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A Star Wars scene on the fictional planet Ahch-To

Jonathan Olley/2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. &™, All Rights Reserved.

STANDARDS

CCSS: 6.NS.C.8, MP4, MP5, MP6

TEKS: 6.11A

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Not So Far, Far Away

Our very own planet Earth has a starring role in the Star Wars saga

This month, moviegoers will head to theaters to see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It’s the final installment of the most-recent Star Wars trilogy that introduced fans to new characters, like rebellious pilot Poe Dameron, First Order defector Finn, and future Jedi Rey.

But the other “stars” of the films are the places they visit, like the endless desert of Jakku and the seaside city of Canto Bight. To create the epic space saga, filmmakers traveled the globe, transforming real-world deserts and forests into alien landscapes. Choosing the perfect filming location required months of research and careful planning.

This month, movie fans will line up to see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It’s the last in a series of three Star Wars movies. The trilogy introduced fans to new characters, like rebellious pilot Poe Dameron, runaway soldier Finn, and future Jedi Rey.

But the other “stars” of the films are the places they visit. These include the desert of Jakku and the seaside city of Canto Bight. To create the epic movie, filmmakers traveled the globe. They transformed real-world deserts and forests into alien landscapes. Choosing each filming location required months of research and planning. 

Chad Ehlers/Alamy Stock Photo (California); Ralph Nelson Jr./©Lucasfilm Ltd. &™, All Rights Reserved. (Endor)

CALIFORNIA

Star Wars Planet: Endor

Movie: Return of the Jedi

Scene: Leia crash-lands on Endor and meets an Ewok.

FROM SCRIPT TO SCENE

It all starts with the script. “Usually there is a very bare-bones description of the environment in the script,” explains Phil Szostak, a creative art manager at Lucasfilm, the production company for Star Wars. Artists will use the script to make concept art, or illustrations of what is described in the script.

Sometimes artists will suggest filming locations based on research they did while designing their concept art. Using the script and the art team’s suggestions, the location scouts research and visit potential places to film. “The challenge comes from finding places that are not only beautiful but also accessible for the crew to arrive and shoot at,” Szostak says.

It all starts with the script. “Usually there is a very bare-bones description of the environment in the script,” explains Phil Szostak. He’s a creative art manager at Lucasfilm, the production company that makes Star Wars. Artists will use the script to make concept art. These illustrations show what the script describes.

Artists often do research to help with their concept art. Sometimes they suggest filming locations based on what they find. Then location scouts study the script and the art team’s suggestions. They research and visit potential places to film. “The challenge comes from finding places that are not only beautiful but also accessible for the crew to arrive and shoot at,” says Szostak. 

Cultura RM/Alamy Stock Photo (Norway); ©Lucasfilm Ltd. &™, All Rights Reserved. (Hoth)

NORWAY

Star Wars Planet: Hoth

Movie: The Empire Strikes Back

Scene: Luke Skywalker rides a tauntaun to scout the planet.

ISOLATED ISLAND

One of Szostak’s favorite filming locations is the island that stands in for Ahch-To. Luke Skywalker has been hiding out on this planet for years. Rey tracks him down there and asks him to train her as a Jedi. The actual site where scenes were filmed is called Skellig Michael. It’s a tiny rocky island off the southwestern coast of Ireland.

“It seemed really appropriate for an isolated, rugged hiding place,” says Szostak. “It follows in the tradition of Star Wars locations that are tied with nature and thus tied with the Force.” (The Force is the mysterious energy in the Star Wars films that some characters, like the Jedi, can use.) But as with any real-world location, filming on Skellig Michael had its challenges.

One of Szostak’s favorite filming locations is an island. In the movie, it’s called Ahch-To. It’s a planet where Luke Skywalker has been hiding out for years. Rey tracks him down there and asks him to train her as a Jedi. The actual site where scenes were filmed is called Skellig Michael. It’s a tiny rocky island off the southwestern coast of Ireland.

“It seemed really appropriate for an isolated, rugged hiding place,” says Szostak. It also made sense for a Jedi training ground. In other Star Wars movies, natural areas are tied to the Force. This is the mysterious energy that some characters, like the Jedi, can use.

©2017 Industrial Light & Magic/Lucasfilm Entertainment Company Ltd., All Rights Reserved (Porg); iStockPhoto/Getty Images (puffin)

At the end of The Force Awakens, you can see blurry puffins flying around in the background as Rey climbs up the island’s steep cliffs. Because Skellig Michael is a World Heritage Site, the seabird population there is protected. They couldn’t be scared away to shoot any scenes.

The filmmakers had to make a decision: Edit the puffins out or find a way to incorporate them into the Star Wars universe. That’s how the porg was born. These cute, feathered creatures were designed to cover up the puffins using computer-generated imagery. “We took a limitation of the filming location and we turned it into part of the storytelling,” says Szostak.

But filming on Skellig Michael had its challenges. You can see a hint of one at the end of The Force Awakens, the first movie in the trilogy. Blurry puffins fly around in the background as Rey climbs up the island’s steep cliffs. Skellig Michael is a protected area for seabirds. Filmmakers weren’t allowed to scare the birds away to shoot any scenes.

