May the Type Be With You: The “Star Wars” Opening Crawl

Written by Scott Stowell on May 18, 2005

When I was eight years old, I had one of the most formative typographic experiences of my life. I would only have five more like it: three, six, 22, 25, and now 28 years later (in other words, just after midnight tonight). Of course I’m referring to my first glimpse of the opening titles of Star Wars, way back in 1977. Not having seen a lot of old Flash Gordon serials, I had never seen a movie start off like this.

Everyone (okay, every Star Wars fan) remembers the seemingly endless opening shot, in which a very small spaceship is chased by a very big spaceship. And everyone (okay, every Star Wars fanatic) knows that those two ships were Princess Leia’s Rebel Blockade Runner and Darth Vader’s Imperial Star Destroyer. But before those ships ever showed up on screen, I knew something was different about this movie.

Star Wars Opening Titles

There were no names of actors, producers or even the director — no credits of any kind. All I saw were these motionless yet evocative words in blue Trade Gothic (since changed to Franklin Gothic — see below), then a very cool logo (designed by Suzy Rice of Seiniger Advertising) flying away from the camera, and finally a monumental opening crawl that set up the story and stretched into deep space. Cool.

I often cringe when George Lucas goes back and makes a change to the old movies (Han shot first!), but some changes do make sense. The movie I saw in 1977 was just called Star Wars. Now that it’s a part of a larger story, it’s called Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and its opening crawl was updated to reflect that change. So why not fix the horrendous word spacing? I guess in the Star Wars universe it’s not just the Force that lasts forever.

Update — Jan 12, 2014: Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca in the films, recently posted a photo of the crawl in production:


  1. Jeremy says:

    Han did indeed shoot first, but it always said “Episode IV: A New Hope”, even in 1977.

  2. If you want to get real persnickety about the changes between editions of the original three films, then check out these prime examples of anal-retentive cinematic geekery over at DVDAnswers:

    Star Wars: The Changes – Part One
    Star Wars: The Changes – Part Two
    Star Wars: The Changes – Part Three

    That oughta keep you occupied for a while…

  3. jlt says:

    I remember being really confused at the age of 7 and asking my dad why it was episode 4. That really bothered me at the time.

  4. Jesse B. says:

    I thought the first Star Wars picture (of 1977) specifically did not say “Episode IV”, and when the Empire Strikes Back was released, it revealed itself to be “Episode V” — which probably led to a lot of confusion as to why the “second” Star Wars movie was now the fifth! “Episode IV: A New Hope” was later added to the first film in a 1981 re-release (according to the IMDb).

  5. Isaac B2 says:

    It was always Episode IV, to my recollection… and as for that horrid type spacing. I totally agree. There was a great piece on a while back with a history of the crawl, and I had my own take on it here.

  6. I found Suzy Rice’s description of how she designed the SW logo a bit mystifying. She goes on about how it was based on Helvetica Black–I never would have guessed. I can sort of see it, but the connection is not obvious at all.

  7. Jeremy says:

    I stand corrected. The 1981 re-release was the first time i saw Star Wars in a theatre. I too was a confused six year old, wondering why I had missed the first three episodes.

  8. There was a great piece on a while back with a history of the crawl

    Yes I know. That’s why I linked to that page in my original post (the last link in the last paragraph).

  9. Brandon says:

    How was the crawl in episode IV created back in 1976? There wasn’t advance computer technology to do this, was there?

  10. Nick Shinn says:

    There wasn’t advance computer technology to do this, was there?

    The type would have been set, and a titling camera pointed at it, at an angle. Then the mounted camera unit, on rails, would have been tracked across the type, stop-motion exposure every fraction of an inch. The resulting high contrast image would then have been “double” exposed (in negative) onto footage of the stars.

    This type of effect isn’t really that sophisticated for film, when you consider that titles were shot on an animation camera set-up, and that all kinds of animation wizadry had been going on since the 1930s.

    One of my favorite “crawl” titles is Aldrich’s “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955), where the type comes down from the top, and you read the paragraph from bottom line to top. It makes such good cinematic sense that you quickly adjust, ignoring the reading habit of decades.

