The Star Wars lightsaber is the most iconic science fiction weapon in all of cinematic history. What’s behind the mystique of the laser sword? And how ‘far, far away’ are we from creating the real deal here on Earth?
For nearly forty years, the Star Wars franchise has been a powerful symbol in science fiction culture,achieving cult status and influencing millions of people. With the new Star Wars film, Episode VII ‘The Force Awakens’ coming out near Christmas, the craze has been reignited and merchandise is flooding the toy shops. One status symbol remains strong on the shop shelves, the greatest and most talked about Star Wars gadget that has captured the imagination of fans for almost four decades. The ultimate Jedi and Sith weapon: the lightsaber.
There is no other weapon like it. The lightsaber holds a mystique and power that is only attainable by those who have the force to wield it. Described as the ‘elegant weapon for a more civilised age’ by veteran Jedi master Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi, the creation of a lightsaber is down to energy, channelled into a blade with the help of special crystals and alchemy.
One who wields a lightsaber holds a noble status; instead of shooting an enemy with a powerful laser weapon, one chooses to deflect ray gun fire with the sabre and fight with strength, skill and ‘force’. Plus, it can cut through almost everything.
Let’s face it; every Star Wars fan wants one. Every non-Star Wars fan would probably like to own a sabre too, if not for everyday jobs, like cutting vegetables or dealing with overgrown hedgerows, then just for fun. Owning a lightsaber would open up a world of possibilities, plus a load of health and safety issues. So how far away are we from actually making the real deal?
We’ll go back to basics first. The weapons were originally called laser swords, but George Lucas, the original chairman of Lucasfilm (which he sold to Disney, along with the rights to Star Wars, for $4.05bn [£2.5bn] in 2012), changed the name to lightsaber in later drafts.
Academy Award winner Roger Christian, who designed the lightsaber/laser sword, the Star Wars trilogy sets and R2-D2, one of the best-known robots in sci- fi history, says that Lucas was fascinated by pulp fiction magazines and “films like ‘Forbidden Planet’ with Robbie the Robot. George studied mythology very deeply and would have known that Excalibur was the iconic image of King Arthur. He also would have known that most of the ancient myths have specially empowered weapons and swords.
“The logical progression at the time for science fiction, as George envisioned it, was a light blade. Much like a welding torch looks.”
The sabre was also meant to be an ordinary, white-bladed weapon carried by many characters, like the clumsy Stormtroopers. Lucas eventually decided to make lightsabers special coloured devices carried only by Jedi and the Sith to build mystique and reverence for individuals that wielded them.
The lightsaber’s colour is dependent on the crystal that focuses the energy, according to Jedi lore (which was expanded upon in the vast universe of books and games of the franchise). However, the films’ production was the more likely reason for the colours. Luke Skywalker’s sabre was originally blue, but it was changed to green as a fight scene at Sarlaac in Episode VI meant the sabre was lost in the blue sky. Additionally, the villain Darth Vader had a red blade to further differentiate the colours and this led to red Sith blades in other films (e.g. Emperor Palpatine’s and Count Dooku’s in the prequels) as an indication of the dark side.
The newest instalment of Star Wars has a brand-new villain called Kylo Ren. Shrouded in mystery, his lightsaber is reminiscent of a medieval longsword, with a sputtering cross blade. Christian, who won his Oscar for the set design of Star Wars Episode IV, says: “The intention must have been to create a brand-new image for the laser sword and sir up a buzz, and that has certainly succeeded.
“The cross blades are - in a way - a natural evolution of the blade guards. If an opponent managed to strike and their blade hit the cross guards, it would be stopped, saving injury, so it’s logical and looks very cool.”
The makings of a lightsaber
In the Star Wars galaxy, a lightsaber is partly electronic, but must incorporate natural crystals that cannot be made artificially. A Jedi or Sith must assemble their own weapon by hand.
For the prop lightsabers used in filming of the original trilogy, the hilts were made from antique camera flash handles. Luke’s was a Graflex, while Darth Vader’s was an MPP microflash. Obi-Wan’s hilt was made from a Rolls-Royce Derwent Mk.8/Mk.9 jet engine balance pipe. Christian’s dressing budget was a meagre $200,000 (about £130,000) to develop R2-D2 and dress all the sets, weapons and props, so he had to improvise.
Christian says that it drove him mad trying to find an object to base the lightsaber on, but he eventually “found the Graflex flash handles in a box of junked items in a photography store. These Graflex cameras are press cameras, and the flash unit clipped onto the camera.” He adds that it was “like finding the holy grail”.
Explaining how he built them, the British set-designer-turned-director says: “Inside the shaft were the batteries to power the flash bulb. I removed the chrome bowl that acted as the reflector and added T-section rubber strips around the shaft to create the handles. I had stripped down an old calculator and removed the bubble strips that acted as magnifiers and stuck these along the clip to change the look.
“To create a light on the shooting floor, I had the special effects team place a small motor in the end of the Graflex. They set the motor a tiny bit off-centre, and we placed a wood dowel into it, painted with front projection paint.
“This is the paint that is used for blue screen backgrounds when it is replaced by a new scene.” The paint is reflective and attracts light, so the special effects team could create mattes to separate the foreground accurately.
