Friday, April 12, 2013

And We Did All That Without Computers

(Originally Written for Jedi News)

One of my favorite non-SW films is Jurassic Park, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and seeing its very own 3D rerelease.


I’m not sure if any of you are aware, but Jurassic Park is the forebear to Episodes I-III. George Lucas, seeing what Industrial Light and Magic was doing with computer generated imagery to bring Stephen Spielberg’s dinosaurs to life, decided that technology could match his vision. The result was the groundbreaking CGI of The Phantom Menace that people profess to hate for some reason.

And it was groundbreaking, both in the number and quality of shots, and in performance. I’ve mentioned more than once that without ILM’s strides in bringing Jar Jar Binks to life, Weta wouldn’t have been able to perfect it years later with Gollum.

Still, the Jurassic Park dinosaurs remain not only some of the earliest CG, but to this day some of the most realistic CG in celluloid. Still, there are those anti-CG in I-III people who would argue that JP’s CG dinos were complimented by the very real-world animatronics of Stan Winston Studios, and this helped sell the realism. And to that I say: Absolutely! Winston’s amazing creations certainly helped ground the CG effects and flesh them out. Make them more real.

Of course, George Lucas knew this and, while eager to play with his new toys in I-III, still stuck to practical effects as often as it was cost-effective. Which was pretty often.

What’s that I hear? Dissent amongst the peanut gallery? You don’t believe that much of the incidental effects in Star Wars Episodes I-III were, in fact, not computer-generated?

If you only have a passing knowledge of the films, I wouldn’t blame you. The likes of Jar Jar, Watto, Sebulba, and others were pretty heavily advertised as a milestone in Phantom Menace, and the scale kept ballooning as the Saga wore on. Not to mention the myriad of production stills in blinding blue and green as actors stood on soundstages. Plus, Phantom Menace in particular came out at a time when most people were so CG-happy that it became kind of a turn-off to a lot of audiences. Even though the CG of the Saga is much better than most of its time, it’s still pretty apparent as computer-generated.

Except when it isn’t.

A peek into any of the behind-the-scenes documentaries on I-III shows an amazing amount of the shots where you assume you’re looking at CGI are actually done with good old-fashioned practical effects, taking their cue from IV-VI amongst others.

For example, let’s take a look at the Podrace, often considered a CGI glut. And yet, watch the stands. In fact every single audience member shown with the exception of Watto, Jar Jar, Jabba, and the concessions alien were real actors in real costumes. Of course, the podrace stands were altered in post, but only a few of the establishing shots were CG. Most of the time, it was either the full-size section for close-ups, or a model filled with – and I’m totally serious here – painted Q-tips. And it totally looked like full stands, didn’t it?

Well, what about the racers? Actually, most of the pod cockpits and a number of the engines were built either on location or back at the greenscreen set. Of the pilots shown, several of them were good old-fashioned costumed actors, such as Mawhonic, Dud Bolt, and naturally the Chosen One himself.

Ready for how seamlessly the effects tie into each other? There’s a sequence in the race where Ody Mandrell makes a pit stop and one of his hapless droids gets sucked into his engines, effectively ending the race for him. Now, look at that scene, and you’d think it was entirely CGI. In fact, only Ody and the Pit Droids were. The pod, the wall, even the explosion caused by the droids were all done by filming a model

And that’s just the pod race. Most of the time when you see those actors acting in front of a blue/green screen, it’ll be a fully-sculpted model superimposed as opposed to a CG environment. Locations like the Geonosis Arena and Grievous’ base on Utapau were still technically real places, despite the actors never setting foot in them.

Even Ahmed Best as Jar Jar gets a moment where he’s really truly on screen. Moving back to Phantom Menace, there’s the famous scene where Jar Jar has gone and injured his tongue on the power coupling of Anakin’s pod, and proceeds to get his hand stuck in the engine while reaching for the wrench he had dropped. Now, Ahmed Best was on set in a Jar Jar suit, since through most of production it was assumed that merely his head would be replaced with CG as opposed to his entire body (until it was pointed out the latter was easier and cheaper in the long run). Therefore, in a few key headless shots you can see it’s not the CG Jar Jar but Ahmed in the suit. Such as the close-ups of Jar Jar’s hand getting caught in the (also very real) podracer engines.

