Regardless of what you think of the last two installments in the "Star Wars" series, creator George Lucas is arguably one of the greatest living influences in modern filmmaking. Since 1977's "Star Wars: A New Hope," Lucas and his cohorts have pioneered innovative ways to astound us through special effects. During the filming of "Star Wars," Lucas helped to create Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and Skywalker Sound. Besides handling the effects in the "Star Wars" series, ILM and Skywalker Sound have provided us with some of the most significant visual and aural extravaganzas in film history, overseeing effects for the "Indiana Jones" series, the "Star Trek" films, "Jurassic Park," "E.T.," the "Back to the Future" series, "Terminator 2" (as well as the upcoming "T3"), the "Harry Potter" films and a slew of others. Together, ILM and Skywalker Sound have won 30 Academy Awards.
George Lucas attended the opening day of the American Cinematheque's recent weeklong "Tribute to ILM and Skywalker Sound." Located in Hollywood's historic Egyptian Theatre, American Cinematheque is a non-profit, viewer-supported organization that seeks to honor and promote the motion picture in all its forms.
The first night's program was a screening of special effect highlights from each "Star Wars" film, starting with "A New Hope" and ending with scenes from the latest, "Attack of the Clones." They showed the original 35mm prints of the first three movies ("A New Hope," "The Empire Strikes Back," "Return of the Jedi"), which were definitely showing their age. The badly worn film stock was deteriorating, revealing lots of scratches and discoloration. Following each 10-minute effects sequence was a brief Q&A session between Lucas and Dennis Bartok, American Cinematheque program director.
In the Beginning
Regarding "Star Wars: A New Hope," Bartok asked Lucas how he came up with the idea for this grand space opera. Lucas said that he was interested in "doing kind of a modern fairytale, exploring the ideas of modern mythology." He went on, saying he was "concerned that the Western [film] was the last of the mythology we had in this country." When the Western faded, he thought it would be interesting to use the motifs from mythology, incorporating them into dramatic action and fantasy films. Lucas also wanted these films to have the "vernacular of a Saturday matinee serial." He molded these ideas into two different stories: "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Star Wars."
In the 1970s, Lucas wanted to bring these ambitious ideas to the big screen, complete with spaceship dogfights, otherworldly planetary environments, lightsabers and alien creatures. There was just one problem: The special effects couldn't handle his vision. In fact, Lucas noted that most studios had shut down their effects shops. At the time, Stanley Kubrick had created the last effects-intensive movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). In an effort to get his idea off the ground, Lucas started rounding up people who worked on "2001," but he reiterated that there weren't many effects experts around. He started hiring out of colleges, which dropped the average age of an ILM staffer to 23.
Skywalker Sound was created because Lucas felt that sound was half of the cinematic experience. While he was shooting the original "Star Wars," Lucas hired sound designer Ben Burtt to literally create sound effects out of Lucas' basement. Lucas would explain to Burtt what he wanted, whether it was a ray-gun blast or the ignition of a lightsaber. Burtt then came up with a variety of unique sounds, which were approved or rejected by Lucas. This collaborative work brought about the inception of the Skywalker Sound studio.
The Rise of ILM and Skywalker Sound
After the success of the first film, Lucas wanted to create a post-production visual and sound effects studio in the Bay Area. This would eliminate Lucas' dependence upon Hollywood facilities, thus allowing greater creative control over his projects. Skywalker Ranch, the headquarters of all things "Star Wars" and the home of ILM and Skywalker sound, was built in 1980. The ranch is currently located in Marin County, Calif., but will expand to the Presidio, a former U.S. Army base in San Francisco, by 2005.
Asked whether he tried to raise the special effects bar in "The Empire Strikes Back," Lucas said he didn't consciously seek to outdo the first film because "everything ultimately depended upon the story." The major technical barrier in the first film was creating realistic starships battles. In "Empire," Lucas' team already knew how to deliver these dogfight scenes. The major obstacle in "Empire" was making Yoda a convincing character.
Regarding the creation of Yoda, Lucas said: "I'll take him and I'll write a funny little kind of character, and logically speaking there's always this funny little character who goes along with our hero, who becomes the wise wizard." Lucas discussed the physical design of Yoda with visual effects creator John Dykstra (effects supervisor of "Spider-Man" and "Stuart Little"). Dykstra wanted Yoda to be a very small creature onscreen, but beyond that, they weren't sure how to depict him. Lucas sat down with "Muppet" creator Jim Henson, who referred Lucas to Frank Oz (puppeteer and notable film director). Upon conceptualizing Yoda, they figured out that it was possible to make a realistic puppet that could accomplish what they needed. The only problem was that they would only be able to shoot him from the waist up, and he couldn't be in any wide shots.
