The Book





The Visual Development of Darth Vader

In The Secret History of Star Wars, a crucial focus is the development and transformation that the character of Darth Vader undergoes. This process was described mostly in relation to the story itself, focusing mainly on his characterisation, however at times it was necessary to dwell upon his visual design as a way of drawing parallels to the story function; for instance how his armored space suit was eventually "retconned" to be made into a life-support device. Here, however, I wish to talk in more explicit detail about the visual aspect, and actually show this developmental process where possible. Here we'll examine the early concept art, the creation of the costume and the subtle but significant visual changes that slowly were wrought as the character and story changed.

In the first draft, Darth Vader is fairly inconsequential, and is merely an Imperial General; most of his later traits are exhibited instead by Prince Valorum, a Sith Lord who dresses in black robes and who speaks in terse, no-nonesense phrases. Both of these characters are human and generally unremarkable in the visual sense; no artwork was ever done. In draft two, however, the two characters were combined, and this is where the Darth Vader that we are familiar with first becomes recognizable in prototype form. Ralph McQuarrie had been hired to do sketches and paintings by this point, and one of the very first characters he tackled was Darth Vader, who is a highly memorable part of the opening sequence of the second draft script. In that version, Imperial forces capture and board a ship, much like the opening of the final film, with Vader and the stormtroopers decending onto the craft and engaging in battle. The notable deviation is that Deak Starkiller takes the role of Leia, and he faces Darth Vader in a lightsaber battle before being defeated and taken prisoner.

McQuarrie's earliest sketches depict a man similar to Valorum or General Vader from the first draft, being tall and with a flowing cape, however a distinguishinig feature is that the character wears what looks like a sort of futuristic gas mask over his face. McQuarrie explains that it is a personal respirator, because the character had to cross through space from the Imperial Stardestroyer to the rebel cruiser. "Early in the script there was a description of Vader crossing between two ships in space so I created this mask so he could breathe in space," McQuarrie explains. "George loved it." (i)

Hence we have the earliest depiction of Vader, now with a personal respirator courtesy of McQuarrie.


It appears that McQuarrie began such sketches while Lucas was in the midst of writing the second draft, because the character is described in that script as wearing the respirator mask that McQuarrie first sketched here. Following this, McQuarrie made a number of alterations at Lucas' request. The robes became more exaggerated, and the character was requested to have a wide-brimmed samurai helmet, which McQuarrie combined with his respirator to create a fearsome face-mask which completely obscured the character's face.


This version is very reminiscent of a bedouin warrior, especially prevelant in the first image above, and stems from the opening sequence of the 1974 rough draft. In that scene the Starkillers are hiding out on a barren desert planet when they discover a Sith spacecraft has tracked them. They panic and begin readying for a battle, but find no sign of the warrior. Suddenly, a Sith knight appears and kills one of the young sons; the Sith wears a facemask and is dressed in black robes. That scene and the initial bedouin design is likely based on a memorable scene from Lawrence of Arabia, a film that Lucas compared Star Wars to more than once in 1974. In that classic film's most gripping and strangely alien scene, P.T. Lawrence and his guide trek across the desolate Arabian desert and stop at a well. The guide senses something is wrong and a figure appears on the horizon, slowly coming into view as a black-robed figure riding atop a decorated camel. The guide panics, knowing they will be killed but before he can retrieve his pistol the distant figure fires and kills him. The bedouin figure reaches Lawrence and dismounts his black-adorned camel, revealing him as deadly and masked.


McQuarrie thought that Vader would look more menacing if he was robed and armored, and so his next sketches reflected this more futuristic design. Lucas also provided McQuarrie with comic books and 1930s pulp fiction material to help steer the visual design. One of his earliest designs in this new version had Vader linked more directly to the stormtroopers, wearing a prototype stormtrooper helmet.

With the more angular and science-fiction-based military look of the new armored version of Vader, McQuarrie also made reforms to the mask, extending the face-grill into a longer "snout" and exagerating the eyes.