Make no mistake, CG plays a prominent role in I-III, and ILM is largely proud of its work. But to say that the films are a complete computer-fest is a slap in the face to the many modelers, sculptors, animatronics teams, make-up teams, set builders, and extras that helped bring us a fuller, richer Star Wars universe.

45 comments:

  1. Thank you for posting this. Whenever I hear anyone complain about the abundance CGI in Star Wars (and all films in general)I just remember Papa George own words;

    "It doesn't matter of a special effect is done by computers or models, it's all fake anyway"

    I think he said it like that. Please correct me.

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    1. Whether he did or not, it's a great statement and true to boot.

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  2. I never minded the aliens and ships and whatnot being CGI through the films- though I do think discarding the worn and used aspect of the effects was a detriment to the overall visuals- but I had more an issue with a lot of the sets being CGI (I'm thinking primarily the Jedi Council scenes in Episode II, but there's quite a few examples elsewhere).

    I've never found the issue to be that they looked intrinsically more fake than something else (I mean, yeah, I think practical effects are always going to look better than CGI, but as pointed out they're both still 'fake'), but rather that it's really detrimental to the performances. It's *extremely* hard to act when you don't have a clear idea of where you are or what it is you're looking at, and since Lucas is by his own admission not an actor's director, he's probably not going to be able to adequately bridge that gap for actors that struggle with that (there's an example of this in Episode III, when Obi-Wan first faces off with Grievous).

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    1. I agree that it's harder, but I'll always argue that the actors pulled it off, and beautifully at that. I can't think of a single interaction that looked fake on the first viewing (you see the seams after a while, but it's still well done).

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    2. Clearest example I can think of is the moment I mentioned, which is where Grievous pulls out all his lightsabers and goes into a pose...and Obi-Wan has almost no reaction whatsoever. Someone pointed out that he really should pull back or something 'cause Grievous could just out and out attack him right there and then, but there's no readying his saber, taking a step back, preparing, or anything like that. And McGregor is of course a fantastic actor, but likely at that moment he had no clue what was in front of him, so couldn't react accordingly.


      There's also that thing I heard that apparently the Tatooine scene in ROTS was wholly greenscreen, and so McGregor had to walk on his knees in a waddling-type motion to make it look like he was walking on sand...which to me seems to border on the excessive.

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    3. Obi-Wan does have a reaction. When Grievous ignites and says "Attack, Kenobi," Obi pulls a "let's dance" look and then goes into a ready stance. Then, once Grievous starts windmilling, his smile falters and he starts to back up a bit. Clear as day.

      I've heard conflicting reports on Sith's final scene. If what you say is true, then that was amazingly done because he looks like he's walking normally.

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    4. Well going to Tunisia just to film one scene doesn't make much sense.

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    5. Watch the scene again- during the actual "Grievous splits his arms and waves his lightsabers" shot, Obi-Wan has no reaction. Barely even moves an inch.

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    6. How can you tell what reaction he has when you're looking at the back of his head?

      Plus, even if he's surprised, Obi-Wan is not the type to give Grievous the satisfaction of acting very intimidated. He'll, he probably expected something like this.

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    7. Reaction is more than facial expression. He just plain doesn't move, at all, which I find a bit surprising for someone facing a guy that's waving around 4 lightsabers and could very easily attack him at any moment.

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    8. This is a Jedi Knight who is standing his ground. Grievous is a known Jedi-killer whose main weapon is intimidation, and as I mentioned before Obi-Wan will not give him the satisfaction. He came here to end this. I'd wager, given his reaction, that he doubts Grievous can even wield them effectively until he starts melting up the floor with them.

