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There's no shortage of important cinematic moments in The Empire Strikes Back. The Irvin Kershner film is packed with innovation that continues to inspire artists to this day. That's why it's particularly fascinating to learn that one of the film's memorable shots nearly didn't occur. ILM's visual effects master Dennis Muren recently explained how he, on set, came up with a way to blend footage of a running Tauntaun with aerial photography of ice fields doubling for the frozen planet Hoth. In Muren's words:
Well my favorite shot was the most educational one for me probably and it's in Empire Strikes Back and it's when, it's near the beginning and George came in and said, 'I've got a problem here, see if you can do something.' He had a helicopter shot flying over the ice field in Norway and the camera tilts down, way down below and you see the big ice field, and he said, 'Is there a way you can put a Tauntaun in there running along?' The shots in the movie, and everything, and people that do remember that shot. I said, 'No, with that technology there's no way we can do it.'
Of course, ILM stands for Industrial Light and Magic, and Dennis Muren is among the company's top magicians. As the artist explained to Collider, the challenge from George Lucas had Murren scrambling to make the impossible possible. As it turned out, the effect wound up coming together in record time. Muren continued:
I tried to think about, you build a big model of course it would never look as real and he just said, 'Well you know, think about it.' I said, 'Well there's no way.' He said, 'Okay, fine, think about it.' He walked out, and he left me with the background plate to look at, and I tell you within 15 minutes I'd figured out how to do it. I learned at that time not to stop thinking about something, if you can't figure it out. There's usually a way and if I'd stopped two seconds earlier that shot wouldn't be in the film, nearly as good as it is right now.
Not only is Dennis Murren's anecdote a great bit of Star Wars trivia, it's a true testament to the creativity and innovation at the heart of the franchise and a remainder to everyone that impossible challenges are often merely obstacles that haven't been fully considered. On a movie set, as in life, there are always alternatives. After all, as Jedi Master Yoda himself said in The Empire Strikes Back, "Do or do not. There is no try."
It may even be that this particular Tauntaun shot will directly influence Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi. A sequence in the December 15 release is said to feature a sort of intergalactic horse race. That certainly sounds like the kind of sequence that could turn to the Empire Strikes Back's mounted beasties for inspiration. Then again, ILM has been collecting special and visual effects tricks for decades and they no doubt have quite a few other tricks up its collective sleeves.