This version shows the influence of the comic book and serial references Lucas provided McQuarrie, namely those of Doctor Doom, from The Fantastic Four, and The Lightning, from the 1930s Fighting Devil Dogs serial. Doctor Doom remains as a popular villain and so his similarities are generally well-known:


The villain Darkseid from another Jack Kirby series, 1973's The New Gods, also bears a strong resemblance:


The Lightning however, remains more obscure, but a startling similarity is present which surpasses even the Doctor Doom influence:


With the Darth Vader design more or less decided upon with the sketches shown a moment ago, McQuarrie decided that it was time to depict the character in a full-colour painting. He chose the lightsaber battle with Deak Starkiller. Because McQuarrie gave Vader a respirator to allow the character to survive in the vaccum of space, first when he crossed to the ship and then during the scene itself where the hull was blown open, Deak also had to be provided with a respirator, since the lightsaber battle took place in the vaccumized corridor. Thus, we get the final production painting, depicting the two masked characters squarring off with lightsabers.

In draft two the character of Darth Vader only had two scenes--the opening described above and then the final space battle where he is killed--but since McQuarrie had designed such an impressive villain, Lucas expanded the character with much more screentime for the third draft. The mask, of course, was not a permanent fixture, since it was merely a respirator for the opening sequence--in one scene, Vader is explicitly shown to have removed it, and drinks casually from a flask. The frightening helmet would only be seen in the opening sequence, and likely at the final space-battle sequence when Vader pilots a craft; for the rest of the film, on the Death Star, the character would simply be portrayed by the face of whatever actor was cast in his role.

However, in the fourth draft, Lucas decided that the character would be more effective if he wore the space suit throughout the length of the film. This act, however, made the suit seem as though it were a permenant encasement of some kind. Lucas had come up with the concept of The Duel by that point--Darth had a duel with his former master, Obi Wan, and falls into a volcano, scarring him so disturbingly that he must hide his features with the mask, much like Doctor Doom. "His face is all horrible inside," Lucas says in 1977. "I was going to shoot a close-up of Vader where you could see the inside of his face, but then we said no, no, it would destroy the mystique of the whole thing." (ii) In the film, the helmet was merely a decorative piece, doubling as a space suit/ respirator. Here we see the helmet being slipped onto actor David Prowse, comprising of two pieces, one being the frontal mask and then a second piece for the flarred brim:



The suit was meant to be a well-worn armored space suit, which Vader had decorated with his Sith robes which cover much of the armor. The costume even has scuff marks and a dull finish, being part of the "used universe", indicating that Vader has had his suit for a while now and has seen a lot of action with it.


However, the character and his design function underwent a crucial transformation after the picture was shot. Ben Burtt, sound designer, came up with a cold, mechanical breathing sound that was constant and rythmic--the result was that Vader appeared cybernetic in his presentation. Lucas liked this idea, and in the experimental mixes Burtt took this concept even further, adding robotic servos and experimenting with more labored breathing sound effects--the weak rasping that Vader exhibits at the end of Return of the Jedi as he is about to die is, in fact, a rejected variation from Star Wars. Says Burtt: "The original concept i had of Darth Vader was a very noise-producing individual. He came in to the scene, he was breathing like some queezing windmill, you could hear his heart beating, he moved his head [and] you heard motors turning, and he was almost like some kind of robot in some sense. And he made so much noise that we sort of had to cut back on that concept. In the first experimental mixes we did in Star Wars, he sounded like an operating room, you know, an emergency room, you know, moving around." (iii)

Lucas had come up with a reformation of the back story, now developing that Darth Vader was so injured in his volcano duel that he was encased in the suit to save his life, with the suit now a mobile life-support device, and that much of his body had been destroyed and rehabilitated cybernetically. This concept, of a character having his limbs and organs replaced with cybernetics, was a concept which Lucas had put into every single ealier draft of Star Wars except for the final; now he had a chance to bring it back. For the sequel, Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader was given a very subtle make-over to reflect this new cyborg angle.

To start, the eyes were coloured pitch dark, as opposed to Star Wars , where they were tinted a dark red and became translucent when viewed at certain angles (see the previous photos).Next, his armored breastplate was moved on top of the inner robes instead of behind them, emphasizing the armor and giving a slightly more robotic look.


