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January 02
2018

ISSUE

Winter 2018

STAR WARS: A FORCE FOR INNOVATION

By IAN FAILES

When George Lucas formed Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) in 1975, the director’s aim was for the company to deliver the ambitious visual effects for his space opera, Star Wars. Of course, ILM went on to revolutionize the way effects and story meet in that film, and across nine other Star Wars saga movies, plus scores of other releases.

Many of the innovations in visual effects that ILM has developed for the various Star Wars films shaped the industry, and continue to do so. VFX Voice takes a look back at just some of these leaps and bounds over the past 40 years.

The camera system was dubbed the ‘Dykstraflex,’ seen here suspended over a miniature Death Star trench for one of the bombing run shots in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), the first Star Wars movie. (All images copyright © 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd.)

A NEW KIND OF MOTION CONTROL

Lucas’s vision for Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) included a number of elaborate spaceship shots and even frenetic ‘dog fights’ in space. That led Visual Effects Supervisor John Dykstra, who Lucas brought on board early, to develop a computer-controlled motion-control camera system that could be used to film complex miniature spaceship battle scenes against bluescreen that would be then optically composited into starfields and other backgrounds.

The camera system was dubbed the ‘Dykstraflex.’ Previous space scenes with miniature photography had largely been achieved with a locked-off camera, but the Dykstraflex – which consisted of a system of stepper motors and a track boom set-up – allowed for a new fluidity of movement as if a real camera operator had been capturing that action. Combined with a proprietary optical printer, the Dystraflex and subsequent motion-control systems built by ILM quickly made it a powerhouse visual effects studio.

Here, a traditional 35mm negative is turned on its side, allowing a larger negative area to be used for higher resolution. VistaVision had largely become an almost dormant format until ILM resurrected it.

HIGH-QUALITY EFFECTS

The visual effects photography for A New Hope was captured on film, and it would go through several layers of duplication, compositing and finishing before being output back onto a film print. To capture their effects plates in the highest quality possible, ILM chose the VistaVision format. Here, a traditional 35mm negative is turned on its side, allowing a larger negative area to be used for higher resolution. VistaVision had largely become an almost dormant format until ILM resurrected it.

In addition to allowing for higher quality, VistaVision had the benefit of using standard 35mm film, which means the negative could be processed at the same cost as regular film. ILM continued using VistaVision and adapting it to fit its various custom motion-control cameras into the late 1980s.

Filming of a miniature pod race arena for The Phantom Menace.

THE ILM MODEL SHOP

Although it no longer exists today, the famed Model Shop was for decades a critical component of ILM responsible for the design and construction of models and miniatures, creature and puppet effects, camera systems and rigs, special effects elements and other practical sides of visual effects. The Model Shop was spun off from ILM in 2006, but will always be remembered as the leader in the field.

Visual Effects Supervisor Phil Tippett, VES, led the way with these creature performances. Tippett’s stop-motion mastery continued to influence ILM even into the visual effects for Jurassic Park.

EMOTION WITH STOP-MOTION

From the moving holographic chess game on the Millennium Falcon in A New Hope, to the snow walking AT-ATs and Tauntauns from The Empire Strikes Back, and the horrific Rancor of Return of the Jedi, many of Star Wars’ most memorable characters were achieved with stop-motion miniature puppets.

Visual Effects Supervisor Phil Tippett, VES, led the way with creature performances, and ILM eventually combined its approach to motion-control photography with stop-motion to allow for more natural camera movement and fluid animation. Tippett’s stop-motion mastery continued to influence ILM even into the visual effects for Jurassic Park. For the film, full-motion dinosaurs would ultimately be achieved in CG, but the animators also made use of a stop-motion armature device to input animation.

Phil Tippett, VES, manipulates a miniature AT-AT for a Hoth battle stop-motion scene in The Empire Strikes Back.

This matte painting on glass under construction by Frank Ordaz was for a hangar establishing shot in Return of the Jedi. Live-action photography would be projected into a specific area of the glass left blank to produce the final shot.

THE ART OF MATTE PAINTING

Matte painting has been an effects art form dating back to the earliest days of cinema, and used on many films prior to A New Hope. But ILM significantly revitalized the art of matte painting by using it in copious numbers of shots to render strange alien worlds, space environments and in many other often invisible instances.

Until digital techniques took over, matte paintings were usually painted on glass or masonite with an array of paints. Matte painting done digitally is still called matte painting, but it now invariably includes 3D geometry, projection mapping and often more complex camera movements. ILM continued to innovate in these areas, too, as artists began to replace traditional methods.

