Monday, May 16, 2005

Star Wars. The Countdown. 3 Days. (tech stuff)

Lucas' effects wizards morphed biz approach
By Anne Thompson
When Steven Spielberg was deciding whether to make "War of the Worlds," he not only lined up Tom Cruise, but he called Industrial Light + Magic to check whether Dennis Muren, who first worked for him 20 years ago on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," was available. He was.

George Lucas, on the other hand, doesn't ever have to check Muren's availability.

That's because Muren works for him.

Lucas will be recognized Sunday here in Cannes, where he is to be feted with the Trophy of the 58th Festival de Cannes and treated to a career tribute film assembled by festival head Gilles Jacob. The day will culminate with the world premiere of "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," which then opens next week in most territories worldwide.

There is sure to be much talk of Lucas' contributions to the cinema -- both good (his reinvention of mythic archetypes under the guise of sci-fi) and bad (his success led Hollywood to its current obsession with chasing blockbusters).

But arguably, Lucas' most lasting contribution is the generation of visual effects masters, who redefined special effects in the process of solving the challenges Lucas set them.

Call it the ILM Revolution.

If Lucas sometimes seems a bit of a Yoda, then his VFX crew became a legion of Jedi masters who went forth to show other filmmakers how to unleash the force of their imaginations.

Muren, along with the other VFX wizards from ILM, combines computer science and software creation with aesthetic grace to show us things that no one has ever seen before.

With each new movie, these pioneers reinvent the cinema before our eyes.

For almost 30 years, ILM's FX masters have dominated the Oscar visual effects derby, racking up 14 wins. And when their rivals grab Oscars, chances are good that their skills also were forged in the ILM crucible.

Take this year's winner, John Dykstra of "Spider-Man 2." He started out at ILM in 1976, when it was created to make "Star Wars." In fact, without Dykstra, Ken Ralston ("Forrest Gump," "The Polar Express") and Richard Edlund ("Episodes IV," "V" and "VI," "Raiders of the Lost Ark"), the original "Star Wars" might never have been made.

It was nip and tuck back then.

Lucas literally didn't know how he was going to pull off "Star Wars" on time and on budget.

Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" had taken five years to make, but Lucas set out to pull off 360 ambitious effects in fewer than two years.

It was Muren, Dykstra, Ralston and Edlund who figured out how to save valuable production time with their daring computer-synchronized, motion-control, blue-screen photography. They weren't sure it would work, but they had no choice. They pulled off the movie. And changed movie history.

Since "Star Wars," they've gone on to realize the visions of the cinema's greatest filmmakers, from Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis to James Cameron and Wolfgang Petersen.

ILM took E.T. across the moon on a bicycle; created the exploding Star Destroyer in "The Empire Strikes Back"; the saucer pulling up clouds at the end of "Cocoon"; the go-motion rig for "Dragonslayer" that took the blur out of stop-motion; the first photorealistic CG character, the knight in 1985's "Young Sherlock Holmes"; the first morphing old woman in "Willow"; and the CG water alien in 1989's "The Abyss."

When Muren moved ILM into digital compositing, that made possible the back-to-back, mind-boggling effects in 1991's "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," 1992's "Death Becomes Her" (the first movie to achieve realistic human skin) and the CG dinosaurs in 1993's "Jurassic Park."

Their pioneering effects on "Abyss," "Jurassic Park" and "Terminator 2" represented significant steps in the digital revolution -- and convinced Lucas that he could return to the Force and finally make "Episodes I," "II" and "III."

In the decades after the first "Star Wars," the wow factor has come to dominate Hollywood movies. The top 20 blockbusters of all time are either visual effects spectaculars or CG animation. In the past decade, studio budgets for visual effects have skyrocketed from an average of $5 million to $50 million per film, and the percentage of movies that are dominated by effects has shot up as well.

"Movies of size and scope, marquee blockbusters, are sold by their trailers," says Scott Ross, chairman of Santa Monica effects house Digital Domain ("Titanic," "I, Robot"), who launched his career at ILM. A single shot -- whether it's the 250-foot tower of water in "The Perfect Storm" or Kate and Leo on the bow of "Titanic" -- can sell a blockbuster.

"A-list visual effects guys are make or break for a big effects movie," says Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, who supervised Warner Bros. Pictures' "Perfect Storm."

