The History of the AT-AT Walker

Hello everybody and welcome to the Sandcrawler blog. Today we are going to talk about the fascinating origin of the AT-AT Walker and the original design that inspired George Lucas and his team. The AT-AT is one of the most iconic vehicles from Star Wars and the battle on Hoth had solidified the terrifying military construction as something to truly be feared.

First, let’s talk about what the AT-AT Is

It is an All Terrain Armored Transport that is a four-legged vehicle used by Imperial ground forces. The AT-AT is over 20 meters tall and has blast impervious armor plating, something we saw in the battle of Hoth as Luke and the team of pilots had to get creative with their harpoons to bring these bad boys down.

A fascinating aspect of the AT-AT is that they are designed for psychological effects as well as the tactical advantages of having a giant armored camel of death.I know if I was a rebel I would have been shaking in my space boots.

They have been seen in ESB, ROTJ, and Rebels, as well as being a part Fallen Order and definitely my favorite part of the game.

I don’t want to ruin it for those of you who haven’t played yet, but getting dropped off on Kashyyyk from the moving ship to getting to hijack one of these babies was dream come true! Definitely one of the best additions to the game.

The Origin

The origin of the AT-AT comes from something that you would least expect. George Lucas himself was inspired by HG Wells’s classic novel, War of the Worlds. Those Martian war machines were terrifying, the way the book had described them fit the alienness of the novel and their tactics while invading a new planet. Something that would fit with Lucas’ idea of the Empire coming into Hoth and destroying the Rebel base.

H.G. Wells War of the worlds cover. The alien Tripod was his inspiration for the at at.

But the designer of the four-legged tank had a different idea,
Joe Johnston the effects artist and art director of the film had admitted in a 2010 interview that the idea had come from an engineer’s idea.

That engineer is Syd Mead

Mead had up a brochure with designs he created for the US Steel Corporation. And in that brochure was the original idea to the AT-AT.
“A four-legged, gyro-balanced, cargo walking vehicle.”

But Mead’s original idea had come from someone else. That someone else is 1950s inventor and engineer, Ralph Mosher.

He had created a bunch of cybertronic designs that incorporated both Human and animal bodies and movement. One of his most interesting early designs was the Hardiman 1 exoskeleton. It was designed to give super strength to the average male. He said it could theoretically load a bomb into the payload of an aircraft. Clearly inspired by the War of the last decade and the Korean war during the time of this design in the 1950s.

But the big one that he had invented and inspired Mead, but later scrapped was the Walking Truck, also known as the Cybernetic Anthropomorphous Machine, the 12-foot-tall machine would have been used to carry heavy loads across awkward terrain.
It tired out quickly and therefore it became a thing of the past, left only to inspire in a chain reaction one of the most recognizable creations on the planet.

Mead’s illustrations show changes that would be necessary for the original walking to become a successful machine that could truck long distances.

As you can see in Mead’s design, the similarities between his walking truck and the AT-AT are very apparent.

The idea of the feet of the truck is to resemble elephants. As the legs step press down the feet expand, spreading out the pressure and weight of each step. And as the weight is retracted the foot contracts and never gets stuck in the mud. This makes the vehicle ideal for all types of terrain. The legs can also pivot and create wheels to roll, something that the AT-AT cannot do.

So, clearly, the Star Wars team was heavily influenced by Meads’s designs from the brochure, but the steps they took to animating the AT-AT’s for Empire Strikes Back was completely original and heavily stood out for the creativity and ingenuity.

Effects director of photography Dennis Muren pushed to have the AT-AT sequences hand-animated… so the team eventually jumped on board with this new technique developed by animator Phil Tippett; called Go-Motion, which added a subtle yet realistic hint of blur to a model’s movement.

The movement of the AT-AT is inspired by an elephant.
So much so that Phil Tippet had gone to the local Zoo to film the elephants walking and moving around. Those movements that he originally filmed were then animated by hand, called animatics for the stop motion team to follow.

There were also some animatics of the AT-AT’s actually jumping…
Imagine how that would have looked. They heavy elephant-like walk of the AT-AT along with the camelback… I mean… I’m just glad they didn’t put that in the final film….

Overall, the AT-ATs took nine months to build, and the stop motion that was required to get the final shots for the film must have been tiresome.

The set snowy set of Hoth was set up with baking soda and glass beads.
So, to get the AT-ATs to move across the set, the animators had to pop up through trap doors on the set and move them about a millimeter or two before they would pop back down and get the shot.

One second of the footage took 24 shots. That is popping up and down 24 times for one second of footage. That is absolutely ridiculous. The team had chosen to go this route, it was expensive and time-consuming, but it paid off.

The battle of Hoth is still one of the most favorited by fans. There is so much about the battle that made it stand out and this is by far the most important. The Empire Strikes back was somehow able to set itself apart from the already groundbreaking Star Wars: A New Hope.

What do you guys think about the history behind the design of the AT-AT and how it was executed for the movie?

2 thoughts on “The History of the AT-AT Walker

Add yours

  1. Agreed. Blowing the snot out of the Imperials while piloting a hijacked AT-AT was indeed awesome fun. I hope Fallen Order 2 has similar events. 🙂

    The stop motion… Here’s where my incredible memory for useless stuff comes in. The stop motion photography used with them was actually documented in the Orange series of Star Wars trading cards by Tops WAY back in the day. Each new series was a different color “frame” around the picture, and Orange was like the 4th or 5th series. Empire had been released by that point.

    Heavy cannon proof armor on the AT-AT was a bit far fetched though, as was the legs being strong enough to move that giant thing, but not strong enough to snap the tow cables. Oh well, creative license. LOL

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