Welcome to the Homing Beacon Archives. The Official Newsletter of Star Wars.Com, no longer available. I have salvaged as much as I can but have only concentrated on the main part of the newsletter and not the peripheral stuff. I have used images where possible. Enjoy this blast from the past!
Jul 21, 2005
Comic-Con 2005 Round-up
From July 13 to 17th, San Diego, California continued its tradition as host of the biggest celebration of the popular arts — Comic-Con International. starwars.com was there, providing the most thorough online Star Wars coverage of the event. With so much news coming out of Comic-Con, it’s hard keeping up with all the new developments; here’s a round-up of some of the bigger stories.
Members of Hyperspace: The Official Star Wars Fan Club will want to check out exclusive content from the show including images of future products, the full audio of several Star Wars panels (including the Star Wars Spectacular) and exclusive video, including the brand new two-part documentary “The Journey”. If you’re not already a member, click here to start.
Star Wars Animation Begins. The theme for this year’s Comic-Con was Star Wars is Forever. Lucasfilm’s Head of Fan Relations, Steve Sansweet, revealed that Lucas Animation will be carrying on the spirit of adventure and excitement through a new animated Star Wars series set to debut in the Fall of 2007. Production has begun, and Sansweet announced several of the talented people behind the new endeavor, including Catherine Winder, Dave Filoni, Chris Kubsch, and Henry Gilroy.
Lucasfilm is Hiring. With Lucas Animation and LucasArts ramping up to produce new Star Wars and non-Star Wars series, features and games, now is the time to prepare that resumé and send it over. The next generation of talented digital artists is needed, and fans that have the skills are invited to apply at lucasfilm.com.
Episode III DVD On Its Way. The Summer of Sith is not over yet, but already there’s more Episode III to look forward to at the end of ’05. Though exact release dates and feature-specs have yet to be revealed, Sansweet did preview some of what was to come. Like the DVDs for Episodes I and II, the Episode III DVD will contain completed deleted scenes — with score, sound and visual effects — as bonus material. He even screened one of these lost scenes exclusively to the Comic-Con audience: the first clandestine meeting of concerned Senators Bail Organa, Mon Mothma, Padmé Amidala and others to forge an Alliance to restore the Republic.
Not a Decoy! Natalie Portman Drops By. For the first time ever, Natalie Portman attended Comic-Con to help promote her upcoming film, V for Vendetta. Not forgetting her Star Wars roots, she paid a surprise visit to the massive Star Wars pavilion on the exhibit floor. In the interests of security, her appearance was kept to a whisper. Fans in line to buy products from the StarWarsShop.com store were randomly selected and asked to return at a specific time for a surprise. When they did, they found themselves greeted by Portman and posed for a keepsake Polaroid with the actress.
Dark Horse Comics. The 20th anniversary of Dark Horse Comics is just around the corner, and to celebrate, they are revamping their entire line of Star Wars comics. Several long-running series are drawing to a close, to be replaced by several new exciting titles. Dark Horse editors only revealed upcoming developments that start the year 2006 — there’s much more on the way. But to start, the biggest and most welcomed surprise is a return to the ancient Star Wars-past with the launch of an ongoing Knights of the Old Republic series.
And Much More… Editors and authors at LucasBooks previewed upcoming titles, many of them amazingly detailed high-end art books. Hasbro showed upcoming Saga packaging and unveiled their smaller-scale Unleashed line. Sideshow Toys announced that they’re taking over production of the 12″ action figure line. Many other licensees showcased upcoming products and convention exclusives. To catch up on all the news, sights and sounds from Comic-Con
Aug 04, 2005
Braving the Prequel Path
With the successful release of Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith, filmmaker George Lucas says that he hopes this extensive backstory of Anakin Skywalker’s transformation to the iconic figure of Darth Vader will influence fans’ future viewings of the original trilogy.
“When I finished with Return of the Jedi I thought that was the end of it,” Lucas confesses. “I thought I was going to go and raise my kids, then I’ll come back and direct little artsy movies that I always wanted to do. So by the time my kids were old enough where I could go back and direct, I realized that I could tell the story the way I wanted to. And I thought it might be interesting to tell a story that changes and influences the way the first three films are viewed because it really is about Darth Vader, and not about Luke and Leia. And that would be more apparent when you see what the backstory really was.”