Hiring a visual effects supervisor is like casting a star, says Hutch Parker, head of TCF at 20th Century Fox. "Your choice of who to play the role is essential."Under mounting pressure to deliver eye-popping visuals, studios and directors chase after the top FX stars.

Sony relied on Sony Pictures Imageworks' Dykstra for the first two "Spider-Man" movies. Zemeckis collaborates exclusively with SPI's Ralston, who has won four Oscars for their films together. This year, the duo's drive to use new Imagemotion technology yielded the $175 million "Polar Express," which was slammed by some critics but still delivered enough wow to gross $281 million worldwide.

For "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," director Brad Silberling leaned on ILM's Stefen Fangmeier, who trained for years with Muren.

Truth is, three worlds -- live action, CG and animation -- are now collapsing into one.

In live action, the old-school photographic techniques pioneered by ILM are swiftly being replaced by computer graphics. The younger generation is more comfortable with the digital virtual world. One gets the sense that such directors as Lucas, Peter Jackson, Kerry Conran and Robert Rodriguez would like nothing better than to replace the real (including actors) with elements that they can control completely.

Such movies as "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," "Sin City" and "Constantine" are moving toward less on-location reality and more mind-numbing hordes of "smart" cyber-extras and stunt doubles. And such FX artists as Muren, Fangmeier, Dykstra and Ralston, using similar CG animation to what Pixar Animation Studios employs, are figuring out how to replace actors with living, breathing, talking digital humans. It's their Holy Grail.

"You can't find anything harder," Ralston says. "We are absolutely familiar with every frigging subtlety in the human body. Millions of things are going on when we speak that we'll never be able to do."

Even the hotshots at SPI and ILM stand in awe of New Zealand's Oscar-winning Weta Digital, which created Gollum from "The Lord of the Rings." The question is, who will meet the Weta challenge? Will it be Jackson's remake of "King Kong," coming in December? Or will it be Cameron, who is ramping up his first film in six years, the 3-D, high-def, sci-fi adventure "Battle Angel"?

Odds are good that when Cameron makes the call on who will make real his celluloid fantasies, it will be one of the ILM FX masters.

Tech Firms Owe Debt to 'Star Wars' Creator
By GREG SANDOVAL, AP Technology Writer
After filming the first "Star Wars" movie with special effects far from special, George Lucas spent millions to develop a complete digital editing system to populate his sequels with armies of X-wing fighters and Gungan warriors. Then, he virtually gave it away.

"We were 10 years ahead of the commercial reality," said Bob Doris, co-general manager of Lucas' computer division during the mid-1980s. "He inspired some very worthwhile ventures ... but the innovations weren't close to paying for themselves."

So Lucas sold many of his technologies for cheap — technologies that would later appear in home stereos, cell phones, medical imaging devices and virtually every Hollywood studio, driving billion-dollar companies and employing thousands of people.

Apple Computer Inc. chief executive Steve Jobs paid $10 million for the team that became Pixar Inc., and the movie company went on to make $3 billion at the box office.

And so it goes with Lucas, who was famous for saying "I'm not a venture capitalist."

Lucas recognized the absurdity of his situation as he made the first "Star Wars" movie. There he was trying to tell a futuristic story about intergalactic revolution, space travel and androids, and Hollywood was stuck using 50-year-old film-making techniques.

To create space ships or alien creatures, his artists built small models and hoped for audiences with vivid imaginations. The first "Death Star" was made out of plastic. EDITOR'S NOTE: HEY! SO'S MINE!

Lucas aspired for something much more grand, and after the first movie was released in 1977, he gathered a small group of computer artists and told them to spare no expense in creating a system that would include software capable of rendering images in three dimensions.

First, the computer team created "EditDroid," the first digital-editing system. It allowed movies to be transferred to computer disks so editors won't have to fiddle with cumbersome film reels. Lucas sold that technology to Avid Technology Inc., which went on to sell the forerunner of modern movie-editing bays.

Then he sold the computer division — later to become Pixar — to Jobs in 1986 in arguably one of the worst deals in movie history.

Using talent and technology that Lucas had let go, Pixar developed RenderMan, the software that has since transformed the film industry by infusing computer images with real-world qualities, such as shadows, glossy reflections, motion-blur and depth of field.

Emeryville-based Pixar used RenderMan in 1995 to release the first entirely computer-animated film, "Toy Story," and then five more hits.

