By Natalie Abrams
Updated April 16, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: Jesse Grant/Getty Images

Fans who camped out overnight to attend the Star Wars: The Force Awakens panel at Star Wars Celebration were not disappointed. Not only did new and original cast members put in an appearance alongside director J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy, but a new trailer featuring a wealth of new footage also caused fans to go wild. Here are the top highlights from the panel, which was moderated by EW’s Anthony Breznican:

A galaxy far, far away… without J.J. Abrams? The prolific director initially turned down Kennedy’s offer to succeed George Lucas, “partly because it was an incredibly daunting thing,” he said—but also partly because he felt like he was becoming “the sequel guy.” But once the duo really dug into a conversation about bringing a new trilogy to life, Abrams just couldn’t say no.

A galaxy far, far away… that’s real: After the second trilogy was criticized for its excessive use of special effects, Abrams vowed to bring the realism of the original back into play. “The thing that struck me, and wouldn’t get out of my head, was just how real you knew and felt Star Wars was when you saw A New Hope,” Abrams said. “It’s Star Wars. There are going to be an endless number of effects, CG and otherwise, but we needed to set a standard that was real, that felt like you knew those people were in those places.” In making the world authentic, Abrams added, there’s a “sense of everything being really weathered and used. This movie takes place decades after Jedi, so this film needs to follow suit.”

A galaxy far, far away… with new planets: Debunking the prevailing theory that the desert planet in the first trailer was Tatooine, Abrams reveals that one of the new settings is a planet called Jakku, where we’ll meet several of the new cast. “Star Wars is as much a western and a fairy tale as anything else,” Abrams said, which is why the filmmakers wanted to feature the sweeping desert landscape they found in Abu Dahbi.

A galaxy far, far away… with new droids: Former fans-turned-FX guys Lee Towersey and Oliver Steeples were on hand to introduce new droid BB-8, which does in fact roll on its own—no CGI tricks here! They also designed new domes for some of the droids that ride along with X-Wing pilots. There was some tension on stage, however, between R2-D2 and BB-8, so there could be a potential rivalry between the droids in the film.

A galaxy far, far away… with new Stormtroopers: The Empire’s henchmen have a brand-new look. It was also finally confirmed that John Boyega’s character Finn is, in fact, an actual Stormtrooper, not just dressing up as one. “When we find Finn, he’s in incredible danger. And the way he reacts to this danger changes his life, and launches him into the Star Wars universe in a very unique way,” said Boyega, who revealed that he waited to tell his parents that he was cast in Star Wars until the cast photo was released for fear they wouldn’t believe him.

A galaxy far, far away… with girl power: Though there are few new female characters—and there were even fewer on the panel, since Gwendolyn Christie and Lupita Nyong’o were unable to attend. Kennedy promised that there will be “really strong women” not just in Episode VII, but in the subsequent films as well. First up, we’ll be meeting Rey (Daisy Ridley) on Jakku. “She is a scavenger in a ship graveyard,” Ridley said. “She’s completely self-sufficient and does everything for herself, until she meets another character and an adventure begins.”

A galaxy far, far away… with new X-wing pilots: One of the only newcomers with a full name, Poe Dameron was once again featured in the trailer piloting one of the X-Wings. “He’s the best freaking pilot in the galaxy,” according to Isaac, who said he blasted the Star Wars theme and pretended his shampoo bottle was a lightsaber after he was cast. “He’s been sent on a mission by a certain princess, and he ends up coming up across [Finn], and their fates are forever intertwined.”

A galaxy far, far away… without Princess Leia’s buns: Sorry, Star Wars fans: The buns have been retired. “But we have an alternate thing you’ll be very into, which is not the metal bikini,” said Carrie Fisher, who also praised the fans for their dedication to the franchise over the years. “You’re more than just fans, you’re family,” Mark Hamill added.

A galaxy far, far away… with Han Solo: Though Harrison Ford was MIA during the Celebration, Kennedy promises he will be involved in the promotion of the film as the release date gets closer. In case you missed the news, he crash-landed an airplane and lived to tell the tale. Ford “is the only person who can make an emergency landing on a golf course in front of two doctors,” Kennedy joked. Added Abrams: “He’s more of a hero in that move than in all the movies that he’s been in.”

A galaxy far, far away… under pressure: “Though there are moments of sheer horror,” Abrams said of taking on the franchise, “the reality is, I’ve never had more fun in my life working on anything. The opportunity far outweighs the risk.”

Check out the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens:


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