In all of the annals of film and science fiction, you'd be hard pressed to find an object as singularly identifiable as the Star Wars lightsaber. Even if you don't like science fiction, you can probably tell a lightsaber sight unseen, just by the distinctive whooshing sound it makes. That's an impressive feat for a prop that, originally, was nothing more than a rotoscoped stick. It's a journey that has been documented in this great 15-minute film that details the secret design history of the lightsaber.
According to George Lucas, he came up with the idea of a lightsaber for Star Wars because the film was meant to be a space-age Arthurian epic. It needed its own legendary weapon that the Jedi could use to set them apart, but it also needed to seem futuristic. Most importantly, since Jedis were supposed to be peacekeepers, Lucas wanted the weapon to be purely defensive. He finally settled on the idea of a laser sword to be his franchise's Excalibur.
Bringing the lightsaber to life in the Star Wars films was an organic process. Originally, Lucas's vision was that a lightsaber should be an extremely heavy weapon, at least 40 or 50 pounds, that required two-hands to lift. This is why all of the lightsaber duels in Star Wars are two-handed affairs. Over time, though, Lucas realized that he needed a way to show that Luke Skywalker was getting to be more proficient as a sword fighter, so the lightsabers became conceptually lighter, capable of being wielded with one hand.
The actual handle of the original lightsaber was a movie flash canister with the bulb removed. For the blades, Lucas first used rotating poles covered in reflective material, but it only looked good in certain lighting. Eventually, Lucas and his team decided to rotoscope animation over the blades, giving the lightsaber its distinctive appearance.
Perhaps the most important design element of a lightsaber, though, had nothing to do with the way it looked. It was the way it sounded. For that, we can thank legendary sound designer Ben Burtt, who also designed the sounds of Star Wars's blasters, R2-D2, and Vader's breathing.
The lightsaber was the first sound Burtt designed for Star Wars. According to Burtt, when watching the dailies of the lightsaber duels, he found himself drawn to the sound the film projector made. Deciding that this was probably what a lightsaber sounded like, Burtt supplemented it with a buzzing sound captured with an unshielded mic from an old television tube. "It's the buzz that makes the lightsaber sound dangerous," says Burtt. From there, he mixed the sounds together, then used an electronic wand to sync the sounds he had created with a lightsaber duel as it happens.
Whether you're a Star Wars die-hard or not, there are some great details in this documentary that show just how important design is in bringing a film to life. Watch it here.