Welcome to a look Inside the Holocron. A collection of articles from the archives of *starwars.com no longer directly available.
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The Very Model of a Modern Major Model Shop
Traditional model-making retains a strong role in the creation of Star Wars: Episode I. In fact, the model works at ILM sprawl throughout several large rooms and workshops, and there is a tremendous amount of model work underway. A walk through the Episode I model shop reveals an astonishing level of model construction for a film being created in imaginative cinema’s new digital age. White maquettes, projects in gray primer, finished works, and huge castings crowd every space available. They make a strong statement for the health of traditional model-making artistry around here.
“We’re using a combination of models and CG work,” says Episode I Visual Effects Supervisor John Knoll. “For each effect we’re using the technique that is appropriate, best suited to the particular situation. An effect may be easier to achieve in one medium or another, and we go with what makes sense. We have found that models remain the best solution to some of our challenges.”
The Episode I model shop is, in fact, bustling with activity and personnel. You can walk from one room of Episode I model-makers, to another…to another. They seem to be everywhere. This isn’t what they were expecting a few years ago.
A 1994 exhibition featured original Star Wars Trilogy movie models at the Yerba Buena Gardens Center for the Arts in San Francisco. This exhibit included an introduction by the museum curator that suggested that due to the innovations in computer-generated effects, these models were the final works of a closing era. “At Yerba Buena I thought I was reading my epitaph as a model maker,” reflected Steve Gawley, Episode I’s Model Supervisor. And one often reads of the digital revolution that has ‘made special effects models obsolete.’ “But we’ve been busier in the last two years than we have ever been before,” Gawley observed. The successful marriage of model effects and cutting-edge work has brought about a model-making renaissance. Just as it was back in 1976 during the making of Star Wars, innovative approaches to creative visual effects are contributing to the power of illusion that supports George Lucas’ imaginative storytelling.
As the small army of dedicated builders make progress on their many works, Star Wars traditions are alive and strong in the ILM model shop. The original Rebel Blockade Runner sits in one of the workrooms: this is Princess Leia’s ship, which fled the colossal Star Destroyer in Star Wars’ famous opening shot. The very first spaceship seen in the very first Star Wars movie was brought in to inspire the artists creating the models for Episode I. In more ways than one, this film is a journey to back to Star Wars’ beginnings.
Steve Gawley’s Star Wars model making experience stretches back to the very first movie. Today he is the overall Model Supervisor for Episode I. Gawley explains that far from being phased out, movie models actually retain a variety of uses in the era of computer-generated (CG) effects. These uses occupy three major categories.
Models as Conceptual Tools
“We’ve found that models help directors and the many creative people on a film project get a handle on a design, to size it up and to find the best camera angles,” Gawley says. “It is easier for most people to happen on serendipitous discoveries with a model than with a wire-frame computer version that is hard for them to manipulate and experience. You can easily look at something physical and realize ‘hey, it looks great from this angle,’ or ‘it would look really cool for it to move like this.’ It’s a matter of a real model being easier to deal with.”
Models for Physical Effects
Fire, water, crashes, and especially explosions are all physical effects that remain difficult to create convincingly in the computer, Gawley continues. While such effects can be done CG, ‘rigging the explosive powder’ or arranging some other live physical effect is often significantly less trouble than programming the myriad fine subtleties needed to portray a truly realistic physical effect in the computer. Accordingly, the use of real models for “pyro” or other practical effects remains in some cases the preferred solution.
Veteran Star Wars model maker Lorne Peterson is now one of four Chief Model-Makers in the Episode I shop. Peterson explains that “some realistic appearance effects, like textures and weathering in surface detail, can be easier and quicker to do with a real sculpture or model, with real paints and pastels rather than CG tools.” Rock textures or engine fuel stains might be created quickly and convincingly by hand but might take a long time to make realistic if done purely in the computer. John Knoll also emphasizes this aspect of practicality: “Grime effects, corrosion, oil streaks, things like that can be very quick and easy to create using chemicals or paints or whatever. If you can do a really good effect in five minutes with bleach and a rag, why bother trying to re-create it with the computer?”
Finally, some models remain destined for screen time themselves, continuing the long cinematic tradition of special effects miniature photography. The word “miniature,” however, is a relative term. Huge models are even now under construction at ILM for Episode I, for subjects ranging from vehicles to architecture to whole environments. Colossal starships and huge buildings are taking shape in such detail as to defy the eye. They simply seem impossible, even on close inspection, and even, in many cases, without their final paint work. They are covered with textures and levels of seemingly infinite detail. One can only imagine how amazing the final product will look on screen, filmed to appear life-size and in full color.
Episode I producer Rick McCallum has high praise for the work in progress, which he emphasizes as vital to the production. “The guys at the model shop are doing an absolutely remarkable, incredible job. They’re terrific. Digital technology is wonderful-it’s brilliant, and it can do so much-but you can’t forget that sometimes a model is still the coolest way to go, and these people are doing tremendous work.”
Model techniques, like those of sound design and all the other arts that go into a Star Wars film, are just another way of translating a story’s vision to the screen. With both the strength of tradition and the dynamism of cutting edge approaches to capturing visual images, cinematic imagination is able to roam more freely than ever before.