However, in telling the backstory the way he felt was best, Lucas had to take what he regards as risks with the prequels.
“The first trilogy — Book One — is about the father, while the second trilogy — Book Two — is about the children,” Lucas says. “When you combine them together they become one big piece. When I told people that Episode I was about a ten-year-old boy, people panicked, and they said it wasn’t going to work because everyone wanted to see Darth Vader going around and killing people. But I really wanted to be thorough about telling the story about where Darth Vader came from. When I did the second film, people were mortified that it was going to be a love story. But we got through both of those films, and people were excited for Episode III to see the rest of the story.”
One of the larger issues that surfaced in the telling of Anakin’s fall to the dark side and his rise to becoming a corrupt figure was that of the fall of democracy at the hands of the very people who initially fought oppression.
“You have the personal issue of Anakin and his turn to the dark side, but then the children later bring him back to being a human being,” Lucas says. “But the larger issue is that you’ve given up your democracy, and that the bad guys never took it — it was handed to them. That theme was there 30 years ago which came out of the Vietnam War and Nixon wanting to change the rules so he could get a third term.”
“I’m a big history buff and I was really into Caesar at the time,” Lucas recalls. “I always wanted to know why the Roman Senate gave Caesar’s nephew a dictatorship after they had gotten rid of Caesar. Why after the revolution in France did they create an Emperor? Why did the Germans after they had a Democracy after World War I, turn it into a dictatorship? Those were my initial questions 30 years ago.”
Aug 18, 2005
Big Numbers: Episode III Animation
Episode III is big; so big that big numbers are frequently thrown around describing specific aspects of its production. Industrial Light & Magic probably has the most impressive numbers to show encompassing the sheer scale of their accomplishment in bringing Revenge of the Sith to spectacular life: 2,151 visual effects shots for a total of 375,040 frames of work.
“We began working on this movie in October of 2003,” recalls Rob Coleman, Animation Director of Revenge of the Sith. “In terms of animation, we had 1,269 shots that we animated. To put that into perspective, for Episode I we did 60 minutes of animation. For Episode II, we did 70 minutes. In this one we did 90 minutes.”
To handle such a large job, the animators needed tools that allowed them to achieve their shots with specific finesse, and that could be customized to handle the volume of animation required. They turned to Maya, the standard in high-end animation software from Alias. “Because of George [Lucas] pushing us, we had to create new tools and new ways to work, and Maya was a large part of how we solved very challenging creative problems.”
Thousands of starships tangle in the atmosphere high above Coruscant, each producing scores of laser beams, explosions and flak hits. The elements quickly began to multiply. “George wanted this [space battle] to be bigger and better than the one in Jedi. That’s the high water mark right now,” says Coleman. “He wanted the flying to be much more realistic. He saw what ILM had done with Pearl Harbor, and he asked me specifically if I could get those guys and have them do the opening space battle. That was Scott Benza, Glenn Mcintosh and Paul Kavanagh and others. They created a flight rig that handled all the realism — all the buffeting, bouncing and moving.”
Also animated in large numbers were the soldiers of the Clone Wars: the clone troopers, Wookiee warriors and battle droids that would populate the sprawling battlefields. Equipping and animating these soldiers was facilitated by customizing tools to meet these needs. Technical Animator Supervisor James Tooley and his team led the development and scripting of tools to create efficient ways to arm an army.
“The tools were animator-friendly,” says Coleman. “It made it very easy to place clones into ships, or guns onto clones, or different weapons onto Wookiees, because we’d have one master Wookiee and 15 different props. They created buttons for our animators so they could just click on it, and it would connect directly to the creature that they wanted and it would wrap the fingers around the weapons and constrain them to it. That really was an advantage to us.”
This customization kept animators animating, and not fretting about the technology. “I remember when I started [years ago], I had fingerprints all over my monitor because I really wanted to reach in and grab it and move it just a little bit,” says Coleman. Now, the process has become much more animator-friendly thanks to custom tools developed by ILM.
“It was very creative software with huge-time savings which really helped us do what we do.” Given the scale of Episode III, every second saved was rendering time earned. One final big number: the shots of Episode III resulted in a total rendering time of 6,598,928 hours, spread across the rendering farms of multiple processors. To do it on a single system running continuously, it would take over 750 years to produce.
