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Mocking Up Episode I
In the midst of making a movie, when pre-production is in full swing and everything has to take form quickly, there needs to be people to make it happen, to deftly turn clay and other media into “visualization” tools, or mock-ups. On Episode I, one of those key people was Robert Barnes.
“I’m a long-time Star Wars fan,” Barnes says from his office at Skywalker Ranch. “I’ve always been fascinated by the energy and creativity poured into these movies.” Born and raised in California, Barnes studied art and industrial design in college. “Industrial design combines all the artistic techniques I like,” he says, “and it adds the practical angle of product production, because you’re designing devices that are supposed to be used and not just looked at. I really like that.” Barnes added to his skills by also studying sculpture and painting.
After two years of hard work at California State University, Long Beach, Barnes received an assignment to illustrate a short science fiction script. His instructor brought in the Sketch Book of Joe Johnston – one of the original Star Wars designers – and Barnes was hit by a revelation. “I discovered that I was studying in the same program where Joe Johnston, John Dykstra (visual effects pioneer and former ILM wizard), and Steve Gawley (current ILM Model Supervisor) had been,” says Barnes, “working on that assignment, and hearing the stories from my instructor (Rob Westerkamp), who had been a schoolmate of theirs, made a connection between my childhood love for science fiction ‘stuff,’ and real life. I had always remembered seeing the very first “Making of Star Wars“‘ on television as a kid, and for the first time I realized that it was possible to actually make a living out of that.”
But when the time came to make the jump, things weren’t as obvious to Barnes as he might have liked. “My wife had to talk me into applying for an internship at Industrial Light & Magic,” he recalls. “It was a daunting task, but I finally gave in – one day before the deadline! I put my package together overnight, sent it, and waited.” The last-minute gamble paid off: ILM invited him to come aboard. “I was in the ILM Art Department, doing visual research, putting presentations together, building artwork catalogs and doing a bit of basic sculpting. I also got to work on an architectural model when the department moved, and that was a lot of fun,” says Barnes. “This was my first experience in the movie business, and I got to see how things were done on the other side of the screen. I liked what I saw.”
After his internship, Barnes went back to school in order to complete his training and get his design degree. Upon graduation, he promptly got an offer from ILM, which wanted to hire him as a production assistant. Barnes was happy to be reunited with his visual effects buddies. But after only two months, Episode I Design Director Doug Chiang called and offered Barnes a job as production assistant on the new Star Wars film. “I felt a bit bad about leaving ILM so early,” Barnes says, “but this was too good an opportunity, and the people around me understood that. So I packed my things and moved to Skywalker Ranch.”
Barnes quickly became an expert at quick and effective visualization. Whenever a design needed to be mocked-up so that everyone could see what the object or character looked like as a three-dimensional element, Barnes would whip something up and make it happen. “You just have to be quick, and not be afraid to use anything to reach your goal,” he says. “Foam, air ducting, mat board, liquid latex, gauze, anything that will do the trick.” The key: keep it cheap, keep it fast. Barnes first started by helping Production Designer Gavin Bocquet build foamcore models of Otoh Gunga, the underwater city of the Gungans, and went on from there. “At one point I worked on Podracer mock-ups,” Barnes says. “The mock-ups were built in foam at 1:24 scale, and we’d use a lipstick-sized camera to simulate some shots between and around the models. I felt like we were kids playing with toys.” Barnes didn’t dislike the experience, of course. “I also got to sculpt the first representation of the underwater environment the Gungan sub goes through – the series of underwater crevasses and cliff walls,” he says. “The whole conceptual model was sculpted in a big block of foam, and painted in shades of dark blue, to simulate the kind of lighting you would get at such a depth.”
Among Barnes’ many other projects was the construction of the first full-size battle droid. The mechanical wonder was built out of foamcore, and fully articulated. When it came time to visualize some Podracing scenes with the help of videomatics – crude video footage used for reference – Barnes conjured up Anakin’s cockpit, full size. “That was really fun, because I got to work directly with George detailing the cockpit and adding antennas and instruments. And we all couldn’t resist the temptation to climb in and work the controls. We’d all been working on Podrace elements, but this was the first time we could put ourselves into it.” He also crafted a life-size foam Sebulba puppet, and gave the mock-up pilot a mock-up cockpit. He did the same thing for the videomatic used to visualize the ground battle, skillfully giving life to an assemblage of foam pieces that became a very realistic representation of Jar Jar. Barnes’ diversified skills also allowed him to paint most of the creature maquettes based on Terryl Whitlatch’s drawings. Then he moved on to clay sculpture.
Barnes started by modifying already existing sculptures. In the case of the Sando Aqua Monster, for instance, Barnes was asked to re-sculpt the head and change body details to make the whole creature look more massive. “I used texture to convey a sense of size,” he explains. “I would create fine texture to replace large bumps and the like. We also gave the Monster smaller eyes, which is a good indicator of huge scale.” Barnes also sculpted a handful of characters, like an early version of the pot-bellied Watto. “The challenge here is to take a 2D painting or drawing, and give it a 3D form,” says Barnes. “We sometimes have multiple views for the same object, but they’re all in two dimensions. And that process is right up my alley. It’s product design: interpreting 2D drawing in 3D concepts.”
But why painstakingly create such sculptures when these characters will be re-built as computer models anyway? “Despite all the computer power now available, visual effects artists still rely on clay models,” says Barnes. “They are usually scanned into the computer, and serve as the basic structure on which the computer models will be built. They also use the sculptures along the way as reference material. That’s why there is still a whole team of concept sculptors at ILM. They’re real masters – I’ve learned a lot from those guys.”
Back for Episode II, Barnes will have an opportunity to keep learning and to keep perfecting his fascinating art of bringing concepts to life as quick as a wink.