Other studios used RenderMan or software inspired by it to make the form-changing cyborg in "Terminator 2," the massive waves in "The Perfect Storm" and even the computer-generated smoke and fire in the final installment of the six-film "Star Wars" saga, "Revenge of the Sith," which debuts May 19.

In all, the software has helped studios win 33 of the past 35 Academy Awards for special-effects.
But Lucas — already financially secure because he owned the "Star Wars" franchise — had good reason for unloading some of the technology. Most of the editing and production tools were so advanced that there was little market for them at the time.

Also, he wasn't motivated by profits — he just wanted to make better films, said Doris, who left with three other Lucas staffers in 1986 to form Sonic Solutions, which makes DVD-creation software.

In fact, dozens of groundbreaking technologies were initially developed at Lucasfilm Ltd.'s San Rafael headquarters, known as Skywalker Ranch.

"Half the technology companies here are spinoffs" of a Lucas' company, said Robert Huebener, a former LucasArts videogame developer who in 1998 founded a competing firm in nearby Redwood City.

Perhaps not half, but the list of companies that in one way or another got their start at Skywalker Ranch is long.

Besides the Lucasfilm divisions Industrial Light & Magic for special effects, Lucasfilm for movie production, Skywalker Sound for audio post-production and LucasArts for video games, Lucas inspired Pixar, Avid and Sonic Solutions.

Other spinoffs include visual effects developer Visual Concept Entertainment, production studio Digital Domain and video game software companies BioWare and Nihilistic Software, to name a few.

Some of those companies found other applications for the technology developed at Skywalker Ranch.

THX, the theater sound system developed in 1983 and rolled out to more than 2,000 theaters across the country, is now in car and home stereo systems. Sound effects designed by Skywalker Sound's Gary Rydstrom are available on Apple computers. Before Pixar became a powerhouse in animated-movie making, the company sold computers that helped doctors create digital three-dimensional models.

Lucas may not have profited from this galaxy of businesses, but he's earned lasting respect and gratitude from his fans as well as many in the movie industry, said BZ Petroff, who oversees production at San Francisco's Wild Brain Inc. animation studio.

"Back in 1980s you'd have a director of photography on a crane performing incredibly complex and long camera moves going through these miniature sets," Petroff said. "Now, you have a 25-year-old getting the same shots on his computer."

Special effects had fallen out of favor in the 1970s when Lucas began the "Star Wars" saga, Lucas recalled as he promoted his final "Star Wars" movie last week. Some studios had dismantled their special-effects departments entirely. "I'm most proud," Lucas said, "of the fact that I was able to take special effects out of the cellar."

Lights, sabers, action!/'Star Wars' fan films out of this world thanks to cheaper, powerful technology
Benny Evangelista, Chronicle Staff Writer

There's a surprise scene in a new "Star Wars" film -- Darth Vader on stage leading a chorus line of Imperial stormtroopers in a high-stepping galactic rendition of "Riverdance."

Don't fret, "Star Wars" fans. George Lucas hasn't suddenly turned his upcoming blockbuster into "Dark Lord of the Dance."

The dancing Darth appears in the comedy short "Sith Apprentice," one of more than 100 "Star Wars" fan films that amateur moviemakers have produced in advance of next week's eagerly anticipated premiere of Lucas' official "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith."

But these fan films don't look like the average unpolished home movie. Standard, off-the-shelf technology has armed Lucas-wannabes with the video and audio editing tools needed to create the special effects and high production values that long ago were only available to big budget moviemakers.

So with a video camera, a computer and some inspiration from the Force, amateur filmmakers can create exciting light saber duels, realistic X-wing starfighters and even 12 dancing stormtroopers.

"Now, just about anybody could make a "Star Wars" movie," said Robert Reeves, who used a home computer -- a Macintosh G5 -- and Apple's Final Cut Express software to edit his live action short "Cheap Seats," which took home the best comedy trophy on April 22 in AtomFilms' annual Star Wars Fan Film Awards.

The film, which cost about $1,000 to make, stars Reeves as a goofy X-wing pilot witnessing the award ceremony at the end of the first Star Wars from afar.

"If you have a good story idea that you want to share, you can do it now with very little money," said Reeves, who by day works as a tour guide for the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park. "And people have stories they want to tell about these characters they are so in love with."