Don’t try that at home
Sep 01, 2005
Building Better Wookiees
With the common yet inaccurate phrase “it’s all done on computers” spreading widely among moviegoers, people often wonder what makes computer-generated imagery (CGI) difficult or time-consuming. The computer is essentially creating an accurate simulation of the complex behavior of light interacting against a modeled surface. What makes CGI realistic is precise recreation of a light ray’s particular bounce, refraction or absorption when it hits a given object. These calculations are done for every frame of the movie, often taking many, many hours per frame.
Organic textures with rough shapes and odd curves add complexity to the light paths, as do qualities such as translucency. When it comes to creating a furry digital creature, the realistic movement and sway of all those thousands of hair strands is taxing enough for the computer to calculate — now consider adding that each hair is interacting with the light in a specific way, and reflecting and refracting light into its environment and surrounding hairs.
“It takes an awfully long time to generate hair for a lot of hero Wookiees,” says Sequence Supervisor and Development Lead Patrick Conran, “and even with our most severe pipeline efficiencies turned all the way up, you’ve got a hundred Wookiees. It takes a long time before you ever manage to start rendering anything.”
Before the Wookiee efficiency solution was cracked, ILM had to finish one shot for the November 2004 teaser trailer of a vanguard of Wookiee warriors charging from an embankment. “We had five practical Wookiee suits spread over four different shoots composited together, and we had to take that and add them into a miniature and digital matte painting background, and then generate our CG Wookiees behind them,” explains Tim Fortenberry, Digital Effects Artist. “We rendered it the old fashioned way. It took something like 5,000 processing hours initially and a terabyte and a half on disc. So it was definitely not a good way to do the entire sequence.”
The artists and technicians at ILM found a better way to create crowds of Wookiees to fit the already tight schedule of Episode III postproduction. “Looking at the concept art, we noticed that [Kashyyyk] was pretty overcast and there is pretty low contrast. We definitely used that to our advantage,” says Fortenberry.
Rather than calculate the quality of light striking and bouncing off all the fur on their digital Wookiees for each shot and angle, ILM “baked in” a pre-set quality of light to all the Wookiee models. “We were able to do this without using any spotlights or deep shadows, which really made it much more manageable,” says Conran.
Also helping speed the process along was letting a Wookiee’s distance from the camera dictate the detail of the model. While the practical Wookiee suits were used for the closest of shots, the hero digital models had somewhere in the neighborhood of 800,000 hairs on their surface. The ones further in the background would have less, say 40,000 hairs. They’d be so small in “camera space” though that it wouldn’t be noticeable, and it would speed up the computer’s calculations. The ones furthest from camera had no hair at all — they instead had thickened bodies with flat, painted hair texture on them.
Another time-saving technique had to do with the flexibility of the Wookiee models. After composing a shot with hundreds of Wookiee warriors, someone may want to change specific Wookiee characters. Rather than having to re-render the scene to accommodate a completely different Wookiee model, ILM built an “über-Wookiee.”
“This model had all the variations built into it,” says Fortenberry “It essentially puts all the changes to the Wookiee model at the very last step before rendering. So, if there are changes, there’s no going back to Creature Development or the Animation Department. You’d turn on the features you’d want on the Wookiee, and dial out the ones you don’t.”
Sep 15, 2005
The Evolution of Space Battles
As the digital future began to unveil itself in the early ’90s, John Knoll saw its potential. ILM was constantly innovating, using their high-end systems to produce the CGI effects that wowed audiences in The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park. These astounding visuals required a robust processing pipeline to produce, but Knoll saw advantages in creating relatively simple digital effects outside that pipeline.
“I developed a bit of a frustration that we didn’t have a particularly good way of doing simple work inexpensively,” explains Knoll. “I started becoming an advocate of trying to use inexpensive off-the-shelf commercial systems for doing simple work. Use the complicated stuff for the complicated work, and do the simple stuff with simple tools.”
To that end, Knoll produced a convincing proof-of-concept test in 1993 of dog-fighting X-wing fighters and TIE fighters, all done with off-the-shelf desktop tools. “Nothing happened for quite a while, until 1995 when George Lucas decided that he was going to revamp the Star Wars pictures a little bit,” recalls Knoll. “I pitched doing the revised space battle using some of these techniques.”