Lucasfilm’s Computer Division delivered a wire-frame holographic model of the Death Star under construction in Return of the Jedi.

THE MAGIC OF CG

Having already advanced the art in motion control, miniatures, matte paintings and optical compositing, ILM would also ultimately become a leader in using computer graphics for visual effects. It began, though, with Lucasfilm’s Computer Division, which, among other projects, delivered a wire-frame holographic model of the Death Star under construction in Return of the Jedi. The graphics part of the division ultimately became Pixar.

By the time The Phantom Menace came around, ILM was fully engaged in CG, and was orchestrating shows with nearly 2,000 digital visual effects shots – including fully CG characters (although that film and the other prequels still made significant use of practical effects and miniatures). The Star Wars films have often showcased the collaborative nature of ILM’s work in combining real and digital.

Jar Jar Binks, performed by Ahmed Best, was one of the first fully CG main characters to appear in a feature film when he made his debut in The Phantom Menace in 1999. Binks came to life through Best’s on-set performance, additional motion capture and via animation by ILM.

VIRTUAL CHARACTERS

Jar Jar Binks, performed by Ahmed Best, was one of the first fully CG main characters to appear in a feature film when he made his debut in The Phantom Menace in 1999. Binks came to life through Best’s on-set performance, additional motion capture and via animation by ILM.

Many more CG characters would be rendered by ILM for the remaining prequels, and into the latest Star Wars releases, where the company’s advancements in facial-capture and digital-double technologies continued to advance. For Rogue One, ILM resurrected deceased actor Peter Cushing to play the role of Governor Tarkin by having a look-a-like actor perform on set and then generating a completely photoreal version of Cushing as he appeared in A New Hope. (A younger version of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia was also crafted).

Jar Jar Binks from The Phantom Menace. Soon many CG characters would permeate the Star Wars saga of films – this had even begun for the ‘Special Edition’ versions of the original releases in which Lucas added and adjusted several scenes to the original Star Wars trilogy.

On set, Ahmed Best played Jar Jar Binks in partial prosthetics and a head-piece that was elongated to allow for proper eyelines.

ILM was also able to capitalize on advancements in the area of projection mapping for the Star Wars prequels. It became incredibly helpful during the making of the pod race in The Phantom Menace for the massive desert landscapes. Here, artists took photographs of miniatures made as rock formations from multiple angles.

PROJECTION MAPPING

With new visual effects techniques tried and tested on several other projects, ILM was also able to capitalize on advancements in the area of projection mapping for the Star Wars prequels. It became incredibly helpful during the making of the pod race in The Phantom Menace for the massive desert landscapes.

Artists took photographs of miniatures made as rock formations from multiple angles. The textures from the photographs were then ‘re-projected’ onto proxy geometry of the same formations. It meant that the camera could move around and zoom past these environments, while also ensuring they remained photo-real.

Attack of the Clones became the first major motion picture to be captured completely on digital video using a Sony and Panavision 24-frame camera (the HDW-F900). The technology would enable faster set-ups and a completely digital workflow through to visual effects.

VIDEO STARS

During production on The Phantom Menace, Lucas experimented with digital video by filming a very small portion of the film this way. The next Star Wars film, Attack of the Clones, became the first major motion picture to be captured completely on digital video using a Sony and Panavision 24-frame camera (the HDW-F900). The technology would enable faster set-ups and a completely digital workflow through to visual effects.

ILM also developed a virtual camera system on Rogue One that took advantage of motion capture and tracking and an existing virtual production workflow to allow the director Gareth Edwards to plan and stage shots on the fly with just a hand-held controller. The result was real-time feedback for constructing much more dynamic shots in the final film.

By the time The Force Awakens was released, ILM had established a strong photoreal pipeline that scenes like this could be completely CG. However, they were often still informed by the original miniatures and location shoots.

INTO THE VIRTUAL WORLD

The Star Wars films have been catalysts for change in both analog and digital technologies, and now, most recently, in virtual immersive techniques. A few years ago, Lucasfilm launched ILMxLab, which stands alongside ILM in creating VR, AR and mixed reality experiences, many of which have been Star Wars-related.

On Rogue One, too, ILM developed a virtual camera system that took advantage of motion capture and tracking and an existing virtual production workflow to allow the director Gareth Edwards to plan and stage shots on the fly with just a hand-held controller. The result was real-time feedback for constructing much more dynamic shots in the final film.


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