“Then George’s team at ILM rotoscoped the light blade, the same technique as animating it,” Christian continues. “CGI was not known when we created the first Star Wars. The blade was painted in frame by frame and where there was a small glow from the bluescreen blade, they augmented it to create the light blade. The rest was all animated by rotoscoping.”
What about the essential sound of the lightsaber? “Ben Burt, who created all the sounds for Star Wars, recorded the hum from two motors in old cinema projectors,” Christian explains. “He accidentally heard the buzz from his television, an older tube version, when his microphone was placed near it. These two elements created the sound that really helped to make the lightsaber real.” Now you know.
Christian loved the look of the lightsaber and thought if the film worked, then it would be an icon of the Star Wars world, but “little did I know it would become the most popular film prop in the history of cinema.
“It’s flattering to have made it so simply and quickly and all for around nine pounds sterling. I loved the look and the feel of it when I first held it in my office, having assembled it.
“I called George [Lucas] over to look, and his smile as he held it said more than a million words.”
Recreating lightsaber technology
The production of the prop lightsaber sounds difficult enough, so imagine attempting to replicate the deadly weapon that we see cutting through almost anything on-screen. How would one do it?
Laser technology, with its ability to cut through pretty much everything, seems to be the clear option for the lightsaber. However, there’s a lot more to it.
A laser beam would not stop at the end of the blade and will carry on into the sky. You could put a cap on the end of the blade with a mirror, but it would mean you couldn’t stab anyone, a necessity when battling your enemies. Plus, it would be very dangerous and problematic to wield.
Putting danger aside, what about super-hot plasma as your sabre? In 2010, engineer Matt Gluesenkamp of General Electric blogged that a lightsaber’s blade appears to be a form of electrically-generated plasma in its appearance, but no battery-?sized power source exists which would provide the required amount of electricity. So that would be a no for now.
Theoretical physicist, writer and science fiction fan Dr Michio Kaku concurred, stating that we could build a lightsaber using products found on Earth, but technology would need an upgrade.
Reporting for Science Channel, Kaku explained his own hypothetical design: “First of all, a lightsaber needs a plasma torch. My design is based on a blade from super-hot plasma. At the base of the lightsaber’s handle is a titanium fan.
“I switch it on and 100 cubic feet of air per second is sucked into the hilt where it is super-heated to create 12,000 degree plasma. You wouldn’t want super-heated plasma dripping all over you, so an electromagnetic coil will keep the plasma in check.”
Even if you could contain the blade, what would hold it together and stop it all from falling apart? “The answer is ceramics,” Kaku answered. “A telescopic ceramic rod shoots out of the handle. It can resist the blistering temperatures generated by the plasma. But how do we energise it? Where is the battery? Where does the energy come from? The energy comes from nanobatteries. Inside the sabre’s handle sit trillions of nanobatteries powering the plasma generator. This technology could be with us in less than 50 years’ time. It can cut through pretty much anything.
“Its electromagnetic field hums and crackles and it will clash in a duel. It really is an elegant weapon from a more civilised age.”
A step closer
In the last few years there has been some interesting progress towards building objects made of weightless particles of light. In 2013, Harvard and MIT physicists announced that they had managed to get photons, particles that represent a quantum of light, to stick together like molecules in a super-chilled gas.
Photons have no mass and travel at the speed of light. They aren’t charged particles, so tend not to interact with each other, but they do mingle with charged electrons. The researchers shot a cloud of cold rubidium atoms with a laser and found that the photons clumped together when they passed through. It was as if the photons were superimposed one on top of another as they travelled through the gas.
The Harvard experiment created a medium where photons act like charged particles with mass, which means they can form ‘molecules’.
In September this year, a team from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and University of Maryland tweaked the binding process of the photons. Professor Alexey Gorshkov of NIST, who took part in the research, explained that they “found that interactions between photons can be tuned in such a way that two photons bind to each other to form an effective molecule, in which one photon propagates in lockstep a fixed distance behind the other,” like two hydrogen atoms sitting together in a hydrogen molecule.
Although Gorshkov insisted that lightsabers won’t be around any time soon, “generally speaking, the demonstrated tunability of photon-photon interactions might be useful for creating lightsabers. Perhaps more specifically and much more speculatively, the proposed two-photon molecule can be thought of as a small building block, which can eventually be put together with many other such building blocks to create a lightsaber.”
Uses for molecular light
There are other - less far-fetched - reasons to make molecular light, such as improving upon communication technology and high-definition imaging, which are based on light. Of all professions, engineers need to be able to precisely calibrate light sensors.
Gorshkov adds that the latest findings could make it much easier to create a ‘standard candle’ that has the ability to shine an exact number of photons at a detector. This could also do a lot for the computer industry, by turning photons into information processors.
Gorshkov explains: “Nowadays electrons are used for processing information, while photons are employed for transmitting information over long distances. The reason photons aren’t used for processing is because they don’t interact with each other. Once we know how to make photons interact strongly and cleanly with each other, we will be able to use them for both transmitting and processing of information. This way, you wouldn’t need to engage in a wasteful conversion of information from photons to electrons and back.” That’s a big plus for the world, but not so good for lightsaber enthusiasts.
Master Yoda once mused: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Let’s hope that scientists and engineers take heed and conquer the obstacles, so we can get our hands (or lack thereof if one is not careful: lightsabers are extremely dangerous) on the most iconic science fiction weapon in the world. Many will be waiting, even if it’s ‘far, far away’.