It’s Star Wars day. If you’re not sure what that means, see the date – May the 4th has birthed the silly pun, “May the 4th be with you.” Get it? To celebrate this obscure holiday with my camera-loving audience, I’m here to present a handful of the interesting Star Wars screen-used props which were originally created out of camera parts.
Created on a (relatively) low budget of $10 million, the original Star Wars of 1977 was a famously cobbled-together work of art. The film contained a galaxy of characters, stories, creatures, and mythology, and every one of those factors needed to feel real. Star Wars creator, writer, and director George Lucas conceived that his created galaxy should feel lived-in, used, and hastily-repaired. This aesthetic was far different from the clean and futuristic sci-fi that had dominated stories and films preceding Star Wars.
To help achieve this worn and battered aesthetic (and to work within the constraints of the budget) Lucas’ prop masters built their props from truly humble components – droids were made of discarded trash barrels, spaceships were built by mashing together off-the-shelf toy model kits of aircraft and military equipment, laser pistols (known in canon as blasters) were made from broken WWII pistols, and the Millenium Falcon was made, in part, out of drainage pipes and broken down airplane parts scavenged from the local junkyard.
In similar fashion, many props were made out of camera parts sourced from local camera shops. In fact, one of the most famous movie props of all time was made from an $8 camera flash and parts from a broken calculator. Let’s look at that one first.
Luke Skywalker’s Lightsaber / Graflex Flash Gun Handle
The story goes that Roger Christian, Star Wars set decorator, was hunting through a used camera shop in London for components to create props for the film when he discovered what would become one of the most iconic weapon props in cinematic history. There he found a Graflex camera from the 1940s with its attached 3-cell flash gun, a long metal cylinder with a used, industrial style. This he purchased for about a few pounds, along with other pieces, and returned to the prop shop. With the Graflex flash gun handle, some reflective chrome tape and pieces sourced from a broken calculator, he created Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, the “laser sword” which Star Wars‘ main character would use in the original film and its sequel The Empire Strikes Back.
In an interview on Starwars.com, Christian expounds on creating the saber :
“I knew it was such an amazing invention by George and I knew this, if anything, would be the iconic image of this film. Just as Excalibur is as important to Merlin and to King Arthur. It confounded me to find something, because by then I had to find found objects to base things on, and I realized the advantage of that is there are things that you don’t or wouldn’t necessarily design. […] I was under huge pressure because everything had to go in advance on trucks to Tunisia, because that’s where we started shooting. They were pressuring me to get this and it was pure accident.
“[…] I went to the camera shop that we always bought all our equipment from, in central London. […] the owner was just there. I said, “Do you have anything I could look at that might be odd or strange or different, that might be to do with cameras or flashes?” And he said, “Well, look, there’s a whole load of boxes under that shelf there. I haven’t looked in them for years, I don’t know what’s in there.” It was literally the first box I pulled out and pushed the dust off the top of it and opened it. And in the tissue paper there was this Graflex., I just took it out and knew that I had found the holy grail.
“[…] I got in my car and ran back to the studios. I thought, I’ve got to have a handle. So I stuck the t-strip that I’d used for the handle of the stormtroopers’ weapon. I stuck that around the handle. I had broken-down calculators, and I loved the little bubble strip which illuminated the numbers underneath, and magnified them so you could read it on the screen. That fit perfectly into the clip. And I called George over and he just held it and smiled. That’s the biggest approval from George that you can get. He doesn’t have to say, “That’s great,” or “Do this.” The only thing we agreed was [Luke] wouldn’t use it in Tunisia, but he would have to hang it on his belt. So I stuck a d-ring on the end of it, and that was it. Then I made five or six of them. The two that I made went out to Tunisia, and then that’s the one that Obi-Wan brings out of his box and gives to Luke.
“When he says, “This is your father’s weapon,” you know this is a turning point in the film, and it’s a beautiful object.“
In the mythology of the films, Luke’s lightsaber first belongs to Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker (who later becomes Darth Vader). The lightsaber is then seemingly lost forever when, in a lightsaber duel, Vader severs Luke’s hand, sending the saber plummeting into the Tibana gas clouds under Bespin’s Cloud City. Luke’s lightsaber returns shrouded in mystery (yet looking the same as ever) in 2015’s Star Wars Episode VII : The Force Awakens when it is given to the sequel trilogy’s hero Rey by a mysterious comrade, Maz Kanata.
