Welcome to a look Inside the Holocron. A collection of articles from the archives of *starwars.com no longer directly available.
(*Archived here with Permission)
The Episode I Virtual Paradox
Episode I exists in a technological paradox. It is a chapter of the Star Wars story that takes place decades before the classic Trilogy, and yet it was created two decades after the original movie. While some visual effects techniques have changed very little over the years, today’s effects specialists use many tools that didn’t even exist when audiences first sat down in darkened theaters to watch the adventures of Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion go up against the Empire. Many effects are being done far differently at the turn of the century, and onscreen results are better than they ever were. But that usually means that today’s effects also look different than their aging counterparts. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon ignite their lightsabers aboard one of the Federation Battleships.Through their work on The Phantom Menace, Industrial Light & Magic had to achieve a delicate balance between superior technology and movie continuity.
On Episode I, Visual Effects Supervisor Scott Squires and his team were responsible for the lightsaber sequences and everything that had to do with the city of Theed. So part of their work involved dealing with two effects that had been born with the original Star Wars movie: the familiar lightsaber blades, and the holograms, used as visual transmission devices.
“In Episode IV, Princess Leia calls upon Obi-Wan Kenobi for help.George Lucas liked the way the holograms looked in the previous movies,” explains Squires, “so we tried to recreate that look. The basic process involves shooting the holographic persons against either black or blue, and then isolating them. After that, the image is run through special filters to give it some transparency, to create video break-out and make it look like it has been processed.” Whereas visual effects artists normally try to make the process of their work invisible to the spectator’s eye, cleverly covering their tracks, the hologram effect is an interesting example of work done in the opposite direction. “With today’s technology,” says Squires, “ we could also make things look better, perhaps more realistic, but we need to keep it consistent through the whole series.” Seen through the hologram effect, the status of Episode I becomes doubly paradoxical. In Episode I, Darth Sidious often uses holographic projections to communicate with his accomplices. First, ILM uses advanced technology to degrade an image projection instead of enhancing it. And second, the visual effects wizards, whose digital tools would allow them to do an even better “demolition job” on the characters appearing as holograms, had to be careful not to degrade the image too much and run the risk of breaking continuity with the way holograms looked in the classic Trilogy. “Today, the hologram effect is done digitally,” says Squires. “But for the classic movies, the technique was quite different. They would shoot the character, then play the footage on a video screen, and shoot the video screen. This would already create some distortion and noise – but they added to it by having someone loosen the plug or shake the equipment around.” This inventive method made the image on the video screen appear degraded. Which it was.
Another classic effect, that of the lightsaber blades, also had to be kept just the way it had been established in the previous Star Wars movies, despite the leaps and bounds enjoyed by digital technology since A New Hope. “We could have done something much more elaborate, much more exotic,” Squires says, “but once again we simply had to respect continuity.” So even though the blades of the laser swords are no longer painted by hand, one frame after another, the digital artists have done all they could to retain the look and feel associated with the lightsabers of Skywalker father and son and Obi-Wan Kenobi, both at rest and in motion.
Luke ignites his lightsaber for the first time. In the first Star Wars movie, a scene where a lightsaber was ignited needed to be achieved in a least two shots, because the lightsaber handle had to be replaced with another handle fitted with a solid “blade” covered with reflective tape. In Empire and Jedi, lightsabers being ignited would have their blades hand-drawn at the end of the handles, while in Episode I igniting lightsabers were given their blades through computer graphics. The same techniques were brought into play to “doctor” the fighting sequences, were the metal rods used in lieu of laser blades were optically or digitally replaced. The technique used to generate the glowing, diffused light of a lightsaber – and many other visual effects – is called rotoscoping. Rotoscoping has been used throughout the Star Wars saga and is in fact one of the most essential tools at the disposal of the visual effects artists. Moving from the optical realm to the digital sphere, the art of rotoscoping is a perfect example of visual effects technology evolving as it should: right under the spectators’ noses without them noticing any seam in the transition.
Visual effects artists use rotoscoping to track a visual element they need to modify, remove, or add to a sequence. Developed in 1917 by animation pioneer Max Fleischer, rotoscoping remained virtually unchanged for seventy-five years. Traditionally, visual effects artists would use the rotoscope, a high-perched camera/projector combination looking straight down at a flat work surface, to project scenes from a movie, frame by frame. One of ILM’s rotoscopes, as used by artist Barbara Brennan in the early ’80s.On each frame, they would trace by hand the elements to be worked on, creating a series of cells used as guidelines to indicate where the special effects needed to go. For the lightsaber blades, for instance, rotoscoping experts traced the “stick” blade of each prop lightsaber, showing the animators exactly where the blue, red and green glows needed to be positioned. Once the blades had been created as separate elements, they would be optically added to the live-action images.
With the computer, things are different. Now rotoscoping is accomplished within the digital realm, and new tools have been developed to speed up the process. “Nowadays you can indicate to the computer that your elbow and arm are here,” says Squires, “and that you want these two elements traced. Digital rotoscoping then allows you to tell the computer that ten frames later the elements are over there, and the computer will go ahead and generate everything in between the two positions.” Once the guidelines have been established for each frame, computer animators step in and create the effects that will be later added to the original footage. Everything is now digital, but the technique remains surprisingly similar to what it has always been. And through better technology and special effects techniques stepping from the physical world into the virtual one, ILM strives to remain true to the classic look of the Star Wars saga. “For things like the lightsabers, we’ll put in the glow and the shimmer, and when they cross we’ll add a flash and all the other details that fans are used to,” Squires says. “But no matter what the technology is or becomes, we’ll always remain consistent within the Star Wars universe.”