      You have to remember how the Jedi Order operates. They face danger with a cool head. They're not ones to jump back in shock at most things, and like I said Obi was likely expecting Grievous to pull something like this, given Grievous' reputation. Hell, if you count Clone Wars, he's probably seen it a million times (actually, one of my beefs with the show is the frequency of such encounters, but still).

      Remember, Alex Guinness' reaction to running headlong into Vader in the Death Star hallway is just as subtle, so there's precedence for the character's behavior.

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    9. In fact, just watched the scene again, paying attention to Obi. Here's what I got.

      Obi-Wan: "Your move." Having just dismantled Grievous' guard with relative ease, Obi is showing he's here to finish this and he will not be intimidated (interestingly, his approach has been very Anakin-like up to this point, perhaps he's thinking WWAD?)

      Grievous: "You fool! I've been trained in your Jedi arts by Count Dooku!" Grievous is defaulting to his primary strategy of intimidation, making sure you see every click and whir as his arms separate and sabers ignite. Obi is motionless, save his eyes trained on the sabers (shown by subtle head movements, since his back is to us). Is he frozen with fear?

      Cut to Obi: Nope, he's amused! Now, his face says, things have gotten interesting. He readies his saber for the fight.

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    10. And, upon further reflection, nobody would give much of a reaction. Even a frightened character would stand deer-in-headlights at least long enough for Grievous to finish his flourish. Remember, Grievous didn't jump out at him, Obi-Wan jumped out at Grievous several moments earlier. Obi was the instigator. He knew the risks, and he put himself in this situation entirely on purpose.

      Of course, Obi is not scared, or at least he's doing the Jedi thing of not letting that fear show or influence him. This isn't the Anakin fight, with the emotions of fighting a close friend who is also known to be unpredictable (and even then, Obi let's the Force guide him more than anything). Grievous is a sworn enemy from the get go, and his strategy is established as always being "kill them with fear, and if that fails run like hell". Obi knows to back down from Grievous is to let him win, so until the sabers strike, let Grievous have his flourish and show fear isn't working.

      Plus, from a purely filmmaking standpoint, you want he audience to focus on Grievous, so anything Ewan does is going to be subtle so as not to distract.

      Add all this together, and this really doesn't present any kind of technical or narrative problem.

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    11. Here's the thing about that scene, though- Obi-Wan has no idea what Grievous is about to do, and for all he knows he could very easily just lunge to attack him (it even looks that way after he disengages his arms). I find it inordinately unbelievable that he wouldn't have some sort of reflex responding to that (and a move backwards woulnd't have distracted people from the giant 4-armed cyborg).


      I mean, I'm not trying to argue that this is a major flaw in the film or anything like that, I'm just saying that it's indicative of the constraints heavy CGI can have on performances- if we assume for a hypothetical that Grievous was there in the flesh opposite McGregor, once he did that lunge thing McGregor almost certainly would've had a reflexive response- that's natural. But because he doesn't actually know what's in front of him, he doesn't have a response.

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    12. My point was A) who says he didn't know or at least suspect, and B) even if he didn't, it's not in his character.

      I must also repeat that Grievous did not lunge. He ignited, flourished, and invited Obi's attack. Obi acknowledged and readied. THEN, Grievous started his advance and Kenobi showed some concern.

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    13. He still waves them around, almost as if to attack. There's no indication Obi-Wan has any knowledge of what Grievous is going to do, and regardless of how calm and controlled you are I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be out of the question to maybe put your saber up in case the four-armed cyborg waving lightsabers around 2 feet in front of you might point them your way.

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    14. Obi-Wan is connected to the Force and he knows Grievous' M.O. If Grievous was going to attack, Obi would have blocked. Again, Grievous opened with what was clearly an intimidating flourish, meant to put the unwary off guard but no more dangerous than Dooku's Makashi salute. Obi-Wan knew this, or at least sensed it, and was far from unwary. He's not going to make any unnecessary flinches.