The Graflex flash gun lightsaber is a special piece of cinematic history, and this has been reflected in the price for Graflex flash guns in the used camera market. Star Wars fans and people who love replicating famous movie props often engage in bidding wars with camera enthusiasts over the would-be lightsabers. Photo nerds bemoan the ruination of these photographic relics to make a dumb laser sword, while Star Wars fans can’t understand who wouldn’t want to make their own lightsaber. Truly a war of galactic scope.
Luke Skywalker’s Macrobinoculars / Cobbled Together Out of Parts from Five Cameras
Another wonderful prop created by Roger Christian for the first Star Wars film is Luke’s binoculars, which he uses to search for the wayward droid R2-D2 on the sands of Tatooine. Luke scans the horizon and finds more than he bargained for when he’s ambushed by Tusken Raiders and knocked unconscious. Presumably his binocs are then stolen by the Tuskens, because they’re never seen again.
These binoculars were made out of pieces of medium and large format cameras and their lenses. The exact components list is extensive, and expensive. The binoculars were made from two Kalimar Six Sixty cameras with their lenses, a Seagull Box camera, a Eumig Unilectric 8mm motion film camera, a Bell & Howell Two Twenty camera, and a handful of other miscellaneous parts. Dedicated fans spend upwards of $2,000 sourcing all of these rare cameras to try to make their own binoculars, or more frugal prop fans piece together their own take on Luke’s binocs using cheaper, similar camera components.
Poe Dameron’s Binoculars / Bell and Howell Director or Speedster 8mm Movie Camera
In 2017’s Star Wars Episode VIII : The Last Jedi (an excellent yet divisive movie) one of the main characters, Poe Dameron (played by Contax T2 holder Oscar Isaac) peers through a set of binoculars on the salt-world Crait. Like Luke Skywalker’s binoculars mentioned above, this prop is seen briefly and then discarded. The first time I saw the film I immediately said “Oh, that’s a Bell and Howell movie camera. Neat!” Sure enough, the binocs were made from a Bell and Howell Director 8mm movie camera with a three-lens attachment from a Bell and Howell Speedster added for visual interest.
This prop is another example that has caused the prices of the previously almost value-less camera to skyrocket. Nice examples of the three-lensed Speedster now sell regularly for a couple of hundred dollars, where before the film they sold for about $10. This prop is one of the easiest to replicate, actually, requiring not much more than a few extra parts and some paint/distressing. So if you’re planning on trick or treating as Poe Dameron next year, add this camera to your shopping list.
Andor, Navigation Device / Polaroid SX 70 Sonar
In the recent Disney+ Star Wars Series, Andor, we see a heavily reskinned Polaroid SX70 Sonar. The moment I saw the iconic folding SX70 shape on screen, I nearly shouted. At the very least, I Leonardo DiCaprio Once Upon A Time In Hollywood point at the television meme’d.
The dialog around the SX70’s screen time is kind of funny, as well. As the owner of the “Navigation Unit” pulls it from its case, the show’s main character, Cassian Andor, watches with incredulity.
“That’s an old one.” He says.
The nav unit’s owner concedes the point, and extracting the tool with the motion so familiar to Polaroid SX70 users, adds, “One of the best navigational tools ever built.”
Whether intended or not, and it most certainly was not intended, this dialogue brings a smile to the lips of any classic camera nerd. Polaroid’s folding SX70 film cameras, the original and the Sonar featured in Andor alike, are truly among the finest instant film cameras ever made. And for me, a camera nerd and Star Wars nerd, it was a pleasure to see it featured so prominently.
I love Star Wars, and I could go on and on about the props in these films, but this article is threatening to reach lengths similar to the opening crawl of all nine main-line films put together. If you know of any other camera-related objects used as props in Star Wars, let us know about it in the comments.
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