also a world where sometimes you have to hit a robot or a spaceship to get it to work, like an old dashboard radio, a place where the supercomputers are operated manually and where buttons and control panels and screens seem far removed from our own galaxy: tactile, lo-fi, and elegantly simple.
In one sense, that's a reflection of the story's time and place. A New Hope and its ilk occur in a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Here, our preconceptions of technological time are useless: technology doesn't look anything like what it does in our galaxy, now. There are blasters and swords, sure; but note, and revel in, the absence of Facebook or selfies or smartphones. No one in Star Wars is looking down at a screen in their hands, scanning whatever their equivalent of Twitter would be.
It's a nice reminder about how technology is made: In the Star Wars universe, as in ours, certain powerful forces shape the direction of the galaxy and determine what technology does too (see, for example, how the Emperor builds a giant planet-sized space weapon as opposed to, say, a peaceful fusion reactor or something like that)—and how it looks.
'My first conversation with him was that spaceships should be things you see in garages with oil dripping and they keep repairing them to keep them going, because that's how the world is. So... I got hired.'
The look of buttons and control panels and lights—cataloged, among other places, in a supercut by Dino Ignacio and on a Tumblr blog—is also a function of the movie's particular moment. For such an immense worldbuilding task, the production team was constrained by a relatively tight budget. Still, the film would represent a watershed in the look of movies and the history of special effects.
None of those effects, with one pioneering exception (more on that below), were digital. Instead, Lucas and his team—including special effects master John Dykstra and space visionary Ralph McQuarrie—explored and stretched the possibilities of analog, with detailed miniatures, realistic matte paintings, novel photographic techniques. To get Chewbacca's voice right, they recorded the sound of bears and walruses.
And back then, the conception of computers and machines was different. In 1977, computer graphics were still primitive, the domain of military and university machines made by IBM. The same company was also a standard-setter for machine aesthetics too, from the retro look of the Selectric to the giant blinkenlights computers of the original USS Enterprise to the bland mainframes of the 1980s. CGI was still rudimentary, having debuted the year before in the film Futureworld, and the consumer-friendly Apple II was still two years away.
But the simplicity was also by design. George Lucas "didn't want anything to stand out," the legendary set designer Roger Christian told Esquire in 2014. "He wanted it all real and used. And I said, 'Finally somebody's doing it the right way.' All science fiction before was very plastic and stupid uniforms and Flash Gordon stuff. Nothing was new. George was going right against that. My first conversation with him was that spaceships should be things you see in garages with oil dripping and they keep repairing them to keep them going, because that's how the world is. So we had the conversation and I got hired."
Christian was Lucas's third hire on the film, and ended up building many of those spaceships out of cheap aircraft scrap metal he bought by the ton. Think of the Millennium Falcon, which itself is a 60-year old pile of junk by the time we first meet Han Solo. Oh shut up, Han tells Luke. "She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid."
The understated, beat-up, un-sleek look of all the things in A New Hope and the two films that followed wasn't sloppy but studied. Art director Norman Reynolds was still finishing making C3PO's hands the night before the first day of shooting in Tunisia. "We had the glove part of it and metal tips for the fingers, but it needed to be made to look authentic," he told the BBC recently. "Adding those little 'greeblies' (bits of detail added to a costume or prop) made it. It all finally came together, but it really was that close to the wire."
The one computer-generated sequence in the film—the vector graphics designed for the famous Death Star attack briefing by computer animator Larry Cuba—was made, fittingly, on a system that included knobs and dials to actually turn the model of the Death Star.
There's a nice rhyming here: if the control panel of the Death Star itself looks an awful lot like a video broadcast switcher, that's because it is.
Another telling detail: after Lucas hired Cuba, the animator visited NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to look at the screens it used in mission control. "When he told me what it was for"—A New Hope's climactic dogfight scene—"and described pilots manually hitting targets, I said that even current fighter plane firing was automated, not aimed by the pilot, because of the speeds, so futuristic ones would definitely be," Michael Plesset, a former manager of the Space Flight Operations Facility, recalled.
"[Cuba] said, 'Well this isn't high-class science fiction.' I said, 'So they'll be leaning out the window shooting at each other?' And we laughed about it." (George Lucas may have also had a soft spot for the armaments and cockpits of World War II films, which inspired A New Hope's climactic dogfight scene.)
Despite their giant Disney budgets, the new Star Wars films borrow a page from the worn analog look of the original films: unlike the over-rendered buttons and lights of the early-2000s Lucas prequels, the lines, color palettes and typography of The Force Awakens are all evocative of that gritty, sparse feel of A New Hope.
The combination of unobtrusive design and attention to detail aren't just handy for evoking a fictional universe and igniting our imaginations; they offers lessons for our galaxy, right now. Sci-fi makers conjure their worlds so well by focusing on characters, not on technology, observes the UI animation designer Kit Oliynyk. What's more, "they make a fictional universe feel real by following the laws of physics we're accustomed to, by describing it with physical precision and attention to material details." (The designer Christopher Noessel has also been gleaning design lessons from sci-fi films, including even, yes, The Star Wars Holiday Special.)
And, as with good user interface and experience design, Oliynyk writes, "they make the world delightful and memorable by adding the 'secret sauce'—the magical appeal that keeps it all together."
For me, one of the most magical ingredients in the busy but not-too-busy buttons and lights of Star Wars is their absence of text. There is a bit of famous text on screen in A New Hope, when Obi-Wan shuts down the Death Star's force field. (In the updated version of the original trilogy, Lucas replaced the English text in with the more accurate language Aurebesh. There is also, naturally, the "Star Wars Despecialized Edition," in which a group of dedicated fans removed this and other Lucas alterations, thereby returning the movies to their original rough-around-the-edges splendor.)
Otherwise, though, so much is left blank, leaving much to the imagination. "I think that's what I appreciated most of all in the original trilogy," says my colleague Brian Anderson, who has written an ode to that Obi-Wan scene, and specifically the analog sound we hear as he turns a dial. (Sound is also an interface.) "You're given just enough backstory and detail to run with. It's never heavy-handed."
Does the lack of text imply that the design of technology in the Star Wars galaxy is so intuitive that it doesn't need explanation? This is a world, after all, where Luke can just sit down in the Millennium Falcon's gun turret and intuit how to use that gun, with its simple wireframe display, and have a helluva time doing so.
For a person living in a wasteland of terrible UIs and schizophrenic interaction design—a world that only threatens to look more like Luke's garbage compactor as the internet of things and pop up ads continue their march on our environments—this is a nice fantasy. Just imagine, a system that's not without buttons (think Minority Report, HoloLenses, Rifts) but with buttons and levers and lights, where machines are straightforward and easily fixable, and don't demand constant upgrades or crowd us with feature creep.
Then again, Luke had the force to rely on as he navigated all the interfaces of his galaxy. As our own galaxy grows more virtual, ever more "innovative," we have dreams of actual buttons and lights, of technology that's simple and functional and fixable, cutting-edge and near-obsolete, everywhere and nowhere.