Star Wars Fan Films: A New Hope?
Fan films of any stripe used to garner negative reactions, whether from the general public or even the wider, non-filmmaking, fan base. Star Wars fan films have been no exception to this; in fact, they’ve often been bad enough to justify the criticism.
But in recent years the standard of these films has gotten much higher, and we’re now at a point where fan-produced Star Wars content is good enough to sit alongside the official product. As someone who’s struggled to get fully on board with Disney’s take on the story, it makes me happy to see the work of these talented, passionate fans, which more often than not ends up being far more in-line with my own take on the saga.
It was Oscar Isaac’s great reaction to The Last Jedi backlash that got me thinking about fan films again. His hope that disgruntled viewers would produce their own work struck a chord with me; after all, it’s one thing to critique from the sidelines, but something else entirely to put your own passion project out there.
There are many reasons I’ve not paid much attention to Star Wars fan films before now. I’ll get to the big one first: of those that I’d seen, there were very few fan films that I’d considered good enough to warrant investigating further.
Yet since falling down the fan film rabbit hole, a few fan productions have stood out above the rest.
Directing, acting, cinematography, editing, lighting, audio (such an important point), production design, costumes and locations are all key factors. But let’s face it, these are fan films. No-one expects members of the general public to have the resources of a big-budget studio picture. If something is obviously terrible then that’s what it is, but I’ll always give creators credit for what they do achieve.
The immutable point is that the writing has to be good – which is a lot harder than most people realise.
The first fan film that ever truly impressed me was Kara (2016) by Joe Sill and Whitelist Productions. Telling the simple story of a guardian attempting to get a Force-sensitive young woman to a rebel stronghold, it’s a beautifully shot film that fits the feeling of Star Wars, if not the canon. On an entirely personal note, the fact that it features a badass X-Wing pilot further solidifies my enjoyment.
A simple concept with clearly drawn character motivations, incredible production design and a rewarding payoff, Kara expands the universe without breaking it. As well as delivering on its own potential, Kara just goes to show how, right now, fan films can tell Star Wars stories closer to what the fans want than Disney.
My recent ruminations on The Last Jedi coincided with this month’s release of Bucketheads (2018). Perfect timing for getting me interested in one of the very best fan-made films I’ve ever seen.
Produced by Transmute Media, Bucketheads nails the Stormtrooper experience. Gorgeous visuals, great audio (which includes an original score), subtle and effective use of VFX and a character-driven story all combine for a hugely satisfying short film. It’s a slice of life in the civil war era that’s good enough to make its fan-made status moot – this is Star Wars that I want to see more of.
Directors Marco Bossow and Andy Brown may be industry professionals, but don’t let that fool you – this has clearly been a labour of pure fandom. If Star Wars has inspired people to become pro filmmakers and they want to return the favour with a production as accomplished as Bucketheads, then everyone’s a winner.
From Imperial slice of life to something far more spiritual… If you’re particularly disposed towards the Force you could do much worse than watch Hoshino (2016) by Stephen Vitale.
Steeped in Jedi spirituality, Hoshino uses amazing cinematography and production design to tell the story of an impatient padawan and the hard lessons she learns on her way to becoming a Jedi master. It packs a lot into seven minutes, including some spectacular Force abilities, rampant Sith and even a few mynocks. Far from being another round of lightsaber fighting in a forest, this beautifully made film tells a compelling story that is well worth your time.
Once again it’s far from an amateur production, written and directed by working industry pros. You may even recognise lead actress Anna Akana from Ant-Man, among other things. But ultimately it’s not the how it exists that interests me. I’m just grateful that this Star Wars Story exists at all.
For what it’s worth, I’ll never criticise anyone for putting their heart into a passion project, seeing it through to completion and then having the cajones to put it out for the world to see. I’ve screened my own films and can tell you that nothing magnifies its flaws like watching it on a big screen with 200 other people. It’s the audience’s reaction to your own blood sweat and tears that make screenings so intense.
That intensity must be even greater when you’re dealing with an audience as fervent, vocal and divided as the Star Wars fandom.
As filmmaking has become more affordable, the quality of indie film is increasingly top-class. Dedicated Star Wars fan films are no exception, and there’s now a very real precedent for these films to be worthwhile stories in their own right.
George Lucas put plenty of toys in the box for us all to play with. Whether you want to embrace Disney canon or go in a different direction, Star Wars fan films provide options for everyone.