By Christian Blauvelt
Updated May 22, 2012 at 02:00 PM EDT

Never count George Lucas out. That was the takeaway this past January from the surprise, if modest, box office success of Red Tails, the gee-whiz actioner about the Tuskegee Airmen that the Star Wars director had tried to bring to the big screen for 23 years. Despite mixed reviews, it won over audiences with its old-fashioned patriotism, earnest cast of mostly non A-listers, and visceral flying sequences, earning a solid ‘A’ CinemaScore. Oh, and $50 million in box office grosses, more than holding its own against brawnier January fare like The Grey and Underworld Awakening.

It’s hard to believe, then, that Red Tails almost never happened. In January, Lucas told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show that no major Hollywood studio was willing to finance a World War II epic featuring an all-black cast, meaning that he had to pull out his own pocketbook if his take on the pioneering African-American fighter squad was ever going to get made. It also meant he had to wait until digital technology would advance enough for him to produce an Old Hollywood spectacle without breaking the bank. “We needed to wait till now to find the digital tech that would make it financially feasible,” producer Rick McCallum told EW at Red Tails‘ New York premiere. “Otherwise, it would have been impossible to make. We may have had 2,200 shots in Revenge of the Sith, but no less than 1,600 in Red Tails. In the end, it took two weeks longer to make this movie than it took to fight World War II.”

Take a look at this exclusive video on the making of Lucas’ passion project, which shows how many of the film’s environments, including the cramped cockpits of the Airmen’s P-51 Mustangs, had to be built out of ones and zeros. Or as Lucas puts it, “With digital technology, now we can actually do a real dogfight movie the way it should be done.”

Red Tails is available on DVD and home video today.

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