I love that after all these years, we are still learning new things about the original Star Wars films! When Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back was first released in theaters in 1980, the original ending was slightly different than what we all know from it today.
It turns out that shortly after the film was released in theaters, creator George Lucas felt the ending wasn’t as clear as he would have liked. So, he decided to alter the ending by adding some new shots. Lucas called Industrial Light & Magic’s (ILM) general manager Tom Smith at the time to make this happen and Smith explained how it went down. StarWars.com shared the following story:
Smith received a phone call from George Lucas. He later remembered to former Lucasfilm executive editor J.W. Rinzler (author of The Making of The Empire Strikes Back) that Lucas had said, “I don’t wanna tell you this. We need some more shots for Empire.” Smith could hardly believe his ears. It must’ve been a joke; the film was already in theaters! “No, no, no,” Lucas clarified, “it’s not in all the theaters.”
Smith explained to Rinzler that during an early public screening, Lucas “realized that the end of the film was unclear.” After Princess Leia, Lando Calrissian, Luke Skywalker, and friends escape Cloud City, they reunite with the rebel fleet in the depths of space. From there, Luke (with a new hand) and Leia recuperate while Lando and Chewbacca set off aboard the Millennium Falcon to rescue Han Solo. But in the original release version of Empire (in the 70mm format at about 100 theaters), the geography of this scene was confusing to Lucas’ mind.
Where were Luke and Leia in relation to Chewie and Lando? Were the heroes on the same spaceship or two different ones? If the latter, where was the Millennium Falcon in relation to the rebel medical frigate? In the rush of completing the film, the potential hazard had been overlooked, but Lucas was never one to miss an opportunity for improvement. There was a generous three-week window before Empire’s wider 35mm format release on June 18, just enough time to create three new shots.
ILM effects cameraman Ken Ralston could hardly believe the news either. He was in Los Angeles enjoying a much-needed break after months of helming the night shift during Empire’s production. When he got the news about the additions, he recalled to J.W. Rinzler that he’d said, “’That’s funny, that’s a good joke!’ But it wasn’t a joke.” Ralston was asked to meet artist Joe Johnston and George Lucas at Lucasfilm’s corporate offices near Universal City in southern California (known as the “Egg Company”) to help design the new shots, which would then be filmed at ILM’s then-headquarters in San Rafael off San Francisco Bay.
As for the new shots that were added, there was another view added of the rebel fleet before showing Chewie and Lando aboard the Falcon.