The filmmakers had to make a decision. Should they edit the puffins out or find a way to incorporate them into the Star Wars universe? That’s how the porg was born. These cute, feathered creatures were designed to cover up the puffins. Filmmakers created them using computer-generated imagery. “We took a limitation of the filming location and we turned it into part of the storytelling,” says Szostak. 

Buena Vista Images/Getty Images (UAE); David James/©2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. &™, All Rights Reserved. (Jakku)

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

Star Wars Planet: Jakku

Movie: The Force Awakens

Scene: The scavenger named Rey is introduced.

DESERT DUNES

Sometimes choosing a filming location comes down to the wire. “Since The Force Awakens was the first Star Wars movie in 10 years, director J.J. Abrams wanted to ground the audience in classic Star Wars,” says Szostak. He wanted the planet Jakku to remind fans of Tatooine. Tatooine is the desert planet where Luke Skywalker grew up. Much of the original and prequel Star Wars trilogies take place there. But Abrams was torn between Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and Wadi Rum, Jordan. He chose Abu Dhabi only 18 weeks prior to shooting. Luckily, a resort nearby was the perfect place to house the film crew with such short notice.

“Abrams wanted an endless ocean of desert,” says Szostak. “He found that in Abu Dhabi.” The city is home to the largest sand dunes in the world, some of them more than 1,000 feet high!

Sometimes choosing the right filming location is difficult. The Force Awakens was the first Star Wars movie in 10 years. Director J.J. Abrams wanted to remind the audience of classic Star Wars movies, says Szostak. He wanted the planet Jakku to look similar to Tatooine. Tatooine is the desert planet where Luke Skywalker grew up. Many scenes in the earlier Star Wars movies take place there.

But Abrams was torn between two filming locations: Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and Wadi Rum, Jordan. He chose Abu Dhabi only18 weeks before crews started shooting the movie. Finding a place for the crew to stay on such short notice isn’t easy. Luckily, a resort nearby was the perfect place.

“Abrams wanted an endless ocean of desert,” says Szostak. “He found that in Abu Dhabi.” The city is home to the largest sand dunes in the world. Some are more than 1,000 feet high! 

o-che/E+/Getty Images (Croatia); Film Frames Industrial Light & Magic/©2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved. (Cantonica)

CROATIA

Star Wars Planet: Cantonica

Movie: The Last Jedi

Scene: Finn, Rose Tico, and BB-8 visit its capital city Canto Bight to make contact with the Master Codebreaker.

OLD WORLD CITY

Not every filming location is as remote as Skellig Michael or as harsh as the Abu Dhabi deserts. Canto Bight, the capital city of the casino planet Cantonica visited in The Last Jedi, might look familiar: It’s actually the medieval city of Dubrovnik in Croatia. Many other TV shows and movies have been filmed there.

“It’s really important that when we film on location, we choose somewhere that people will not associate with Earth,” says Szostak. “The closest we have gotten to something like that is Dubrovnik.”

Once filmmakers start shooting in a city or an existing temple or ruin, making sure the landscape still feels alien can become tricky. “We can’t have any real recognizable cultural elements from our planet,” says Szostak. Part of the Star Wars movie magic is maintaining the illusion that the story is unfolding a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—even if the action is filmed right here on Earth.

Not every filming location is as remote as Skellig Michael or as harsh as the Abu Dhabi desert. Canto Bight is the capital city of the casino planet Cantonica. Star Wars characters visit it in The Last Jedi, the second movie in the trilogy. But it might look familiar: It’s actually the medieval city of Dubrovnik in Croatia. Many other TV shows and movies have been filmed there.

“It’s really important that when we film on location, we choose somewhere that people will not associate with Earth,” says Szostak. “The closest we have gotten to something like that is Dubrovnik.” 

Shooting in a city or an existing temple or ruin can be tricky. Filmmakers have to make sure the setting still feels alien. “We can’t have any real recognizable cultural elements from our planet,” says Szostak. Part of the magic of Star Wars movies is the illusion that they’re happening a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—even if the action is filmed right here on Earth.

Georg Ismar/picture alliance via Getty Images (Bolivia); Film Frames Industrial Light & Magic/©2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. &™, All Rights Reserved. (Crait)

BOLIVIA

Star Wars Planet: Crait

Movie: The Last Jedi

Scene: The Rebellion and First Order go to battle.

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YOUR TURN

Use the chart below and the map to answer the following questions about Star Wars movie locations. 

Use the chart below and the map to answer the following questions about Star Wars movie locations. 

Jim McMahon/Mapman

Locate and label on the map the real-world locations that have stood in for out-of-this-world planets and moons in the Star Wars movies, using the coordinates above.

Locate and label on the map the real-world locations that have stood in for out-of-this-world planets and moons in the Star Wars movies, using the coordinates above.

Which filming location is farthest west?

Which filming location is farthest west?

Which filming location is closest to the prime meridian?

Which filming location is closest to the prime meridian?

Which filming location is closest to the equator?

Which filming location is closest to the equator?

The Rise of Skywalker features scenes filmed in Jordan. The coordinates of Jordan’s capital Amman, are 32°N, 36°E. Plot this on the map and label it.

The Rise of Skywalker features scenes filmed in Jordan. The coordinates of Jordan’s capital Amman, are 32°N, 36°E. Plot this on the map and label it.

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