The force of Star Wars cannot be denied. The film was a runaway hit in 1977, with powerful storytelling, awe-inspiring special effects and compelling characters—all of which inspired a new level of fandom and gave rise to a movie, media and branding empire.

What’s now standard aspiration for blockbuster films started with Star Wars: Sequels. Prequels. TV series. Made-for-TV movies. Books. Comics. Video games. The franchise spawned the audio company THX, the visual effects company Industrial Light and Magic and the animation studio Pixar. A storm of action figures and toys, lightsaber combat lessons, restaurants, a theme park and a hotel are all part of the phenomenon, too. There’s even a pun-inflected global holiday: May the 4th Be With You.

The back story for this epic entertainment universe begins in part with eye-popping special effects: Creator George Lucas built a new world in the first Star Wars, hiring a diverse team of artists, engineers, animators and technicians. On a shoestring budget (for Hollywood) of US$11 million, they invented new camera technology, filming styles and sound design that revolutionized the movie landscape.

US­$2.5 million

Approximate cost of the special effects for the original Star Wars

365

Number of special effects shots

9

Number of movies in the Star Wars franchise

US$4 billion

Amount Disney paid in 2012 to acquire Lucasfilm

Prior to Star Wars, action sequences were shot with large and small models that moved around a camera. Star Wars special effects guru John Dykstra devised a computer-controlled system where a camera revolved around the model. Since the motion was computer controlled, the shots were precise—easier to replicate. That technique allowed for multiple models to be in a shot, paving the way for Lucas’ most iconic action sequences.
The motion-control approach allowed teams to accelerate shooting schedules to Millennium Falcon speeds compared to other movies at the time. And it helped the film’s ambitious scope meet the particularly tight production timeline. Lucas wrapped up the script around the same time shooting started in March 1976, with the film opening in theaters the following May.

Although it initially opened in just 32 theaters, Star Wars was an immediate sensation, toppling box office records on its way to an unmistakable legacy. As the fourth highest-grossing film worldwide after adjusting for inflation, Star Wars defined the summer blockbuster and cultural franchise—long before the Marvel universe flexed its global marketing superpowers.

“A whole generation was growing up without fairy tales,” Lucas told American Film magazine in 1977. “You just don’t get them anymore, and that’s the best stuff in the world—adventures in far-off lands. It’s fun.”