The end result was a number of updated space battle shots done entirely on consumer-level computers. It worked so well that similar techniques and tools were used for Episode I. “I spent a lot of time studying the ‘style book’ of Star Wars — the way the shots were lit, the way they were composed, how the movement of the ships worked — because I felt it was very important that the new space battles still feel like Star Wars,” says Knoll.
The digital models allowed the color and shapes of the ships to move past the restrained bluescreen-friendly designs of optically printed models, but for Episode I, they weren’t all digital. The massive Trade Federation battleships were hulking miniatures to capture the detail required of them. “The big ships I still did as a miniature, because at the time I was really concerned with how heavy this model would be. A model like this could easily become several million CVs [surface control vertices], so I had grave concerns of being able to render something like that.”
Now fast forward to Episode III. Not only are the ILM computers able to handle the complex geometry of something as big and detailed as a Trade Federation battleship, but they handle thousands of warships in battle over Coruscant, with detail so fine that the snubfighters and audience can fly right up to them, just a few meters above their hulls.
“I’ve definitely been a beneficiary of Moore’s Law,” says Knoll, describing the 1965 prediction that computer power will double every 18 months. “This time, it looked like we were capable of creating big ships all in computer graphics. We have advanced quite a bit in our ability to handle dense hard surface models and have very high resolution textures on them, and to be able to render them efficiently.”
Whereas a few years ago, the scale of one ship would have required it to be a miniature, for Episode III the scale of the battle involving big ships meant it was much easier and more cost-effective to do it digitally. “It’s a huge fleet,” says Knoll. “There are many, many of these ships and you don’t want to have to spend a lot of time on stage shooting 16 different model elements to go into shots. It’s very expensive to do. Of course, it’s a lot cheaper to do in computer graphics.”
Sep 29, 2005
The Evolution of Environments
Lucasfilm’s pioneering efforts on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles created a host of production techniques that made the Star Wars prequels possible. Digital technology opened up the scale of the critically acclaimed series, granting it a lavish feature film look for a fraction of the budget. The show employed low resolution effects that married 16mm film footage with digital extensions and additions executed in consumer grade software like Photoshop. With this technique refined, it was scaled up to theatrical film quality for Star Wars.
When it came time to do Episode I, it was apparent that the production was beyond the scale of anything ILM had ever attempted. With so much of the film relying on innovations in computer-graphics, the visual effects supervisors had to determine ways to balance the workload between CG and other methods.
“We started pushing a lot of things that didn’t have to be computer graphics into other techniques,” says John Knoll, the only visual effects supervisor to work on all three prequel films. Contrary to a popular yet mistaken notion, Episode I had more miniatures constructed and filmed than the entire original Star Wars trilogy; it wasn’t all computer-generated effects. The bulk of that miniature use was for the creation and extension of environments such as the cities of Theed and Mos Espa, the interior of large starships, and the Jedi Temple.
“I like using miniatures because the image you get back is constrained by nature to be physically possible,” explains Knoll. “The only thing in computer graphics that constrains the image to be physically realistic is your own eye. The gamut of what you can create out of a renderer is very large, and the gamut of images that look real is very small. But when you shoot a miniature, you get a lot of that for free, so we did a lot of environments that way.”
In some cases, like the high speed desert landscapes during the Podrace, miniature use wasn’t possible. “The miniatures would have to be so enormous to cover that much terrain that we couldn’t afford to build them,” says Knoll. Instead, Episode I employed a hybrid solution developed by Knoll and matte painter/modelmaker Paul Huston. It combined very detailed photographs of miniatures wrapped around simple low-res geometry that a computer could easily handle.
“In essence, you’re using the computer graphics as an image warping tool rather than a rendering tool,” says Knoll. “The frames looked very realistic because at any one time, 80 percent of what you’re looking at is a photographed real object.”
The latest generation of coupling real photographs with computer-generated geometry is called Zenviro, and was used extensively in Episode III. “One of the big expenses in shooting miniatures is actually the stage time,” reveals Knoll. “The actual cost of building the asset in the model shop and building and texturing a model in computer graphics is very often comparable. It’s not actually the cost of building the asset that kills you; it’s the stage time.”
