Here you’ll find a collection of old features pertaining to various articles to do with the movies, in front & Behind-the-Scenes at SW.Com
In part 1 of this story, we covered the history and development of “animatics” as used in Star Wars movies. Animatics are visual place-holders in the rough cut of a film, moving “sketch” versions of shots that will eventually be completed as final film footage. Episode I has made extensive use of computer-generated animatics created by a small team working at Skywalker Ranch. Our interviews with animatics supervisor David Dozoretz and team members Evan Pontoriero and Kevin Baillie have described some of the crew’s work for Episode I.
To demonstrate how the animatics team creates a typical animatic shot, we’ve put together a demo shot made just for the Web. We have thrown in an Episode I Battle Tank to spice things up, but THIS IS NOT A SHOT FROM EPISODE I, nor is it necessarily anything like one. This is just a demonstration to show how many of the real Episode I animatics were cobbled together quickly from various sources, including both CG elements and live action footage of handy personnel dashing around like space heroes for a day in front of home video cameras. For mock-up lightsaber battles the players have sometimes had broomsticks in hand, but we’re not showing you anything that chintzy.
The point here is to illustrate how different elements combine in an animatic to make a useful shot, even when some of the elements are only quick approximations, like sketches or improvised video footage. In the end, this combination of elements helps George Lucas and editor Martin Smith decide how to cut a scene. It also helps producer Rick McCallum schedule and budget needed shots.
Animatics: The Moving Storyboards of Episode I – Part 2
We start with a storyboard, drawn by Art Department artist Jay Shuster, who has created many of the real Episode I storyboards. Jay’s artwork illustrates the different elements of the shot and indicates movement by an arrow and the placement of the soldier figure at both his starting and ending positions. The shot is a pan to the right, so Jay’s storyboard is stretched to include the camera’s start and finish positions.
When it comes time to edit the scene in which this shot appears, if the editors need something immediately, we may provide them with a brief video clip of the storyboard itself. We simply pan across the drawing to approximate the final shot. This introduces the dimension of time to the storyboard, giving it duration for use in the rough cut. But the dynamics and movement of the shot remain to be worked out.
An animatic can pick up where the storyboard approximation leaves off, adding the elements of full movement to help the editors tell how the shot will feel when it is complete. An animatic also may suggest additional aspects or elements that will improve the shot.
The Background Plate
We begin our animatic by going out and filming a stand-in going through the necessary motions. Animatics team leader David Dozoretz is our director and cameraman–he knows what he needs out of the shot, so he just grabs a camera and a stand-in and goes out to shoot it. To make the stand-in look the part, we’ve called on Gillian Libbert, our Costume Appearance Manager, to dress our soldier with a uniform made out of items from the Archives.
Some of the costume elements are from Star Wars movies and some are from the Indiana Jones pictures, but for the time being the costume will just blend the figure in the shot better than his street clothes. The simple shot “may not look like much,” but it will be the basis of the animatic to come: as crude as it is, it is our shot’s “background plate,” the image to which other elements will be added.
Outside, we select a location that will place the Battle Tank farther away from the soldier than shown by Jay’s storyboard. Things can look different once you translate them from drawings to real life, and in the analysis of shot director David Dozoretz, “our soldier is gonna be instant toast if he’s that close to the tank.” We prudently put our man at enough distance to give him an even chance before he’s blasted.
While we are out doing the mini-shoot, David comes up with an idea to add more life and motion to the shot. He directs the actor to slow down and look up at one point – before he crouches and takes aim – to see ships flying overhead that will be added later. This kind of concept development is a key part of the value of animatics.
The background plate serves as a canvas that animatics artists can “paint” on using their computers. Colors will be corrected, sharpness adjusted, and the sky will be brightened and enhanced.
With our background plate in the can, it’s now up to the animatics boys. For our typical animatic shot, computer-generated elements will have to be carefully combined with the live-action photography in our background plate. The live-action footage is digitized into the computer, and a computer world is then set up to match the world seen in the video, so that all the elements will mesh correctly. We start by matching the computer’s virtual lens to the camera lens, ensuring that perspectives and angles will look the same for the CG elements as for the real shot. In this case, we knew that our lens was a 50mm, and so that is quickly programmed into the computer.
Our live-action shot featured camera movement: a pan to the right. We now create a camera move in the computer to match the camera move on the set. To help with this, animatics artist Kevin Baillie notes landmarks in the plate shot, then creates generic CG shapes (such as a sphere or a cube) as placeholders to mark their counterparts in the virtual set. In a case such as ours where there are no landmarks to speak of, a specific patch of grass or any other fixed reference point can be used.
Then, by aligning the placeholders to the real reference points over a series of key frames, Kevin marks out the camera move and the computer does the rest, following these markers. The result is a matched camera move. The placeholders can then be switched off.