His control box was also significantly overhauled. In Star Wars it was merely a device to control his respirator, and was fastened with straps similar to the ones the Rebel pilots use on themselves for similar space-travel related matters. For Empire, the box was instead more integrated into Vader's body, and the "coin slots" were re-designed so as to look more high-tech. Finally, blinking lights and LEDs were added. The same facelift was given to the electronic devices on his belt.


All of these changes made Vader seem more high-tech, more electronic. Finally, one of the more obvious facelifts was the finish of his costume. In Star Wars it was a well-worn armored space suit but now it was a sophisticated life-support device, and thus it was made slick and shiny, polished and clean.


The voice of Darth Vader also underwent a change. In Star Wars Ben Burtt gave James Earl Jones' voice a special processing or "flanging" to make it seem muffled and processed inside the helmet, but for Empire this was abstracted even more, with a more prominent "electronic" flange and a much deeper sound, both of which were emphasized by Jones' robotic performance (as opposed to Star Wars, where he is quite expressive). It has also been said that Lucas did not want the character to sound "black" and so James Earl Jones' performance in Star Wars is much higher-pitched so as to sound more "neutral"; in the sequels, Jones' natural baritone would be used. Click here to listen to a comparison.

Finally, the world was given a brief glimpse of the man underneath the helmet. "I shot this scene very carefully," director Irvin Kershner says. "When the captain comes in and Vader is sitting in his capsule with his back towards us, all you see are scars on the back of his neck for a second. I didn't want the audience to see anything else. I imagined that beneath the mask Vader was hideous; his mouth was cut away and he had one eye hanging low." (iv) Production art would be produced for Vader's hideous face during the making of Return of the Jedi that reflects this depiction, but as Kershner describes above, it was decided that "less is more" and the character is seen only from behind.

This brief glimpse was also meant to show that, indeed, there was a human being underneath the suit, in order to give more credence to the "Big Reveal" at the end of the film.

A thorough examination of this fleeting moment reveals an interesting fact which has gone virtually unreported: Vader sits assisted by machinery, and although the robotic arm that lowers his helmet into place is obvious, what is less obvious is that there is a second robotic arm which is retracting an external respirator. Shadows of the Empire developed that this chamber was a "hyperbaric" medical chamber that allowed Vader to breathe without his mask but this is based on an inaccurate reading of the original scene. For starters, the egg-shaped chamber is open when Captain Piet enters--is Vader holding his breath? Shadows addressed this weird inconsistency by imagining that Vader is experimenting with how long he can survive in an "open" environment. The original scene gives us an alternate perspective, instead showing us that Vader has merely removed his helmet but still must rely on an external artificial breathing device to survive (the chamber itself is only referred to as a "meditation" chamber in the script). Piet enters, disturbing Vader, and the external respirator retracts away and his helmet is lowered. Below are screencaps of the scene, which give us only a brief glimpse of the external respirator device (hint: it's the conical instrument which is retracting behind the helmet).



A photo from the set reveals the external respirator in full view. It is visible in its retracted form on the upper left side of the chamber:


This external respirator originates from the script itself, which specifically describes this detail. From the shooting script:

Admiral Piett steps into the room and pauses at the sight of...Darth Vader, his back turned, is silhouetted in the gloom on the far side of the chamber. A black, insect-looking droid attends him. Among the various apparatus surrounding them, a respirator tube now retracts from Vader's uncovered head. The head is bald with a mass of ugly scar tissue covering it. The black droid then lowers Vader's mask and helmet onto his head. When it is in place, he turns.

Return of the Jedi gave us some slight modifications as well, notably a further enhancement of the vocal flanging to make it seem more processed and electronic than in Empire Strikes Back, perhaps because the unmasking scene at the end would reveal a design that shows that Vader's natural voice is processed and amplified through an electronic system. The unmasking scene required more development be done on Vader. Since making Empire Strikes Back , Lucas had decided to turn Vader from a villain into a sympathetic character, unmasking and redeeming him in the final drafts. Because he was no longer a hideous monster, he was re-written as a "softer" and more human character--one early draft had him scarred and with a cloudy eye and a grey beard, but for the final version he was turned even more sympathetic, presenting him as a pale old man. This unmasking scene also necessitated a more elaborate design of the helmet. It is revealed to actually be three pieces,with the third piece being the actual mouthpiece which vocalises Vader's speech and processes his breathing. The cybernetic aspect is emphasized once again, with all sorts of vents, buttons and technological pieces decorating the helmet. Below is the prop used in this scene:


Contrast that with the crude and simple two-piece mask used in Star Wars. Lucas also gave us insight into the extent of Vader's internal cybernetic re-construction--as Vader is being electrocuted, his skeleton is made visible, revealing his legs and arms to be fully or partially robotic, and his neck vertebrae to be artificial, perhaps explaining his respiration dependence as due to complete paralysis. Dr. Curtis Saxon has made an insightful commentary on this aspect. Below are screencaps provided by him which illustrate these things:


Finally, when it came to making Revenge of the Sith, Lucas had to make specific choices regarding these elements that were previously only hinted at. Firstly, it was revealed that all of Anakin's limbs are artificial. Secondly, Anakin suffered no such paralysis in his "volcano" tumble, and in fact he is quite easily capable of breathing on his own, whether it is when he is clawing his way up the Mustafar slope or when it is in the medical chamber. It is strange that the film completely ignores this "iron lung" aspect, which was originally the very impetus of the whole cybernetic transformation. The novelisation, however, states that Anakin's lungs were destroyed by breathing in the harmful super-heated gases (one has to wonder why Obi Wan and Padme suffered no such side effects despite only slightly less extreme exposure). In the film, a large gap exists between the scene where the medical droids begin work on him and the next time we see him, where he is more or less completed and already in the suit. Such a huge jump in time makes it seem as though Anakin has neither any respiratory needs, nor has any integral cybernetic enhancements to his organs or tissues, contrary to what Return of the Jedi implies. The emphasis is instead placed on his horrible imprisonment, reflecting the "tragic" view of Vader that the prequels show. We do, however, get a brief glimpse of the inside of the helmet, showing us high-tech HUD displays and a red-tinted electronic perspective (similar to Terminator). Lucas had to also make a decision on how to visually portray the Vader suit. Rather than making a choice with chronological consistency in mind, in other words going with the suit shown in Star Wars, Anakin was instead given the cyborg-emphasized design of the later two sequels. This design was given even more robotic overtones however--the hand-sculpted mask of the original films was remade using a robotic tool to ensure the mask was perfectly symmetrical. The chestbox was now made to be fully integrated into Vader's torso, creating a cyborg look. Finally, the helmet was made to connect underneath the breastplate, instead of overlapping on top as it did in the original films--this subtle but effective re-design gave Vader a more robotic look.


Finally, Star Wars was altered where possible to match the depiction seen in the subsequent entries--James Earl Jones' voice was enhanced for the 2004 DVD release to sound more like the electronic version of Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith .

For those wishing to know more detail about the costume itself, Darth Blade's Vader costume site is a great source of information, a truely meticulous study on the Vader costume and its many variations used in the films.

The Star Wars Technical Commentaries also has a very well-researched article on The Injuries of Darth Vader.

Dr. Saxon has also taken a look at the writing inscribed on Vader's chestbox. A popular theory, one that Dr. Saxon here tries to address, is that the writing is Hebrew and speaks of sin and redemption. If that sounds a bit at odds with the character depicted in the 1977 film, this is not surprising--more recently, the leading theory has come about that the writing does not say anything at all. Rather, it is merely a jibberish statement which uses Hebrew as the basis due to its "alien" aesthetic qualities (in a similar way that Huttese is based on real life languages). "Darth Blade's" Vader costume page has a thorough debunkment of this myth.

End Notes:

(i) The Best of the Lucasfilm Archives by Mark Cotta Vaz and Shinji Hatta, 1994, p. 14

(ii) Rolling Stone, August 25th, 1977

(iii) Empire Strikes Back Definitive Edition Laserdisk Interview, 1993

(iv) Annotated Screenplays, 1997, p. 165


All images are copyright Lucasfilm. They are used under the rights of fair use for educational purposes
Web site and all contents Copyright Michael Kaminski 2007, All rights reserved.
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