As a solution, ILM still built many of the miniatures required but did not shoot them all on stage with a motion picture camera. “We would shoot high resolution photographs, take a relatively simple CG model of it that didn’t have all this fine detail, and just project the photos on it and use it to generate the background for the shots.” Examples of this technique can be found extensively aboard the Trade Federation cruiser, throughout the hallways, bridge, elevator shafts, and General’s Quarters environments.
To find out more about the creation of Star Wars environments, check out your local bookstores for Creating the Worlds of Star Wars: 365 Days, a new photo-packed book from Harry N. Abrams books, written by John Knoll.
Oct 13, 2005
Seeing Through Vader’s Eyes
To promote the November 1st release of Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith on DVD and Star Wars Battlefront II, actor Hayden Christensen recently talked about the challenge of mentally transforming Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader and the aftereffects of donning the dark helmet.
Preparing for the Anakin’s inevitable transformation meant that in Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Christensen would consciously have to hold back, letting his character’s anger and anguish build up to a climax in Episode III.
“It was challenging, because you are cast as this character that is the connective tissue to someone that represents all that is evil,” Christensen explains. “So your natural instinct is to try to take him there. George [Lucas] was constantly asking me to pull back from that and to make him someone who is struggling, and someone who allows his frustrations to present themselves in ways that aren’t necessarily perceived as evil, but maybe in other ways. The character was more about who he was at that time of his life and Episode III was about changing him and making him evolve into Darth — which was why I was very excited to get to Episode III and finally get to do that. It was something that I had sort of built up in my head for so long.”
Rather than journeying to a darker place in his own psyche, Christensen says that he dug deep into the mind of Vader himself, thinking about what Anakin would do in every crucial decision-making moment.
“As an actor, I usually try to keep my motivation within the context of what my character is going through,” Christensen says. “So, I don’t think of my dog that died when I was 8 years old and how that made me feel. I try to stay within the psychology of Anakin. It was just really letting his frustrations seep in and how that would affect me.”
Christensen also had the benefit of working alongside prolific actors — Christopher Lee and Ian McDiarmid — to help him hone his skills as an actor on the set.
“I think I’ve learned the most, from all the actors I’ve worked with, from Ian,” Christensen confesses. “It was just an eye-opening experience getting to sit in that opera scene with him and listen to him tell that story and watch the subtlety, and everything that he’s able to convey within that subtlety. I’d just sit there and shake my head and be like, ‘Oh, I’m not supposed to be shaking my head. Whoops!’ And, he’s such a kind man and is willing to share his wisdom and help you when you ask for it. So, I’ve learned an awful lot from him.”
Since the theatrical success of Episode III, Christensen has noticed that more of his younger fans are now identifying him as the legendary Man in Black rather than the impatient Jedi Padawan that he portrayed in Episode II — which may make for a rather interesting Halloween.
“Now I’ve got two characters that people can dress up as,” Christensen jokes. “I was expecting a different reaction, to be honest. Kids still are enamored with this hero and I would have thought [Episode III] would have changed how they saw Anakin and maybe they would have been a little shy at first. But it really hasn’t changed anything. If anything, they’re just more drawn to him. I still get little kids coming up to me wanting lightsaber training and I play along with it. I love it. I stay at home at Halloween now. When my mom tells me that there’s someone dressed up as Anakin, I’ll go to the door and give them their candy, which is fun.”
Oct 31, 2005
Episode III and Battlefront II Arrive
The Star Wars home entertainment day you’ve been waiting for has arrived! On November 1, the explosive and emotional finale to the saga, Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith, arrives on DVD and Star Wars Battlefront II, the sequel to the most successful Star Wars game ever, arrives on Xbox, Playstation 2, Windows PC and Sony PSP formats.
Lucasfilm and Fox Home Entertainment present a two-disc set for the Revenge of the Sith DVD, with uncompromising picture and sound mastered directly from the original digital source material. The DVD will include a brand-new full-length documentary produced by Lucasfilm Ltd. as well as two new featurettes — one that explores the prophecy of Anakin Skywalker as the Chosen One, and the other that looks at the movie’s amazing stunts. A 15-part collection of Lucasfilm’s groundbreaking web documentary series, Making Episode III, will also be included in the set. A two-level playable demo of Star Wars Battlefront II is also included on the DVD.