  11. Scott H. says:

    One person has it right here concerning Ep.IV. The very first film to include an episode tag was Empire, and it did confuse those who were not geeky enough to follow along with the film’s development. Lucas re-released the original in late summer 1981 and that was the first year the original was tagged with the ep#. Check Burn’s documentary on the DVD & Lucas explains that he wanted ‘IV’ in the title but Fox would not allow it due to confusion. Looks like it didn’t help with some people.
    The crawl, by the way, was created on a separate piece of ‘film’ and later shot at an angle over the sea of stars which was laborious to crank at the same correct speed. There’s your 1970’s technology.

  12. In the commentary track of the DVD Star Wars Trilogy released last year, the film’s visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren explained how the crawl was made:

    “The original opening crawl we did was letters that were cut out of black paper and the camera moving over them very, very slowly. I think they were probably about two feet wide and about six feet long. Back before about 1990 almost everything was done with physical models. We’d build models and set them up in front of the camera and put lights on them and we had a computer controlled camera that would move around with motors that we programmed, that ran at a very, very slow speed, but it allowed some pretty fast motions when you played the film back at a normal speed. And this crawl took forever for us to shoot the original version of it. It probably took like three hours. We had to shoot two or three versions of it. And there was also a lot of different language versions of it and all.”

  13. Dystopos says:

    Mr. Muren’s recollection does not seem to match Mr. Knoll’s research exactly:

    Knoll: “A high contrast film of the text was laid out flat on a long lightbox (a transparent table lit from underneath)” (click on the small picture on this page)
    Muren: “The original opening crawl we did was letters that were cut out of black paper and the camera moving over them very, very slowly.”

    In the picture, it is evident that they are photographing a light table with clear letters shining through an opaque film. Perhaps this is a “high contrast film” negative of black letters that were photographed on a STILL camera, but it seems odd that someone would have actually CUT the letters out of black paper. Wouldn’t they have been typeset or, at worst, Letraset pasted up onto a roll of acetate?

  14. That makes sense–I wondered about that statement about cut out letters, too. The main reason I dug that up and posted it was that I was sure it wouldn’t have been done, as Scott H. said, with a hand crank, but with motion-controlled computers like everything else in the film.

  15. Oops, I meant to say “motion-controlled cameras,” not “motion-controlled computers.”

  16. It’s kind of depressing that given the complexity and time it took to create those wonderful titles, which can now be done in iMovie in minutes, that the art of film titles seems to have been abandoned in recent years. Saul Bass and co have been displaced by computer innovation, relegating provocative visuals to independent “artsy” films.

  17. Ry Rivard says:

    Scott H.:

    Lucas explains that he wanted “IV” in the title but Fox would not allow it due to confusion.

    He wanted the movie to feel like sci-fi serials that continued from week-to-week.

  18. dbd says:

    According to the director’s track, as people have commented here, it did not initially have Episode IV. Lucas explains that once it had made a lot of money, he went ahead and made the change, which occurred while it was in theaters (recall that it ran for a VERY LONG time, as folks saw it over and over and over again)

    Sorry for the long parenthetical. And the nitpicking.

  19. r stevens says:

    Am I the only person who was bothered by the four-dot (….) ellipsis at the end of the crawl for Revenge of the Sith? I liked most everything else about the film, surprisingly!

  20. Jeff says:

    When I recently set off to make my own crawl, I tried to be faithful to the the film’s version (while not relinquishing a bit of artistic license -g).

    I replayed my DVD version of Episode IV and was reminded that the first line (A long time ago…) was in blue and that the crawl was fully justified. I even took note of where on the vertical axis the crawl disappeared.

    I wasn’t trying to exactly replicate the film version, but keep as close to it in spirit (including the use of Franklin Gothic).

  21. Shane says:

    Just FYI, the font is not Trade Gothic, it is News Gothic.

    And the ellipsis has four periods.

    And the blue is too dark.

  22. gemp says:

    The four dots ellipsis seems to be an early Star Wars trademark as it’s present at the end of the crawl in original laserdisc releases of ep. IV & V, therefore certainly in the original theatrical releases.

    And yes, it did bother me at the time; I vividly remember thinking they added an extra dot to fill the last line in ep. IV, sacrificing correct punctuation for a nicer design. It’s also the case in ep. V where the line is full — and there’s only three dots in ep. VI with half a line.

    Although I don’t remember noticing it at the end of the beginning sentence “A long time ago….”. I’d like to think it’s only selective memory….

  23. Shane – How did you come to the conclusion that News Gothic rather than Trade Gothic was used? I’m not convinced based on the small samples I’ve seen.