Create Model: Battle Tank
Our Battle Tank will appear as a CG model. When a ship, building, or character must be created from scratch, the animatics team are experts at creating quick models that closely match the final film designs, even wrapping them in texture maps to give them realistic colors and finishes. In the Star Wars animatics department, CG models are kept on file for use in later shots, and when a new one needs to be created, any member of the team is capable of carrying out the work. In this case, we already have a Battle Tank CG model lying around in memory, and we will re-use that one.
Light the CG model
The CG tank model must be lit in the same way that our real set was lit in order for it to blend into the scene. David Dozoretz examines the fall of shadow on the actor to determine where the sun is in the sky. He adjusts the placement of his CG light source accordingly, until the tank model is lit just as if by the same sun.
Sophisticated lighting consists of a complex of different lights, including the principal (“key”) light, fill lights that make shadows less harsh, scattered ambient light, and so on. For outdoor shots the key light is normally the sun. However, scattered light plays a large role in lighting as well. Enough of this must be matched in the CG world to blend the animatic and real elements.
Cheat the Model to 2D if possible
Since the tank does not rotate or move in this shot, it can be approximated for the animatic much more easily using a 2D still image rather than an animated 3D model. This works on the same principle as “flats” in real photography. In Star Wars: A New Hope, it was too expensive to build multiple full-size X- and Y-wing fighters for the Rebel Hangar scenes, so for background ships the crew constructed flats, which were near life-size cutout paintings of additional spacecraft.
Savvy animatics artists “cheat” and use 2D stills wherever possible, since it is much quicker and easier than rendering animated 3D models.
Animate Models: The Fighters Overhead
While 2D approximations work for many applications, David’s spacecraft flying overhead will have to be modeled and animated, since they race dynamically through the shot. They are lit by the same light source developed for the Battle Tank, and they fly through the same virtual set, tracked by the virtual camera pan. For the ships, we use a design which will not appear in Episode I.
One of these is quickly modeled by animatics team member Evan Pontoriero, and then placed by David into a trajectory using key frames. David specifies start point, end point, and key points along the way, and the computer interpolates the rest. David meanwhile specifies how much motion blur he wants on the ships, which contributes to the photo-realism of the ships.
Compositing: Add the city. In fact, add everything else.
According to Jay’s storyboard, we have a city that needs to appear in the background.
We will just incorporate a bit of his art to represent the city. Animatics often include everything from finished-looking elements to very sketchy portions. Their job is only to convey the overall editorial content of the shot, and, for most purposes, it would be a waste of time to create a complex and detailed image of the background city.
In addition to the city, we’ll also need laser bolts, as the soldier fires at the Battle Tank and the tank shoots back at him. Animatics artist Ryan Tudhope fixes these up to look good for the shot, including some blast flares. David Dozoretz decides to add a few trees in front of the city, and shadows from the fighters overhead as well, which are even made to appear on the soldier as he runs toward the tank. While assembling the composite layers, David notes that the guy with the gun ducked slightly toward the end of the shot. This gives David the opportunity to link something to the actor’s move by adding a stock explosion at that point, as well as a virtual boulder to help protect the soldier from the blast. So our man survives the confrontation with the tank after all.
All these elements, and the CG models as well, become individual layers within the shot. These must be assembled into one image, or composited, using a popular compositing program. Compositing blends all the layered elements together in one final video image.
In this process, David must specify which layers go behind or on top of others. The city is fitted in-between the trees in the foreground and the sky in the background. The tank is layered over the urban background but under the laser bolts searing the air in front of it, and so on. In the end, even for this example animatic shot, there are about 40 layers involved!
This short movie shows a pan across Jay’s storyboard, then our unmodified background plate shot, and finally the final animatic shot, fit to wide-screen proportions and filled with all the additional elements that animatics have added. Sound is occasionally added to convey an even fuller impression of the finished shot for the editors.
When all of the components are “rendered out” to a movie file, the shot is sent directly to the editing team over an Ethernet. At this point what usually happens is that every aspect of the shot is discovered to need a change, and the revision is needed immediately. George, Rick, and Martin request an updated version, and they need it in a half-hour. Rick comes up to tap his foot or look over their shoulders…or Martin calls, again, to ask if they have made any progress, and off the team goes on another run.
About 1500 Episode I shots have been pre-created as animatics. The team can hammer out about two shots per person per day on average, and may total up to 75 in a day if they’re easy ones. David Dozoretz’ world record is 54 finished Star Wars animatic shots in a single week. The team works fast. Very fast. But it is in their speed and flexibility that they become of such value to George Lucas and Rick McCallum. After all these years, George can finally “sculpt” the film itself just as he has approached sculpting the story, or the art designs of the movie. Through animatics, the film has become a responsive medium, and as a result Episode I will be closer than ever to the Star Wars movie that George really wants to see.