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.