During the filming of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2014, there were a few really cool new tricks used in the making of the film. Traditionally Star Wars films used light rods for lightsaber visual effects or just hilts with poles inserted inside them. Later on the visual effects artists at ILM would then add the cool crimson glow to the bad guys’ lightsabers. (There’s a lot more to the history of the lightsaber visual effect I don’t want to get into here but that’s a simplified version.)
For Star Wars: The Force Awakens, advancements in lightsaber role-play toys changed the way sabers were used on set. For many shots in Star Wars: The Force Awakens a different method was utilized. Take these shots into account:
The actors are basically using a custom version of the Force FX lightsabers we can buy at retail. The blades were, however, optimized to give off the right amount of custom glow and illumination for each sequence’s lighting demands. They weren’t used in every sequence, but in many. This method reportedly allowed for ILM to then step in and color the lightsaber blades to look as we know them in the classic films while the lighting of the blade was naturally cast upon the actor as it would have been if the lightsaber was real and filmed on set. At other times it would allow for light reference. Another reason for the method was that it also made the actors feel like they were really holding a lightsaber, adding another level of immersion for the performers.
Basically all of this would’t have happened had cosplayers and custom prop builders had not innovated the technology, allowing for better sabers in real life. This along with rods with a reflecting foil allowed for some really cool new takes on sabers on screen.
It is pretty cool to see how consumer-grade innovations in lightsaber toys and custom props ended up allowing the new filmmakers to make a better on-set lightsaber. In the strangest of ways it also makes the behind-the-scenes photos a little cooler to see compared to the old photos which just had the actor posing with a hilt and a pole. But hey, lets not knock the pole in the hilt as it is still viable and important for bringing sequences to life where the light up props would break.
Lightsabers sure have come a long way!