To my knowledge, I cannot go back in time and prevent presidential assassinations. I can’t shoot the breeze with Eric the Red or challenge Jesus of Nazareth to some basketball. And I’ll never be able to terrorize the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock with laser lights and a Gorn costume. But that’s not to say that time travel isn’t possible. I went back in time last week. And it cost me $7.25.
I grew up in a small green town which you could walk one end to the other in about an hour. When I was young, my Mom would walk me every week up to the corner, under a low slouching Maple branch, down the two block stretch of sidewalk broken and shifted by roots, past the Fraggle tree, the abandoned inn, and around the next corner to the public library. The building itself is an odd confluence of architectural styles, the first half being built in 1937 in a faux colonial style, with tall columns and steep steps. The other half was finished somewhere around 1972, and looks like somewhere Bill Bixby would have worked, on The Incredible Hulk. One day when I was about ten, I was in the main room looking through the movies and TV section. I had already exhausted all the resources upstairs in the children’s section about monster movies, King Kong, and werewolf makeup, so I thought I’d see if there was anything down here about Godzilla. I found a book about Star Wars. There were lots of pictures, drawn pictures, like a comic book of The Empire Strikes Back, but sketchy, and not finished. I flipped through the pages on the floor there in the aisle until it was time to go. It was called The Empire Strikes Back Notebook, and I left the library with it, a different person than I went in.
I never really thought about it much at the time, but I loved movies a lot as a kid. Especially King Kong, and anything Ray Harryhausen did. My Dad had a tape of The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and my Pop Pop told me how when my Dad was my age, he had taken him to see it a hundred times. He told me that the cyclops, the dragon, the sword fighting skeleton, and all the other big monsters were actually little toy models built by a man named Ray Harryhausen, who moved them one frame at a time, and made the whole thing like a magic trick. I was aware of movies, and that some lucky people got to make monsters come to life as a job. But I was going to be a comic book artist, that was my plan. I drew Batman and Captain America on everything, all my school papers were littered with gorillas and vampires and Spiderman and spaceships, what else was I going to do? of course I was going to grow up and draw Batman for a living.
But there was the fact that I’d have to draw things like guns, and cars, and buildings, and women, and people in the background, and animals, and learn how to draw things in perspective. I didn’t look forward to that, that stuff was hard to draw, and boring. Who wants to draw anything other than superheroes and monsters fighting? that was the good stuff. And then I found out that these comic book artists had deadlines, an ominous word meaning I’d have to draw a whole comic, full of buildings and women and cars and horses in a week or two, if that was even possible. But in this book, the Empire Strikes Back book, I found out that The director (who was in fact a life-sized muppet of Harry Nilsson named Irvin Kershner, not George Lucas, can you believe that?)
used to draw out small, thumbnail sketches of the scenes, to help him understand where he wanted to put the camera, and place things in the scenes. At the same time, better artists like Joe Johnston would also draw sequences out like comic strips, so that they had a reference when they filmed the actors, and the separate special effects, and then composited them all together. They called these pictures a storyboard.
It seems obvious that some form of storyboarding would be necessary in such a visually rich movie, but it never occurred to my young brain before. I was, and still am, elated with the before and after juxtapositions I found in the book.
I learned a lot of new words from that book, like composition, matte painting, and something called a concept artist. In addition to Joe Johnston and Nilo Rodis-Jamero, who storyboarded the film, and in particular, blocked and choreographed all the action sequences and special effects (creating a common language between the special effects department, the director, and actors), there was also Ralph McQuarrie who was a concept artist. It was Ralph’s job, to design all the ships, monsters, costumes, and sets. There were dozens of other people who would take his ideas and mold them and change them and see them through to completion, but in the early stages, when the script said “Luke is kidnapped by a Wampa snow beast” Ralph had to get the creative ball rolling and figure out what that looked like. All of this was brand new to me, where comic book artists got to draw Batman for a living, there where other guys out there who got to sit around drawing spaceships and monsters all day, that would then actually be in movies. Guys who got to look at a script, and then draw out what the whole movie looked like before they even filmed it. I wanted into that world so badly. I let go of my so far life-long dream of drawing comics because I wanted to “draw for the movies”.
I took The Empire Strikes Back Notebook out of the library just about every other week for years, until I couldn’t find it on the shelf anymore. I remember asking the librarians about it, but I could never remember the name, so they’d find me “The Vehicles of Star Wars” and other things that weren’t what I was looking for. I would look for it at the annual library book sale when they sold all their old stock, to no avail. When Barnes & Noble opened a nearby branch I would comb the shelves there, and find nothing. When The Phantom Menace came out they published Star Wars Episode I: The Illustrated Screenplay, which was essentially the same thing. I got that for a Birthday or Christmas gift. That book was helpful for reference, and I loved it, but it just wasn’t the same thing. It was cleaner, and smaller, and lacked the insightful notes from Irvin Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan that I found so interesting.
Last month I wrote an article for this page about Ralph McQuarrie, in which I drew heavily from the Star Wars Storyboards: The Original Trilogy book. This was a more recent gift from my parents, who saw it a few years ago and remembered my love for the library book. It’s a fantastic book and well worth owning for anyone even remotely interested in this stuff. But during the course of writing the article, I wanted to cite The Empire Strikes Back Notebook, and decided to see if I couldn’t find it by searching for the screenplay on Amazon. Of course, it was there. I recognized the cover instantly. And no sooner than I finished that article did I order a copy I found on Amazon, from a public library, sold by a library-related charity, for $7.25. Multi-level buyer satisfaction. The book came in the mail last week, and is staring at me from the book pile beside my desk right now.
In an essay called A Good, Five-Cent Time Machine, (from the back pages of the Star Trek/ Planet of the Apes crossover that did happen in 2015), comedian Dana Gould summarizes the Proustian flashback.
“The closest we can come to time travel is to possess an item that can transport us back emotionally.”
When I pulled that book out of the padded envelope it greeted me with the wafting musty stink of the public library, and I made the jump to light speed back to age ten. I could remember walking home through wet February snow with it clutched to my chest. I remembered flipping through the pages for shots of Darth Vader on the rough carpet of my room on hot summer days. I remembered conferring with my brother over how different Yoda and Darth Vader looked on the living room couch, trying to copy some of the images into my drawing pad. I loved this book, it was one of a series of small kicks that set my life on the course it’s on today. There were other inspirations and kicks on the way, but I make movies because this book put it in my head that I could do that for a job. And I’m so thankful that for seven bucks and some change, I got to go back to relive those moments where I felt the wonder of that discovery. It’s hard to justify titling this article anything other than “White man buys happiness” but it is something I’m still thinking about a week later. So keep that in mind. You never know the when the next turn of the corner in that antique shop, or opening a box in the basement alcove, might hurdle you back in time to younger days. It’s certainly worth seven bucks.