The 1970s psychology experiment behind 'Star Wars' special effects

An illustrated collage showing the connection between the creation of a camera rig motion control system created for the UC Berkeley study, and iconic elements used in many visual effects from the movie Star Wars.

Collage showing the creation of a camera rig motion control system and iconic Star Wars visuals.

May 4, 2023

Creating realistic simulations of neighborhoods using miniatures and computer-controlled cameras was the goal of an ambitious experiment designed by two NSF-funded researchers. What they didn't know was that their lab's research would influence how special effects are made in some of the most memorable movies and TV shows in history, from the first "Star Wars" movie to "The Mandalorian."

With mouths agape, movie audiences for more than 40 years have watched a certain outgunned rebel spaceship's futile attempt to flee a ginormous imperial star destroyer. That iconic opening shot of 1977's "Star Wars" is seared into the collective memory of millions, if not billions, of people. It was, of course, an elaborate fake — constructed and photographed by skilled artists in a humble warehouse outside Los Angeles. Far, far away from the Galactic Empire.

That scene and many others were created for the first "Star Wars" movie by Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas' then-fledgling special effects company. The staff of ILM ignited a revolution in filmmaking aesthetics. They combined technology and artistry with a keen understanding of the fundamentals of human perception. That innovative fusion was based on experimental techniques first tested in a research project at the University of California, Berkeley and supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation...

Read the full story in NSF's Science Matters.

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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