Coolest Movie Sets Ever is a new series at Movies.com celebrating some of the most elaborate, impressive and possibly even mind-bending movie sets that have given us some of our favorite movies of all time.
In the spring of 1982, in a desert location known as Buttercup Valley in Southern California, filming was underway on a movie tentatively named Blue Harvest: Horror Beyond Imagination. This would have been relatively unspectacular news for most people – except in the days before the Internet, studios and producers could get away with a little cinematic subterfuge without movie fans realizing they were being misled. As it turns out, the production crew toiling away under the scorching SoCal sun wasn’t making just another slasher movie – they were hard at work shooting one of the most anticipated films in the history of cinema: Revenge of the Jedi (which, as we all know, later became Return of the Jedi).
It was a different era back in 1982 – not only was there no Internet blogosphere with scoop-breaking reporters scrounging up every detail they can find about popular films years before they’re released, there wasn’t much CGI, either. This meant that a guy like George Lucas had to hire crews to physically create the fantastical things in his Star Wars scripts. Sometimes those things were miniatures. Sometimes they were elaborate matte-painting backdrops. Sometimes they were primitive digital trickery (courtesy of the geniuses at Industrial Light and Magic). And sometimes they were just massive sets that were astonishing in their size and elaborate construction.
Today, we take a look back at one of the latter. Buttercup Valley wasn’t home to a desert-set horror film at all – it was ground zero for the construction of one of Return of the Jedi’s most elaborate shooting locations: Jabba the Hutt’s sail barge, where Luke Skywalker and his friends stage a daring rescue of Han Solo and Princess Leia.
As with all things Star Wars, the Hutt sail barge has an elaborate backstory all its own. Jabba’s ship was named the Khetanna, and was a massive, multilevel structure with a top level covered by mostly decorative sails that helped propel the crime lord’s pleasure palace across Tatooine’s endless oceans of sand.
Early concept art for the vessel reveals it had a distinctly Asian influence in the beginning, before morphing into something much larger and industrial looking. The note on the art that it appears “too boat-like” is surprising – because Khetanna is clearly a boat, just one that travels across sand and not water.
These early drawings do help us see how Lucas’ team arrived at the final design, though – and it’s really neat to get a glimpse at how the barge evolved from early drawings to finished build.
With the design finalized, it was time for the real work to begin – and that meant hiring scores of construction folks to build this massive edifice in the desert.
As Leonard Nimoy points out in this Return of the Jedi promotional video, it took 110 men over four months to construct the monstrous set. The completed location was over 212 feet long and 80 feet high, a fact driven home by how it dwarfs various semi trailers included for perspective in some of the photos. This was no simple build – it was a massive job. Not only did the crew have to build Khetanna, they also had to construct the massive scaffolding it sat on, and the area of the Sarlacc pit, plus the various skiffs that accompany the vessel on its voyage across the sands.
Spending four months building such a massive set seems almost quaint in today’s world. Nowadays, a crew would construct the bare minimum of physical assets on a set, and the visual effects department would use CGI to put everything else in and enhance it all in postproduction. There’s certainly an art to visual effects work, but seeing something as massive as Khetanna built from the ground up in these photos is beyond charming. It’s a throwback to a different era – and the work is still beautiful.
We can thank a fan named Mike Davis for many of these shots of the Khetanna set and behind-the-scenes filming action. Davis and his friends spent 10 days in Buttercup Valley, snapping photos of the action unfolding before them. It’s interesting to note that the Lucas folks were generally okay with Davis and his friends taking these candid photos. Somehow, we doubt J.J. Abrams and company would be as willing to allow fans to do the same while he is shooting Episode VII.
This is just a small sampling of the awesome photos taken of this set. Check out John Rozum’s amazing blog, the stunning Blue Harvest site, and The Prop Store for even more peeks behind the curtain. Computers may have made creating amazingly detailed locations easier, but photos like these prove just how magical good old-fashioned practical sets can still be.
Previous Coolest Movie Sets Ever: The Inception Hallway Scene, and the Psycho house.
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