One Yoda-related sidenote: Lucas revealed that the Jedi master was actually an extension of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Lucas originally developed Obi-Wan for "Empire," but he was bothered by the fact that Obi-Wan didn't have anything to do towards the end of the film. "He just [stood] around." Lucas' solution was to kill Obi-Wan off in the first film, and worry about the "Empire" rewrites later. This decision was based upon the assumption that the first "Star Wars" would be successful enough to merit a sequel.
Attack of the Special Editions
Bartok asked Lucas how he developed such places as Hoth and Cloud City. Lucas said he was trying to come up with different variations of exotic places, such as the desert world, and space -- so why not snow? Unfortunately for the film crew, the arctic scenes were incredibly challenging to film, as the continuous blizzards and freezing cold made it hard to function.
Lucas said he put out the 1997 Special Edition versions of "A New Hope," "Empire" and "Jedi" because he felt the originals were "incomplete." The first time around, Lucas was a slave to time and budget constraints, and he was "very angry" that he wasn't able to finish the effects. Thanks to advancements in digital visual effects technology, Lucas was finally able to repair the original trilogy's problems. Environments such as Cloud City were enhanced, and the "embarrassing" wampas in "Empire" were presented as Lucas originally intended.
Lucas crushed the spirit of "purist" geeks around the world when he stated outright that he would not release the original, unaltered versions of the trilogy on DVD. Lucas felt that since those versions were unfinished, it would be pointless to officially release them on DVD. When Bartok asked whether Lucas would ever go back 20 years from now and "improve" the prequels into Special Editions, Lucas said he didn't believe it would be necessary. He explained that while the first three films fell short of his personal level of excellence, the Prequels were a different story. Due to the technological advances in computer graphics, Lucas didn't have to compromise his artistic vision for "Episodes I" and "II."
Bartok asked whether computer-generated special effects were used in the original trilogy. Aside from the "tiny bit of computers in the first film to create the Death Star wireframe," no computer-generated effects were used, not even in "Return of the Jedi." Around the time of "Jedi," ILM was doing mostly research and development on computer-aided effects, so it wasn't ready to use digital technology. When Lucas was asked about what drives the decision to choose between computer-generated effects and miniatures or models, he said it was purely a financial decision. If it is possible to create convincing effects with models and sculptures, then they will go for it. The process of creating effects revolves around how much time and money they are allotted in order to accomplish the desired effects. They are always trying to find the cheapest way to "pull off the same thing."
Lucas touted digital filmmaking as a major advancement over traditional film. Digital eliminates the problems that occur in film preservation, such as discoloration, scratches and deterioration. Lucas also credited digital filming with helping to streamline post-production. Since everything in "Episode I" and "II" was shot digitally, the effects and scenes didn't need to be constantly transferred back and forth into different formats.
Bartok asked about the climactic fight scene between Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and Yoda in "Episode II." In the first three films, Lucas said, Yoda was just a puppet with "a hand up his ass," so there was no way they were going to be able to pull off a convincing lightsaber fight between a man and a traditional puppet. As Lucas put it, the script called for a "2-and-a-half-foot-tall frog fight[ing] a 6-feet tall vampire" (alluding to Lee's role in '70s "Dracula" movies). They had to create a computer-generated Yoda that was close to the original puppet Yoda's look, yet was able to fight and perform dynamic physical feats. There was some initial doubt about whether this could be pulled off, but the final result is amazing.
When asked by an audience member about new challenges for "Episode III," Lucas said he wasn't looking forward to conquering new technical feats. He was satisfied that visual effects technology had been raised to a comfortable level, and he saw no need for drastic improvement in the technology in order to accomplish his cinematic goals. However, Lucas mysteriously hinted at "fire [effects] and a few things" that needed to be sorted out for the third prequel, but he didn't think they would have to "invent too much."
Aside from the odd question from an unstable fanatic asking to be cast in "Episode III," the screening went well. It was a thrill to be in the same room as the man who brought us the modern American mythology of "Star Wars." Now if Jar Jar could meet an untimely and horrible death in "Episode III," then all would be well in the "Star Wars" universe.
Joey Damiano is Filmfodder's West Coast correspondent.