Star Wars was not the first work of space opera to involve energy “swords.” And while George Lucas was heavily indebted to writers that came before him, it certainly wasn’t the last either. Almost every movie and comic in the genre since 1977 borrows something from Star Wars (even if they can’t call their rip-offs “lightsabers” for copyright reasons). Nevertheless, anyone who sees a lightsaber and hasn’t been living under a rock obviously thinks “Star Wars.” That “elegant weapon from a more civilized age,” as Obi-Wan described it, is one of the most iconic elements of the Star Wars universe and one of the coolest weapons in science fiction.
Everyone loves lightsabers. Who born in the past 40 years didn’t have fun playing with toy versions as a kid? But do you know how a lightsaber is made? This is a question you can answer two ways: there’s the question of how they’re produced in canon, and how the physical prop is built for the movies. This list contains 15 cool facts about lightsabers you might not have known before. It contains both information about the weapon’s place in the Star Wars universe and the behind the scenes wizardry that brought it to life on the big screen.
15. MADE FROM CAMERA PARTS
How were the original lightsabers in A New Hope designed? The glow was rotoscoped by Korean animator Nelson Shin, who would later go on to found Akom animation and direct the original Transformers series. The actual on-set props were designed by effects artist John Stears, who also worked on the early James Bond films. Two parts were needed to be designed: the hilt and the blade.
The blade was coated with retro-reflective sheeting to create an on-set glow, and was replaced with the rotoscope animation in post-production. The main materials used for the building the hilts were the flash battery packs of old Graphex press cameras. These tube-shaped camera components were already designed for lightbulbs to screw in at the top. It made perfect sense to use them to build a light-based weapon.
14. THE SOUND WAS FOUND BY ACCIDENT
Sound design, especially for fantasy and sci-fi films, requires a strong sense of imagination and the ability to make abstract connections feel natural. Ben Burtt designed the soundscape of the first seven Star Wars films (he wasn’t part of Rogue One or The Last Jedi but is coming back for Episode IX). His sound design for the lightsabers was part pre-planned, part happy accident.
Burtt knew for the hum of the lightsabers, he was going to use the sound of movie projector interlock motors. He didn’t know how to get the crackle sound he wanted. He found just what he needed when he passed a microphone behind a TV set. He recorded the electric interference that came on the microphone and the rest is movie history.
13. THE ORIGINAL CHOREOGRAPHER WORKED ON EVERYTHING
Bob Anderson choreographed the lightsaber battles in the original Star Wars trilogy. Though his expertise was in fencing, he decided the OT’s fights should borrow more from the slower movements of kendo. If you’re wondering why the physicality of Vader’s lightsaber technique improved in Empire and Jedi, part of it might be because Anderson himself filled in as the stunt double for Darth Vader.
If Anderson only choreographed the Star Wars movies, that’d be enough to prove his talent, but his resume was a lot bigger. Before Star Wars he did stunts for the James Bond movies. After, he choreographed the fights in The Princess Bride, The Mask of Zorro, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the first Pirates of the Carribean. Basically if there’s an awesome swordfight in an English language film made before 2012, you probably have Bob Anderson to thank.
12. GEORGE LUCAS MIGHT CALL THEM “LASER SWORDS”
Who knows what George Lucas’ thought process is in regards to his massive creation? Why did he make the decisions he did in the prequels, or in the gagillion Special Editions? There are so many stories of his eccentricities you can’t always tell what’s real and what stories are just screwing with you.
Case in point: in 2006, a rep from Industrial Light and Magic told Stephen Colbert that George Lucas calls lightsabers “laser swords,” as they were called in the first draft of the script. When Colbert asked Lucas to have a “laser sword fight” during his show’s commercial break, Lucas then responded, “Most people call them lightsabers.” Was someone pranking Colbert or does Lucas really not call them “lightsabers?” The world may never know.
11. SAMUEL L. JACKSON SPECIFIED MACE WINDU’S LIGHTSABER
Samuel L. Jackson really wanted to be in a Star Wars movie. He’d have been fine just being a Stormtrooper, but when he arrived on the set in London, he found out he was playing Mace Windu. Given a significant character, Jackson was sure to put his own distinctive spin on the character.