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    15. I think using the force to paper over stuff like this is a bit of a cheat, personally...Couldn't we just ascribe most all of the flaws in the storytelling to "the force"?

      And I still don't buy the "Obi-Wan knew this". He hasn't fought against Grievous before (or, at least more importantly *we've never seen him fight Grievous before*) and so he's not likely to know that Grievous is gonna be a showoff (and if that was the intent of the scene, a little clarity in the direction concerning Obi-Wan would've fixed that).

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    16. 1. This is a war, Grievous is a known entity, Obi-Wan is also technically a general. He'd have been briefed.

      2. Obi-Wan did encounter Grievous at least once during the battle of Coruscant, and even then they seemed to know each other at least by reputation.

      3. Everybody who challenges anybody to a lightsaber duel either flourishes or readies their sabers before making any kind of attack. The only expectations being Maul on Tattooine, Palpatine on Coruscant, and Anakin on Mustafar. And in those cases the opponents had their sabers ready anyway. It's how it works.

      4. Obi-Wan by his very nature is in control with lightsaber in hand. He's calm, cool, collected, and doesn't move until he needs to, like a perfect Jedi. Only when he drops his saber does he panic and lose the upper hand, and yet he still comes up on top. The only time he's ever been unsure with saber in hand was when he was young and inexperienced, or old and out of practice. For him to react to an obvious flourish/ready stance from a known entity in any other way would be simply out of character.

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    17. He encountered him, yes, but never fought him. The "everyone does it" remark is a good point (it wasn't something I considered) but here it's still too big and dangerous a gesture for the opposite side to have no real reaction.


      And again, my point here isn't that it's out of character for Obi-Wan or anything in-universe like that- my point is just that it's not natural for the actor to stand as still as that when something like "giant 4-armed lightsaber-wielding cyborg waves his swords of death at you" happens.

      I mean, I'd like to stress the point this is a very minor complaint, and were it an isolated incident I wouldn't even bring it up. But I think it's a good example of how an overt focus on CGI tends to hamper the naturalism of the performers and without good direction it's hard to overcome that (which is why a lot of current directors opt to use as many practical effects as they can when dealing with actual actor interaction).

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    18. Grievous wasn't waving them at him. He was clearly pulling back into a ready position.

      Even if this wasn't Obi-Wan or a Jedi, I can't imagine anyone reacting the way you're expecting to this situation, especially if everything else was the same. Even myself, if I was set out to challenge this thing, and he pulled that stunt, well I'd be scared crapless but I'd be frozen in fear. It would take me a moment to react.

      But this is not me, this is Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan is not going to flinch, especially at what is, once again, a flourish.

      My argument is that's a poor point because even if there was a full anamatronic Grievous on a fully built set, Ewan McGregor would have been directed to stand his ground and not flinch. This wasn't a casualty of having to imagine things, this was A deliberate character choice.

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    19. "Ewan McGregor would have been directed to stand his ground and not flinch."

      Given that it's Lucas behind the camera, I doubt that very much (which is to say he is by his own admission not an actor's director and never has been).

      And again, yes it's a flourish, but it's also a flourish in which he does twirl the sabers in a very unexpected manner and is only about two feet away from Obi-Wan as it is. In real life, yes there'd be a reflexive reaction of some sort.

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    20. Grievous is far more than two feet away. Don't forget, Grievous is at least 1.5 times taller than Obi-Wan. The angle makes them look closer, but the size difference shows how far away they are. Not to mention that Grievous has a lot of distance to cover in order to get into striking range once he goes windmill.

      As for Lucas nor being an "actor's director," he means he has trouble getting his actors to see his vision if they don't off the page, not that he doesn't know what he wants from them.

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    21. And evidence from all of his productions suggest he's not in the habit of giving actors a lot to work with- his general direction consists of "Faster, more intense".

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    22. Yes, that's the joke, but you do see him working a little closer with some of the actors on I-III, which says to me he's been able to overcome it if just very slightly.

