Off the Shelves: Effective Improvisation in Old School Filmmaking

The impressive starships shown in the opening sequence of the first “Star Wars” film in 1977 was seen by many as a triumph of cinema. The extremely detailed craft was the first time the audience ever saw spacecraft that impressive, a far cry from the saucers and rockets that dominated the era before.

Princess Leia’s Tantive IV and Darth Vader’s Devastator of that opening sequence were matched in geometric grandeur and impression of scale only by its television counterpart, the Enterprise from “Star Trek.” These are what we have come to expect from spacecraft, and they manage to impress us even today.
Also, all three crafts were miniature models set in a studio. Darth Vader’s personal space limo was, in fact, a last minute hack job that ended up creating some of the most impressive visuals in cinematic history.


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In the nascent time before CGI, science fiction films and television series were pretty much running on next to nothing, and due to the need to create a futuristic fantasy, the constant demand for special effects ate through their budgets. To cut costs, sometimes creators quite literally decided to go to the toy store and told their creative team to take things apart and get to work.

Known as kitbashing, this form of bargain bin special effects allows filmmakers to create impressive models on the cheap by mixing and matching elements from preexisting models. And in the hands of a particularly skillful design team, the results can be brilliant. “Star Wars” remains the shining example of impressive kitbashes, with the trenches of the Death Star being the most triumphant expressions of the art.

In more contemporaneous settings, effective kitbashes can add a sense of believability as well. The Ecto-One of “Ghostbusters” had decals that were taken from commercially available odds and ends—not an unreasonable thing to do when you’re as strapped for cash as the Ghostbusters were in the film.


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Kitbashing and other off-the-shelf props continue to be popular today due to budgetary constraints and are often the first course of action for science fiction indie filmmakers.

I’m David Berkowitz, ChicagoBulls fan and California-based production designer. Catch me on Twitter for more on my thoughts on film and filmmaking.