Mace Windu’s lightsaber is purple, a mix of the traditional Jedi blue and Sith red, because Jackson demanded it to be. He wanted the character to make an impression on audiences (and to be honest, the characters’ dialogue on its own wouldn’t have done that). Jackson owns the original prop hilt, which has the inscription “BMF.” What that stands for can’t be written on this site, but it’s the same as what’s on Jackson’s wallet in Pulp Fiction.
10. FIRST USE IN CANON: GREAT SCOURGE OF MALECHOR
Who first invented the lightsaber within the Star Wars universe? In the current canon, nobody knows that yet. In 2014, Lucasfilm declared the old Expanded Universe non-canonical, rebranding those stories as Star Wars Legends, to clear the way for the new movies. Within the current canonical Star Wars universe, the earliest instance of lightsaber usage was in the Great Scourge of Malachor.
The Great Scourge was a battle between the Jedi and the Sith on the planet Malachor thousands of years before any of the movies took place. Neither side won, as the Sith temple superweapon killed everyone on the planet. It was shown in a vision in Marvel’s Darth Maul #2. The petrified battlefield was discovered in the Star Wars Rebels episode “Twilight of the Apprentice.”
9. LEGENDS CONTINUITY ORIGINS: THE FIRST BLADE
In the Star Wars Legends universe, the evolution of lightsabers is explored in more depth. A precursor invention, the forcesaber, used a dark side energy capable of corrupting Je’daii (that’s not a typo; Je’daii was a balance-focused order from before the Jedi). Lightsabers, capable of freezing light and without the forcesaber’s corrupting influence, are all modeled after The First Blade.
The First Blade is the invention of a Je’daii known as The Weapon Master. The Master’s identity is unknown, but fans theorize that they could be Je’daii forger Tem Madog. The First Blade is introduced in the MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic. Its appearance in the game looks far more advanced than other protosabers, but it possibly could have been altered over the millenia.
8. MESS UP THE CONSTRUCTION, CAUSE AN EXPLOSION
While lightsabers come in many variations, there are certain components all lightsabers must have. They all need modulation circuits, an energy gate, some kind of activator, a blade emitter shroud and an emitter matrix. It’s that last piece, the emitter matrix, which requires the most careful handling. If inverted, the emitter matrix will destroy the lightsaber’s power grid.
In the mildest of cases, the inversion simply shorts out the lightsaber. In the worst case scenario, the malfunctioning weapon explodes, possibly killing those close by. You can see one such explosion in the Clone Wars episode “A Test of Strength.” In that episode, Petra intentionally inverts a lightsaber’s matrix to take out some pirates intent on stealing said lightsaber. This is a medium-level accident, stunning but not killing the pirates.
7. THE ORIGINAL LUKE KENNER TOY HAD A YELLOW LIGHTSABER
If you were a kid in 1978, you needed to have the Kenner Star Wars action figures. These toys were in such high demand Kenner actually got away with selling “Early Bird Certificate” preorders as its main product for Christmas of 1977. These toys allowed kids to play out their favorite scenes from the movie. However, something was different about the toy version of Luke Skywalker.
The issue was the color of the lightsaber. Luke’s lightsaber in the first two Star Wars movies is blue, but the toy’s is yellow. What inspired this mistake? Was it an intentional change, the result of unfinished reference footage or just an accident? Whatever the case, yellow lightsabers eventually appeared in canon in the Clone Wars episode “The Wrong Jedi.”
6. ZILLO BEASTS ARE LIGHTSABER RESISTANT
Is there anything you can’t destroy with a lightsaber? Most of the time, the only way to block a lightsaber attack is with another lightsaber or a similar energy conducting weapon. In Legends continuity, there are a number of obscure lightsaber weaknesses. These include alchemy, certain metals, Tikulini worms and, unless specially designed to deal with it, water. One of the only obscure weaknesses that’s confirmed in the current canon is Zillo Beast hide.
The only way to subdue a Zillo Beast is to stun it between the cracks in its armor. The only way to kill one is with toxic Malastarian fuel. Otherwise, it’s basically indestructable. People long believed the species to be extinct, but a live Zillo Beast was unearthed in the Clone Wars episode “The Zillo Beast.”