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    23. Just from what I've seen he mostly tells them blocking. Doesn't seem to go indepth on character stuff.



      (I also find it a little hard to believe a director can overcome past challenges after not being in the chair for 20 years)

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    24. Unlikely, yes, but not impossible. Who knows?

      By the way, this discussion inspired the next article, so thanks for giving me something to write about.

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  3. Adding to the interesting conversation about Obi-Wan v. Grievous:

    I think Obi-Wan didn't give much reaction to Grievous opening up his four arms because:

    1) A Jedi is to remain calm in all situations.

    or more likely...

    2) Throughout the course of The Clone Wars, after battling him so much that by the time of Episode III, it wasn't a surprise anymore.

    I think either is correct.

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    1. Thank you for succinctly summing up my point.

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    2. You're welcome.

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    3. Audience has no way of knowing that second point, though, remember.

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    4. No, but they know Grievous is a coward and nobody in the films have ever been able to wield multiple sabers effectively. Even Maul was getting his butt handed to him until he resorted to dirty tricks.

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    5. Really? He seemed pretty evenly matched against the two of them in TMP. I never saw any real evidence of 'getting his butt handed to him'.

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    6. Notice that Maul kept having to back up and Qui-Gon at least was barely breaking a sweat.

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    7. Um...I'm sorry, that's *really* thin evidence.

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    8. If Maul hadn't gotten Qui-Gon alone in a small space, he would have lost easily by that point. Maul was good, but Jinn and Kenobi were better.

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    9. Maybe, but the textual evidence for that is thin on the ground. When I watch the TPM fight (which is awesome for its intense choreography but not much else) I see three very talented duelers decking it out with lighting-fast movement.

      I'm rewatching the battle now and for the most part Maul seems to be retreating out of choice rather than necessity. He actually gets the jump on them quite a bit- If anyone is losing it's Obi-Wan, who is constantly getting knocked out and separated from the fight.

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    10. That's true, Obi is out of his element, but Maul is not a retreated, he is a pusher. So to see him retreat is a sign he's in trouble. The only times he truly gets the upper hand is, again, with cheap shots like his kick to Obi and the chin-butt to Qui-Gon.

      The point here is that the doublesaber is too unwieldy for single combat, just as duel or even quad-wielding sabers. It's a very subtle message, but it's there.

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    11. Based on the actual evidence we have, I'd argue very much Maul is a retreater- it's the first thing we see him do in this battle. And isn't he distracting the Jedi from the main battle- surely he'd try and draw it out on purpose.

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    12. Maul is a trained Sith by birth. He's all about rage and aggression. That doesn't strike me as retreater material, but that's me.

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    13. Again, based on the actual evidence in the fight (what the audience sees and knows), one of the first things Maul does is deliberately pull back despite there being no indication that he needs to.

      Based on that and the fact he's likely deliberately trying to pull the Jedi away from the main battle, I'd say the retreating is definitely more purposeful than it is an indication of him being overpowered.

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    14. Also- let's also remember that our prior knowledge at that point of the Sith and how they battle is actually not one based on where they thrust themselves into the fight. Vader in V and VI is usually manipulating Luke throughout the fight and pushing him emotionally, and the Emperor barely lifts a finger as he manipulates the fight around him.

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    15. While Word of God supports my interpretation, I will concede that what's shown is subtle enough to allow either reading.

      Also, it's a fair point about Vader and Sidious, except Vader was a Jedi first, and Sidious was a little weasel even before Plagueis picked him up. Maul was given to Palpatine as a child and raised to be an enforcer. Again, little of this is shown in the films if any, but Lucas has, for better or worse, always relied on supplemental material for the full story of the Saga's characters.

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    16. I won't deny word of God, it's just that just because it's *intended* to be there doesn't actually mean it comes across. If the intent was to show Maul being hopelessly out of his element in that battle, I'd say that needed to be clearer in the final cut, since it's not at all explicit as is.

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