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A Forgotten 1972 Planning Experiment Made "Star Wars" Possible

In reality, the entire surface of the Death Star was a hand-built model that measured approximately 15 by 40 feet. Meticulous craftsmanship contributed to the verisimilitude, but the documentary reveals that the filmmaking techniques that made the scene feel so real are actually rooted outside the realm of special effects. It turns out that the entire sequence hinged on a model developed during an urban planning study at UC Berkeley in the early 1970s, which also happened to shape the future of San Francisco’s skyline.

“The Berkeley Experiment,” as it is referred to in the documentary, was funded by the National Science Foundation and led by urban planning professor Donald Appleyard at the school’s Environmental Simulation Lab. Completed in 1972, the project entailed building a small-scale model of Marin County and a computer-controlled stop-motion 16 mm camera system. The goal was to achieve a sense of realism as a model car traversed the miniature cityscape, in hopes that the technique could guide civic decision-making regarding construction choices. 

“They wanted to do a perception study,” “Light & Magic” director Lawrence Kasdan told SFGATE. “They wanted to know if they showed film to people, and one of the films was totally artificial and miniaturized, had they successfully made it feel real? Was their physiological reaction different than when they saw actual footage from out of a car?”

One of the primary people behind the model was John Dykstra, who just a few years later went on to supervise the team behind the original “Star Wars.” Dykstra’s tenure at Industrial Light & Magic was short, but he would go on to work on dozens of blockbusters, from “Spider-Man 2” to “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” It turned out that the techniques he brought from his time at Berkeley were incredibly influential to the future of Lucas’ studio.

“That’s the basis for everything ILM has ever done. They want to make you feel you’re there,” Kasdan said. “John Dykstra wasn’t thinking about that when he was at Berkeley. He wasn’t thinking about how to solve this problem. But that turned out to be the ethos of Industrial Light & Magic for 40 years.”

Dykstra’s own description of the project sounds like a problem pulled from a photography textbook. The challenge at the time was to emulate human vision, so buildings far in the distance would still be in focus. That requires an extremely high f-stop, which thus demands an incredible amount of light to get an even exposure. If the miniatures were in focus but the background was blurred, the viewer would instinctively be able to tell something was wrong.

Read entire article at SF Gate