Friday, June 20, 2014

Without Computers Redux

(Originally Written for Jedi News)

I haven’t spoken much about the developing details of Episode VII, and I will discuss the very real reasons for this in an upcoming article. With that being said, one thing that Star Wars communities keep talking about for the last month or so is the glut of photos of practical effects, sets, and creature puppets that J.J. Abrams and his team are showing to get the fans excited. The clear meme here being: “We’re using good old-fashioned elbow grease with this film, not like those OTHER movies that were mainly CGI.”

Surprisingly, many sections of the fanbase have actually wizened up. First of all correctly saying how laughable the idea is that a big-budget director in this day and age will avoid using CGI entirely (especially J.J. “Cloverfield/Star Trek” Abrams). But more to the point, there have now been several incredible editorials, even from people who don’t like Episodes I-III, that are showing photo galleries of the myriad of practical effects used in those films in spite of hater party line we’ve been hearing since 1999.


Back in April of 2013, I wrote an article for this site called “And We Did All THAT Without Computers”, which was expanding on this very point - a point that I had also made in the original “Truth” blog post that got me this gig in the first place.

Of course, I recognize now my fatal flaw with that article: no photo evidence!

It wasn’t until some months later, at the end of my initial May the 4th reviews, that I discovered how to take screenshots. I’ve somewhat mastered the technique now, so what better time for me to go back and do this thing right?

This article will be mostly pictures from here on out. And they’re not pictures from obscure magazines or production guides. No, these images come from the documentaries that were on the first-run DVDs of the three films, that anyone could have looked at whenever they wanted – assuming of course you actually bought the DVDs.

This is also by no means comprehensive. To show you every practical effect in every scene, it would take days of research and hundreds of pages. But I hope this at least supplements what has already been written and puts the final nail in the coffin of the “All CG No Practical” idea.

The Phantom Menace
Most people forget that the first creature we see in The Phantom Menace is a good old-fashioned man in a mask.
"Y'know, some people will pay a lot of money to have a woman put them in something like this."

I believe that’s Rune Haako that this actor is testing out. The Nemoidians were from day one animatronic masks.

Of course, the first scene shot was farther into the film. Here’s a picture on the SET for the first filmed scene
"It's, my master."

This is Palpatine’s office. The presence of Darth Maul gives an interesting indication of where Maul and Sidious’ overlook chat actually took place. Here’s another view of Palpatine’s office


You’re no doubt noticing the blue screens on set. Well, truthfully, many scenes would need to have outside environments added in post-production, given the kind of movie this is. Sometimes it would just be a window. Other times, such as in Otoh Gunga or the Podrace hangar, it would be more of a horizon.

However, not all of the replacements would be with CGI. Some of those replacements would be with miniatures or matte paintings.

Speaking of the podrace, here’s a picture of the crew shooting the scene where Ody Mandrell’s pit droid gets sucked into his engine:

And, just for giggles, here’s some shots of the finished film featuring live-action practical podrace pilots Dud Bolt
"In that fantastic flying machine, the Vulptereen 327!"

"No GranStanding."

And Mars Guo
"Don't drink and race, kids."

Of course, after a long podrace (or, chronologically, before), why not grab a bite to eat in the fully built Skywalker Hovel?
"Dissin cozy..."

Oh yes, Ahmed Best in his Jar Jar suit that they never ended up using, instead replacing his entire body with CG. Except of course in these scenes from the finished picture:

By the by, I don’t know if you can tell, but aside from the Coruscant cityscapes these were all shot on full or at least partial sets.

Finally, here are some shots from Theed

Attack of the Clones
There aren’t going to be as many shots here for the second and third films, because at this point George Lucas and Industrial Light and Magic really were trying to push the envelope further than before and test digital filmmaking to its limits. They should be commended for this, even if the final product has a flaw or two, because they were doing something nobody had really done before and completely revolutionized filmmaking - again.

However, less practical sets doesn’t mean NO practical sets. For instance:

Coruscant Slums

Dex's Diner

Arena Waiting Room

Christopher Lee being tall

Jango's Room
And....this place

That last one, of course, is the lovingly reconstructed Lars Homestead in Tunisia.

There were also many miniature sets shot to be integrated into the blue-screen sets instead of a digital environment, such as Tipoca City and the Geonosis Arena

Revenge of the Sith
Of course, I also hadn’t mentioned that the filmmakers were pushing the boundaries of animatronics at the same time they were pushing digital boundaries

"So lifelike..."

Wookiee Muscles

Nor that even with entirely blue/green environments, complicated rigs would be constructed to give authenticity for the actors, whether it be a mechanical bull, a rotating hallway, or even a full-sized vehicle such as Bail Organa’s speeder.

"This thing isn't even fully paid off yet!"

Plus, Revenge of the Sith scored an Oscar nomination for best makeup. It didn’t net that just for Palpatine…

Yes, that last one is Hayden Christiansen in full Extra-Crispy makeup for the Birth of Vader scene. The droids may have been CG, but the performance was all Hayden, including the scenes in the infamous black suit.

"Oh, it's YOU"

Of course, as always, sets were used:

Invisible Hand Elevator Bay

Invisible Hand General's (Count's?) Viewing Room

Padmé's (and Anakin's) Lavish Coruscant Apartment

Palpatine's Second Office
Mustafar Lakeside

But most impressive to me is the Mustafar miniature, with its flowing, glowing lava.

There is Another…
I do want to conclude with this thought. I’ve shown you plenty of practical effects here, but the truth is that yes, CGI did play a huge part in I-III as well – just like it does in pretty much any big-budget fantasy film of the last twenty odd years. And even before CG, films had just as many “obvious blue screen” shots if you knew where to look, especially Episodes IV-VI! The problem is that as movie fans get older, we learn what to look for so it’s naturally harder for us to get fully immersed in the story. In order to enjoy a movie like Star Wars – any Star Wars – you have to turn that part of your brain off, at least at first, and focus on the story that’s being told.

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