5. THE INQUISITORIUS HAD SPINNING LIGHTSABERS
If lightsabers with a single blade are awesome, it follows that double-bladed saberstaffs like the one used by Darth Maul are double awesome. With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility not to cut your own fingers off by accident. Shouldn’t there be some sort of safety precautions when it comes to wielding a double-bladed lightsaber?
The spinning dual-bladed lightsabers used by the Inquisitorius, the agents hunting down the remaining Jedi following Order 66, resolve this safety issue while also adding extra attack capabilities. There’s no change of your hand slipping when you wield one of these lightsabers due to the circular rim. Not only does the rim protect the user’s hand, it also allows the blades to spin, a power which gives the user the ability to fly. There are design flaws, however: if the rim was damaged it’d be extra bad news for the user.
4. THERE’S SUCH THING AS A DARKSABER
A darksaber sounds like it would be opposite of a lightsaber, but actually it’s just a shorter lightsaber with a curved black blade. There’s only one in existence, an ancient artifact created by Tarre Vizla, the first Mandalorian Jedi. There are seven confirmed darksaber wielders known in the Star Wars universe, the most well known of which among casual Star Wars fans is Darth Maul.
The darksaber initially symbolized leadership over House Vizsla, one of the major Mandalorian political factions. Over time, it came to symbolize Death Watch, a splinter group opposed to Mandalore’s pacifist government. Maul gained posession of the darksaber due to Death Watch joining his criminal alliance, the Shadow Collective. Sabine Wren, one of the main characters of Star Wars: Rebels, possessed it during the Age of the Empire.
3. THERE ARE SEVEN FORMS OF LIGHTSABER COMBAT
The seven forms of lightsaber combat were first labeled in the 2002 tie-in book Star Wars: Attack of the Clones: A Visual Dictionary. The 2015 book Star Wars: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know confirmed the same categorization is still canonical. Form I, Shi-cho, is the oldest form created by the Jedi. Form II, Makashi, is the standard for Sith duels. Form II, Soresu, is more about defense than attacking.
Form IV, Ataru, is acrobatic and useful for defending against projectiles. Form V, Shien, defends against laser attacks and uses an unconventional reverse grip. Form VI allows for a combination of double-blade lightsaber attacks and freedom to use other Force powers. Finally, Form VII is the most aggressive and unpredictable form, associated with Mace Windu.
2. OVER FOUR TIMES AS STRONG AS HAN’S BLASTER
So scientifically, just how powerful is a lightsaber? An infographic from the now defunct website FatWallet estimated the energy devastation in Joules of various sci-fi weapons. Supposedly they consulted with scientists on it, and while this is obviously extremely theoretical, Wookiepedia cites it as a legitimate source, which is about as official as Star Wars authorities get.
A lightsaber’s energy devastation is estimated at 1,600,000,000 Joules. For comparison, Han Solo’s blaster is estimated at 342,000,000 and an AT-AT at 75,000,000. The lightsaber’s energy devastation is above the Iron Giant and the Pacific Rim Jaegers and slightly below Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still. Obviously, the lightsaber’s power is a lot more concentrated in a smaller space than an AT-AT or a Jaeger. A lightsaber might slice through those giant robots, but those could still, like, step on a Jedi and smoosh them.
1. YOU CAN GET LIGHTSABER CHURROS AT DISNEYLAND
Is there any form of Star Wars merchandise that doesn’t exist? Somehow Lucasfilm and Disney manage to keep coming up with new ideas for ways to profit off the galaxy far, far away. It’s almost hard to believe that you couldn’t buy lightsaber churros until 2017. The blue and red churros, seasoned with just sugar and no cinammon, are available at Disneyland outside the Star Tours attraction.
They’ve also been available at Disney World during limited time events. Alas, the specially hilts were only available as part of a special event, so while you can still buy these churros, you’ll have to hold them with a regular napkin… or you can get your hands messy and hold them yourself. You won’t be judged, and it’s not as if you’re touching an actual lightsaber.
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