  24. Greg says:

    Just about any good book on grammar and punctuation will tell you that an ellipsis is made up of four dots when used at the end of a sentence. When the middle portion of a sentence has been omitted, a three-dot ellipsis is used.

  25. jlt says:

    Yes, MLA style is for a four-dot ellipsis at the end of a sentence, three dots referring to omitted content or a ‘trailing off’ of the voice, and the fourth and final as the formal end of the sentence. think if it as a three-dot ellipsis between the last word of the sentence and the period that ends it.

  26. Jeff says:

    An ellipse at the end of a sentence would have three dots for the ellipse and one for the period. However, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” is not a full sentence.

    Also, according to this explanation, there would be a space between the period and the ellipse: “If words are left off at the end of a sentence, and that is all that is omitted, indicate the omission with ellipsis marks (preceded and followed by a space) and then indicate the end of the sentence with a period … .”

    There isn’t a space to indicate the separation between the ellipse and the period on the original Star Wars crawl. I noticed the four dot ellipse but just couldn’t make myself use all four of them (part of my artistic license -g).

    I simply saw the punctuation as a pause between the opening line and the crawl itself.

  27. r stevens says:

    I’d never heard of a 4-dot ellipsis. I guess you learn something every day.

  28. -S- says:

    Mark Simonson:

    I found Suzy Rice’s description of how she designed the SW logo a bit mystifying. She goes on about how it was based on Helvetica Black…I never would have guessed. I can sort of see it, but the connection is not obvious at all.

    Mark (and all):

    I used Helvetica Black as an alphabet, traced a few letterforms for the logo, then started in with my own free-hand renditions and modification from there. But, the logo was actually intended by me to first be actually foundry assembled in that font, but the more I looked at it, the greater my desire became to just draw it out free-hand, and so I did. But the logo is based upon Helvetica Black, very much so.

  29. -S- says:

    And, given the time and technology of the first release (Episode IV, released in 1977 but actually performed and assembled earlier), the introductory crawl was not the work of a typographer but brought about by manipulating camera and printed type…you’d be shocked to see just how crudely a lot of “older” (to some) filmed titles and type graphics were rendered into film, prior to the advantage of individual user computers: you received a photostat or output sheet of type that was moreorless the product of a typist, you placed it in front of a stat camera and then you manipulated the platen and the camera and/or both at once and got various unexpected or compromised results. Or, you just drew out permutations by hand.

    I think I can confidently presume to say that once the original was so popular and became such a noticable, incorporated aspect to the film’s theme (Episode IV), that Lucas kept the original with all it’s funkiness and crude typography out of affection for the initial presence.

    Thus, you get the longevity of a type presentation (the crawl, introductory text, such as it is) with all it’s unsophisticated immediacy. Which I still prefer to a polished redo, I must say.

  30. -S- says:

    You should keep in mind that film is a dramatic method, not a technical showcase. Most film is, anyway. Meaning, a filmed presentation using typography isn’t a showcase for letterform perfections but for dramatic statement and presence. Sometimes what appear as “errors” or failures of correctness are, in fact, more effective visual statements. As in, a rough photochop can be more appealing per application than can be a perfect redo of pixels, depending upon what the filmmaker wants to express.

  31. Thank you for your comments, Suzy. It’s a pleasure to have the subjects of our discussions take part.

  32. Dan Reynolds says:

    Maybe a four-dot elipse was used to stress how much of a long time ago the story takes place, or just how far, far away that galaxy is ;-)

  33. -S- says:

    Stephen Coles…you are welcome. I appreciate reading that this one logo drawn so long, long ago is still generating such interest (probably moreso because of the theatre involved, I realize).

    Dan Reynolds:

    I am almost certain that awareness as to the correct use of elipses was entirely non existent from the typesetter who printed out that copy, ha!

    But that Lucas retained and reprinted the use of the same copy as per what I wrote earlier: it became such an expected aspect to the filmed series that despite the funky format and formatting, it had to reappear. I also think of it as the “anti technology” statement that the original filmed series was set out to be, since Lucas was well known to favor “a used outer space” environment, and disliked the polished, perfected, “immensely clean and perfect” earlier “outer space” depictions…he wanted dents in everything, dirt on the players as per their planet-bound activities, smudges where they should be, nothing vacuumed and dusted off. It was a well known aspect to the first Episdoe during production and an actual requirement for some, to depict “a used outerspace” environment, complete with usage marks, impact blemishes, etc.