For those who actually want to live out the action of the Star Wars universe, there’s Star Wars Battlefront II, available on the same day. LucasArts’ sequel to the smash hit Star Wars Battlefront adds all new space combat, playable Jedi characters, and never-before-seen environments straight out of Episode III to the hard-hitting action. In addition to the group combat, Star Wars Battlefront II also has an all-new single-player experience that transports gamers through an epic, story-based saga centering on Darth Vader’s elite 501st Legion of stormtroopers.
Trump’s Apprentice Takes on the Sith Apprentice – On November 10, Donald Trump’s hopefuls on The Apprentice on NBC will be taking on the biggest Star Wars event of the fall — the launch of Revenge of the Sith on DVD and the Star Wars: Battlefront II video game.
Be sure to tune in this week to get to know the individuals who will inspire a major Star Wars promotion.
Nov 10, 2005
Obstacles Matter Not
Now that Episode III is available on DVD, viewers can carefully examine the painstaking work of Animation Director Rob Coleman and his team that brought the many digital characters to life, including Jedi MasterYoda.
To get his animation team back in prime shape for their work ahead on Episode III, Coleman says that they replaced the footage of the Episode I Yoda puppet with their Episode III digital model as a test to see how far they could push his usual performance boundaries. This footage worked its way into the DVD, where it can be see as part of “The Chosen One” featurette on Disc 2.
“We did that between Episodes II and III as an exercise to get the team back into the character,” Coleman explains. “On Episode II, I was stressing about living up to what Frank [Oz] had created. A lot of our focus was on the final battle sequence between Yoda and Count Dooku. We had never seen Yoda do that before. In the process, we were learning about acting as animators. It was really exciting for me to have the team back again between Episode II and III. We used Episode I as a testbed because we didn’t know what was going to be in Episode III, so we got the team back up to speed. We really honed our acting skills and, using that as a springboard, we moved right on to Episode III.”
While the use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) has evolved with each prequel, some have expressed concerns that the digital arts may overshadow the performance that legendary puppeteer and actor Frank Oz put into everyone’s beloved little green friend. But Coleman says that the worry is unwarranted considering the research that went into making the CGI Yoda into a real, believable character based on Oz’s work.
“The real example is that when we first did a test [for Episode II], it looked like a creepy little green man,” Coleman says. “It didn’t look like Yoda. We could do all kinds of extra things with the face that a puppet couldn’t do. In learning about the character and trying to get to the essence as well as its spirit, I went back and studied what Frank Oz had done frame-by-frame. It became part of the character. We literally got down to the amount of wiggle through the ears. Whether it was because Frank was holding a 60-pound puppet above his head all day long and his hand started to shake, or if it was something that he was putting in consciously, it was simply part of the character.”
“When we started to do the computer animation, we had to add in what I call performance ‘dirt’ — shake, wiggle, and little jars in the performance that Frank did naturally as an extremely talented puppeteer,” Coleman explains. “My group had to learn all of that. When we first showed it to Frank, we were showing him a pretty creepy-looking green man. It didn’t look like this beloved character that we had come to love.”
While just making the leap to a digital Yoda and his unprecedented acrobatics formed the obstacles in Episode II, Episode III was more of a refinement of the digital character, and the challenges came from more subtle performance and acting.
“I was really terrified before Episode II came out about the fight,” Coleman confesses. “Once we got through that, I felt that we could really up the ante in terms of the performance and the interaction between Yoda and the live actors he was sharing the screen with. It put more pressure on the crew and me to really challenge ourselves. In the process, we were rewarded with some very nice close-ups. There’s a really nice scene between Anakin and Yoda in Yoda’s sanctuary, which I don’t think would have been in Episode II had it been written at that time. I don’t think George Lucas would have been comfortable enough to give us sustained close-ups and to give us a thinking time, which is really the acting time.”
Continues Coleman, “Any time you look at real people onscreen, we learn more about them as a character when they are not talking compared to when they are — the reactions, the facial expressions, the thinking, or the doubting. They are not listening to the person — they are worried about something else. It’s a joy as an animator to be given those shots with a character like Yoda.”