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The Last-Minute Change Made To The Empire Strikes Back's Original Ending

It turns out that Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back contained some surprising foreshadowing — of George Lucas' love of tinkering with his films.

The sequel to 1977's Star Wars and a film that many consider to be the greatest of the entire franchise, Empire turns the big 4-0 this year — and as such, the official Star Wars website has been in overdrive posting interesting tidbits about the film's production. Perhaps the most shocking of those: that Lucas insisted on adding three new shots to the end of the movie after it had already premiered.

The shocker comes from author J.W. Rinzler, who spoke with former Industrial Light and Magic general manager Tom Smith for his book The Making of The Empire Strikes Back. Smith recalled that after catching a special 70mm sneak preview showing of Empire, Lucas had called him with what we now know to be a very Lucas-y proposition: to create the three new shots — special effects shots, no less — in time for Empire's wide release. 

You see, the '80s were a different time, and even a film so hotly anticipated as The Empire Strikes Back could roll out with a sneak preview release weeks before going wide without much fear of those early audiences spoiling the heck out of the film for everyone else. As such, the ILM team would have a little bit of time before Empire was released to general audiences to fulfill Lucas' mandate. How much time, you ask? Three whole weeks. No sweat!

George Lucas thought the original ending of The Empire Strikes Back was too confusing

What had jumped out at Lucas during his screening was a lack of narrative clarity in the movie's final moments. As we're sure you remember, the flick ends with Luke Skywalker on a medical frigate, recovering after getting his new hand installed, accompanied by Princess Leia, C-3PO, and R2-D2. The remnants of the rebel fleet are in a loose formation around the frigate, while Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca are aboard the Millennium Falcon, preparing to attempt a rescue of Han Solo (who, of course, had been frozen in carbonite and whisked away to Jabba the Hutt's palace by Boba Fett).

Lucas got it into his head that, as the film was cut, it was tough to tell where Luke, Leia, and the droids were in relation to Lando and Chewie. In the original version, Lando speaks to Luke over the comm link — "Luke, we're ready for takeoff" — which is followed by a cut to the interior of the medical bay. In Lucas' mind, it was implied that everybody was aboard the same ship; with the cuts taking place between the interiors of different ships and no shot establishing where those ships actually were in physical space, Lucas felt that it was all very unclear.

Fortunately, he had a solution: three brief, simple shots that he drew up which could easily be inserted into the existing cut, and which would clarify exactly what was going on in the final scene. Unfortunately, all three would require intensive work on the part of ILM and the film's editing department, all of whom were just starting to relax after having worked on the film for months.

Three new shots and some clever editing fixed the problem

Constructing the new shots themselves was relatively simple. The first was simply an establishing shot of the Rebel fleet. The second approaches the cockpit of the Falcon from the outside, to make it clear that Lando and Chewie are aboard. The third pans over from the Falcon's exterior to the window of the medical bay before cutting to the interior. A few new models had to be constructed, but there was nothing to the job that ILM's crack team hadn't handled before (and annoyingly recently).

Complicating matters, though, was the accompanying audio. Some of the existing dialogue had to be modified, as in the new cut, it would be coming from over a comm link speaker. Also, the score had to be subtly extended — no small feat, considering that John Williams and his entire orchestra likely weren't around to help out. The editing department was charged with making these changes, which it miraculously managed to do in time for Empire's wide release.

"It was a real challenge that George had tossed us," Smith, apparently a master of understatement, told Kinzler, "and we wanted to show that we could do it." Once the job was done, Lucas showed up at ILM with boxes of donuts and high-fives for everyone — no, just kidding. According to Smith, his response to the FX team crushing the rush job was, "Wait a minute. If you guys did this so fast, why did it take so long to do all the other ones?"

Tough boss, that George Lucas.