Amateurs have been making fan films ever since the original "Star Wars" was released in 1977 and inspired the classic short parody, "Hardware Wars," which features a flying iron and wafflemaker.

But the rise of inexpensive computers and software has lowered the barriers of entry into the "Star Wars" universe.

Computer-generated special effects that were the exclusive domain of a major studio are now accessible to anyone versed in common video editing and creation software.

Mika Salmi, chief executive officer of AtomShockwave Corp. of San Francisco, noted that this year's crop of more than 100 entries for the fourth annual Star Wars Fan Film Awards overall showed a higher level of visual and production quality than in previous years.

One measure of how the established movie community is recognizing the fan film genre came last week when AtomFilms announced that the prestigious Cannes Film Festival has for the first time agreed to present 11 past and present "Star Wars" contest winners.

Star Wars Fan Film Awards movies, found at, have been viewed more than 10 million times. One of this year's winning entries, "Anakin Dynamite," was the first film ever made by Wayne Barnes, 28, a senior art director for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s Bentonville, Ark., headquarters.

Another winner, "For The Love of the Film," came from Barry Curtis, 32, and Troy Metcalf, 31, who work in a Toys R Us store in New York's Times Square demonstrating magic toys.

For "Sith Apprentice," a send-up that turns the scheming Senator Palpatine into a Donald Trump-style executive looking for a new underling, director John Hudgens took stock images of stormtroopers and used his PC to animate them.

Hudgens, a 38-year-old promotions producer for a Knoxville, Tenn., TV station, combined the animation with a live action video shot of two actors in front of a blue screen. He also used a technique posted on the Web for creating realistic light saber effects frame by frame with Adobe Photoshop.

"There were a lot of long weekends and nights I spent rotoscoping a light saber," Hudgens said.
The contest is not only officially sanctioned by Marin County's Lucasfilm Ltd., but one category, the George Lucas Selects Award, is judged by Lucas himself.

Lucasfilm, which is also known for taking a tough stance on fan films used for commercial or obscene purposes, sets the rules for the contest -- films have to be spoofs, mocumentaries or documentaries under 15 minutes long.

" 'Star Wars' fans really have a sense of ownership about 'Star Wars,' " said Steve Sansweet, Lucasfilm's head of fan relations. "Occasionally, ones get a little carried away. We want to make sure there aren't 'Star Wars' characters and story lines that are salacious or lewd or really crude."

And having a powerful computer doesn't guarantee a good movie.

"You can have the flashiest style, even animation, but if it's a bad story or a story that doesn't make sense, it's not going to be a great film," Sansweet said.

Still, George Lucas has been impressed with the talent of the fan filmmakers, Sansweet said.
"He's very much aware that people with a Mac or a beefed-up PC can now turn out a pretty nifty product," Sansweet said. "We're getting to the point with a huge number of people having broadband where not only can you make a film by yourself, but you can distribute it by yourself."

That's what the creators of perhaps the most ambitious fan film to date, "Star Wars Revelations," is doing.

Director Shane Felux' 40-minute independent film, which was longer than the 15-minute limit for the AtomFilms contest, was released for free on the Internet April 16.

By last week, the movie, available at,
had been downloaded nearly 1 million times. It also comes in versions designed for burning onto a DVD or for playback on a Sony PlayStation Portable.

The movie took three years to make and involved an all volunteer cast and crew of 200, including Felux' wife, Dawn Cowings, 35, who co-wrote the screenplay set in the time period between Star Wars episodes three and four.

Felux also worked with a corps of computer effects animators and visual effects artists from around the world. They transmitted their work via the Internet to Felux, who finished the film used his 3.2-GHz Pentium 4 home PC.

"I have a 9-to-5 job, I'd come home, maybe eat, pat the kids on the head and go to work until 3 in the morning for three years," Felux said.

Felux also financed the nearly $20,000 cost of making the movie out of his own pocket, a heavy investment for the Bristow, Va., man whose regular job is as a government graphic artists contractor.

He's hoping the success of "Revelations" helps him find financing for another project he has in mind for his nonprofit production company, Panic Struck Productions. But he said he won't charge for "Revelations" because "there is no way I would want to do anything to make money off Lucasfilm' hard work."

Besides, working on "Revelations" helped him live out a dream.

"That's as close as us fans can get to be in a Star Wars movie," Felux said. " 'Revelations' is about the little guy doing something big.


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