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Star Wars: The Force Awakens on location

Star Wars: The Force Awakens launches on 18 December in the UK and a day later in the US. All we know of the story is that it is set 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. But what do the film locations tell us?

We’ll be treated to a new generation of heroes and villains, as well as the return of fan-favourite smugglers, princesses and Jedi. We look at the locations used in the film.

Some movie productions use location-based shooting as part of their pre-launch marketing activity, but Star Wars: The Force Awakens aimed for greater secrecy from the start.

While business politics and logistics mean some elements of the Lucasfilm shoot were well-publicised, others only came to light as a result of fortuitous accidents or fanboy espionage. The end result, however, is that it is now possible to paint a pretty comprehensive picture of how production on one of the most hotly-anticipated movies of the decade unfolded.

The first big news came in late 2013, when it was announced that the new movie would be based at Pinewood Studios in the UK.  The actual studio shoot then took place a year later. Clearly Lucasfilm enjoyed its time at Pinewood, as both Rogue One: A Stars Story and Star Wars: Episode VIII have been confirmed for the London studio. 
 


Director JJ Abrams and his Star Wars team also used various UK locations during the second half of 2014. One of the more amusing sightings came in September 2014 when a pilot taking publicity photographs for a flying school accidentally captured images of a full-scale Millennium Falcon and an X-Wing fighter being built at Greenham Common in Berkshire. It wasn’t until he got home that he realised what he had stumbled across and alerted the UK media.

Prior to that, Star Wars fans discovered the film crew had also been working in Puzzlewood (pictured below), a section of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire that has previously been used for Doctor Who, Merlin and Atlantis.

Ahead of the film’s launch there is no clear information on why the film crew was there but there has been speculation that it might be used to double for the Ewoks’ home Endor or the swampy planet Dagobah that was home to Jedi Master Yoda in his final years.

 


With the film based at Pinewood, there was an understandable preference for locations that were relatively close geographically. In late July 2014 the Star Wars team filmed on Skellig Michael (pictured below), a remote unpopulated island off the Western coast of Ireland. The decision to shoot on the island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and wildlife conservation zone, caused some controversy. But the Irish government’s desire to attract the international movie industry won the day.

The team filmed for three days in late July and has since revisited to shoot scenes for Star Wars: Episode VIII, which will be released in 2017.

“Skellig Michael is one of our most dramatic and beautiful islands and it is very easy to understand why its stunning scenery has caught the attention of the makers of one of the world’s biggest film franchises,” said Irish arts minister Heather Humphreys.

“The return of Star Wars is a win for Ireland and the film industry, which is a growing and dynamic sector of our economy.”

Unverified reports suggested the quest for dramatic scenery had taken the production to both Scotland and Iceland. The film’s trailer shows dramatic snowy backdrops, but there’s little hint of the specific filming location. The Iceland theory is supported by IMDb credits for Martin Joy and Finnur Johannsson as members of a local production unit.

What we know for certain is that Abu Dhabi was a key filming location, taking advantage of an attractive 30% tax rebate.

Shooting took place in spring/summer 2014 and local media reported that one of the locations used was the Rub’ al Khali desert two hours outside the city. Aerial shots were also captured in the vicinity of Abu Dhabi’s Jumeirah hotel. Local production was facilitated by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission and service company twofour54 intaj.

At the height of the desert shoot in May, around 700 people were involved in the production. Logistically complex, it required sets and roads to be built in a short time. However, Abrams was reportedly pleased with the result. Speaking at the Star Wars Celebration in California, he said: “Shooting in Abu Dhabi was an incredible thing. Shooting Star Wars is a western and a fairy tale... shooting in Abu Dhabi was just that.”

There were reports in late 2013 that the film would shoot scenes in New Mexico but there was never any follow up to suggest this actually happened. The credits do refer to a Norwegian scout, Per Henry Borch. Norway is likely to have been passed over in favour of Iceland, a country which offers filming incentive support and has been used before by Abrams for his Star Trek movies.

Visual effects work - including limited green-screen filming – was reportedly planned early on for Abrams’ Bad Robot production facility in Santa Monica, allowing the filmmaker to spend more time with his family in Los Angeles during the movie’s lengthy shoot.
 


Getting details of companies that worked with Lucasfilm on the new Star Wars movie is almost as hard as digging up locations. Industrial Light & Magic, founded back in the 70s by Star Wars creator George Lucas, led the visual effects work, while Base FX and Blind also contributed.

The UK-based aerial filming company Flying Pictures was used while Panalux is credited as the film’s lighting supplier. Also credited is Chapman/Leonard Studio Equipment, a leading supplier of custom camera support equipment.

As for the cameras themselves, the production mainly used 35mm cameras that were custom-built for the shoot by Panavision. The team also used 65mm IMAX cameras for some shots.

With all those stunning locations and expert knowledge, fans worldwide are bound to be in for a treat. 

Star Wars images: Disney/Lucasfilm



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