The Surprising Practical Effects of the Star Wars Prequels

Art & Sculpture Craft & Design
The Surprising Practical Effects of the Star Wars Prequels


The popular belief goes that “practical effects” in films, using physical models and mechanical effects as opposed to CGI, is a dead or dying art. While there has certainly been an ascendancy in computer-generated special effects, with some films relying on them almost exclusively, there is still a lot of amazing model making and miniature set building being used in modern film making. And there seems to be something of a resurgence going on, with directors making greater and more effective use of mixed practical and CGI effects.

The moment in cinematic history that is often pointed to as the sea change from practical to CGI is the Star Wars prequels: The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith. In fact, it was the great advances in CGI at the time that allegedly seduced George Lucas back to the idea of doing these films. (Damn you, CGI!)

But as it turns out, there was actually a ton of practical effects and model making being done in these films, and Make: pals Adam Savage and Tory Belleci were on the team. Recently, a conversation on Reddit broke out about Adam and Tory’s Hollywood model making days, after the above picture appeared on Imgur. Soon, Adam himself chimed in on the thread to talk about his work on these films:

It was AMAZING to work on the prequels. Not so much to watch them. Ahh well. That job, the making of the buildings of Tipoca City, was a super fun and difficult job. Maybe one of the best teams of modelmakers I know of: John Duncan, John Goodson, Tory Belleci, Dave Fogler. Supervised by Brian Gernand. The big hero building I’m working on there was a mad 3 week dash to finish (just the modelmaking- the painters then had a couple of weeks to paint all the buildings). IN fact you can see details from my model there all over the Obiwan/Jango fight scene on the landing platform. They used my model as the background for that whole scene. Awesome seeing my work blown up (and holding its scale) across a big movie screen. Still gives me chills. I had a rough sketch to work from but got to make up all the detailing as I saw fit. Doug Chiang was a fantastic art director to work for: once he saw you knew what you were doing, he’d let you fly and make your own calls on many of the aesthetic points.

Here is a gallery of some of the model and miniature set shots from these films. You can see young Adam in the first of these pics.

In addressing the pro- and anti-CGI sentiments, Reddit user Hamlet9000 had this to say:

There’s nothing more hilarious than listening to zealous anti-CGI ranters ramble on and on about how CGI sucks and models or latex masks are totally the only way to do SFX. Why? Because about 80% of the time the stuff they’re pointing at as “CGI” is actually a model. And frequently the stuff they laud as “practical effects” is, in fact, laden with CGI. For example, remember all of the people raving on and on and on about Mad Max: Fury Road using practical effects and how it was a great example of how CGI was ruining the film industry? In reality, virtually every single shot in the entire movie had CGI in it.

He has a great point. I was shocked when I saw production stills from Fury Road and realized how much of the film was actually CGI. In fact, I think that film is a perfect example of getting the right mix of CGI and mechanical effects, and that as more filmmakers learn how to better combine these techniques, we’ll see a lot more seamless integration of the two. So, the art of practical effects, while now relegated to being only one of several tools in the box, doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Note: One other fun thing to come from this thread: Several people in it point out that Adam once said that whenever you see a model maker posing with work tools on an already painted model, it is a “fake,” posed shot. You are busted, Savage!

You can read the rest of the Reddit thread and find links to many more photo galleries of behind the scenes prequel photos here.

1 thought on “The Surprising Practical Effects of the Star Wars Prequels

  1. John Zhou says:

    “Not so much to watch them.”

    another idiot that can’t see how good the prequels are. Yes, the prequels were had tons of weaknesses but you’re just basically tagging along with the critics.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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