    So I tend to think of that “anti-formatted” introductory text as an actual essence statement about the series, one of the last vestiges of the original production characteristics before perfection-via-digital-redo/updates were possible.

  34. Suzy wrote: But the logo is based upon Helvetica Black, very much so.

    After I commented here, I spent some time looking at the extras on the Star Wars DVD. Some of the early trailers indeed use Helvetica Black for the logo. Seen in that context, the connection is much clearer.

    Thanks for your comments, Suzy.

  35. Gerrit says:

    Finally without those ugly spaces: The Star Wars crawler Left-Justified :-)

    Look here

  36. Nick Blume says:

    Well, in the next days the Right-Justified will come. And then the middle. It’s only an experiment.

  37. Nick Blume says:

    So, you can see the middle-justified and right-justified experiment. How do you see it? Here is the German article with a bit English.

  38. Bobby Henderson says:

    I’m not surprised to hear the Star Wars logo was really a hand drawn effort. Some of the letter form have unequal stroke widths and other inconsistencies. Being a huge SW fan, I found this out for myself many years ago when making a vector-based version from a scan off the original 12″ vinyl LP soundtrack cover.

    Current movie titling is struggling with a great deal of unoriginality. It seems like every other movie released has its title set in Trajan. You cannot visit a movie multiplex without seeing Trajan repeated on at least a few movie posters, banners, standees and especially trailers. Trajan is becoming the Helvetica of the box office.

    It is very rare these days to see a movie production make its title into a real logo or signature. Lots of movies in the 1970’s and 1980’s had some really nice looking titles. “Robocop,” “Back to the Future” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” immediately come to mind.

    -S- said:

    Sometimes what appear as “errors” or failures of correctness are, in fact, more effective visual statements.

    Some of the best opening title sequences in recent years have used this factor to achieve their greatness. The opening titles in “Seven” broke all sorts of rules in doing titling work, mucking with pin registration to achieve a unsettling effect. Normally I’m sick of seeing Times and Times New Roman. But the opening titles of “The Island of Doctor Moreau” remake are fantastic.

  39. jono says:

    Can someone tell me for sure whether the original film released in 1977 had in the opening title Episode IV.

  40. Hrant says:

    I don’t think it did, because I saw it about a week after it came out, but learned that there was a story before it some time afterwards.


  41. Jono says:

    OK. Not in the title but what about in the running blurb at the the beginning.

  42. Norbert Florendo says:

    I remember the first crawl of the first Star Wars as if it were yesterday.

    For my birthday present, my wife took me to the biggest cinema in Boston just one or two days after its debut.

    When the text start to crawl in one point perspective, I had goose bumps because I thought, “This guy Lucas, is really picking up from the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of the 40s.” The old serials used to run on TV during the 50s for lack of programs, so I was well familiar as a kid of cliff-hanger episodes.

    My first comment when I saw “Episode IV” as the lead-in, I thought, “Man, this guy is as crazy about the old adventure serials as I was.”

    The fact was, you were luck if you happened to catch the first or second episode of a serial since your mom had you cleaning out the garage or some other chore on a Saturday morning. When you finally got to the Saturday matinee (or on early morning TV) it would already be into Episode 3 or 4!

    But that didn’t matter, because the serial experience as a young kid was based on what was on the screen, and anyways, your best pal could mimic the first two episodes you missed.

    That was a well thought out piece of storytelling by Lucas.

  43. Hrant says:

    So he DID have it from the get-go! I guess my poor grasp of English at the time (having lived in the US just about a year at that point) caused me to focus more on the pitchurz…


  44. Jono says:

    Thank you Norbert. I saw it back in 77 also and I was quite sure that it had Episode IV in the preamble, but since then the film has had more face lifts than an ageing pop singer and contention and confusion has ruled the day. A good argument for leaving original work well alone, but I have to concede I did like some of the CGI add ins.

  45. Hrant says:

    I did like some of the CGI add ins.

    But some of them totally didn’t work. Like that big storm-trooper-steed lizzard (what are those called?) walking across the background when they arrived into Mos Eisley.

  46. JUSTIN WEST says:

    So, I’m a decade late to this party, and I was mostly looking for information about the terrible four-dot ellipses, but in response to the first comment, it has not always been titled “Episode IV: A New Hope”.

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