Like many folks lucky enough to have been kids after 1977, I was obsessed with Star Wars. I spent whole summers careening around my backyard with a lightsaber made from taped-together paper towel rolls, making “VWUUM VWUUM!” sounds and pretending to be a Jedi Knight.
Once I grew up, I had trouble letting all this awesomeness go. “Wouldn’t it be great if lightsabers were real?” I thought. Luckily enough, there were other Star Wars obsessed (former) kids out there willing to put the concept to the test! Here’s a Could It Happen? rough guide to movie lightsabers, and the hows and whys of real-world application.
The movie magic:
The classic Star Wars lightsabers are, sadly, only props. But way cool ones—because due to budget constraints, almost everything that made up A New Hope’s look and sound was ingeniously repurposed from something else entirely. Lightsabers, for example, were actually mostly camera parts.
The hilt was the shaft of a Graflex camera flash, dating from the 1940’s: apparently junk at the time, but now very difficult to find. The lightsaber’s “emitter” was the clamp that held the actual flash bulb to the shaft. Windshield wiper blades were used for the grip, and a bubble display from a calculator slid into the side clamp completed the look.
During filming, long aluminum rods were attached to the handles. The actors then dueled with them as though they were real blades, and in post-production, animators painstakingly added in the light effects cel by cel. In the re-releases of the movies, (and in Episodes I-III, or as I call them, The Prequels Which Must Not Be Named) CGI made this only slightly easier, as animators no longer had to paint in effects by hand, but still had to work their magic in every single frame.
The fantasy facts:
In Star Wars mythology, a lightsaber is a very personal weapon, built by individual Jedi for their own use, according to techniques passed down by their mentors. Though no two are exactly the same, they all have similar basic components:
- a diatium power cell which generates the powerful plasma beam;
- a pair of crystals, one for converting the power from the battery, and one for focussing it;
- the energy channel, in which the power from the battery converts into the visible arc wave that makes up the blade of the weapon.
The lightsaber can slice (a Tauntaun belly, for example), melt (blast doors that are too thick to cut through), and deflect (blaster bolts!). Fun fact: the colour of the blade — which I always thought was coded blue-for-good, red-for-evil — depends on the crystals used. Particularly fashionable Jedi (I’m looking at you, Samuel L. Jackson!) can accessorize up with any colour they like.
The home hobbyist:
Real-world attempts to build functional lightsabers have met with no success. Concepts from electron beams to straight-up lasers have been proposed, but in all cases the technology doesn’t yet exist to make the classic lightsaber we all know and love.
That shouldn’t stop the home hobbyist though! If you think taped-together paper towel rolls are for dilettantes, there are plenty of resources to help you build your own custom lightsaber hilt. (Google around a bit for a wide selection of how-to’s!) Non-functional, of course, but they still looks great hanging from the belt of your best Comicon outfit — or for running around the backyard, fighting the Empire and making “VWUUM VWUUM!” sounds.