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The Star Wars Trilogy

A Digital Star Wars Scrapbook.

22. August 2017 14:15
by jedi1

Return of the Force

22. August 2017 14:15 by jedi1 | 0 Comments

Industrial Light and Magic: Into the Digital Realm Book Cover

I recently picked up a copy of the now out of print 1996 Book Industrial Light and Magic - Into the Digital Realm, by Mark Cotta Vaz. The book was published in November of 1996, just two months before Star Wars' triumphant return to the big screen with the 20th anniversary 1997 Special Editions.

The majority of the book explores the Special Effects work of ILM between 1977 and the date of publication, describing in detail the old analog processes such as optical printing, matte paintings and stop motion, and the gradual introduction of digital effects as they pioneered the new technology. It's quite fascinating and well worth the $6 or so you'll pay on Amazon for a copy today if you're interested in this sort of thing.

But the reason for this post is a short section right at the end of the book which goes into some detail about the restoration of Star Wars for the Special Edition, and the evolution of the Special Edition changes. There has been a lot of speculation about the state of the original negatives, and whether or not the original elements still exist, George's own Technicolor print, the color separations, the state of the interpositive, and this article addresses many of these questions.

Return of the Force

In 1995, with the twentieth anniversary of Star Wars two years away, Lucasfilm announced plans for a trilogy of new Star Wars films which would comprise the first three chapters of Lucas’s unfolding saga. The prequels, set some forty years prior tor the Galactic civil war period of the original films, would be played out against the twilight of the Old Republic, which had benevolently governed for more than a thousand generations before suffering the corrosive rot of political and civic corruption. The new films would essentially be the story of Anakin Skvwalker, the Jedi Knight and father of Luke, who would eventually heed his soul’s sinister stirrings, embrace the dark side of the Force, and transform himself into Darth Vader.

Ushering in the new Star Wars era would be a twentieth-anniversary theatrical rerelease of the film that started it all, to be followed by The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. But unlike the typical rerelease, George Lucas would have his ILM team (comprising some 150 persons) to make over Star Wars: A New Hope as a special edition. The ongoing two-year production effort would utilize traditional model work as well as the full arsenal of digital tools, including CG creations, digital matte paintings, and Sabre System image processing. The 100-some shots ILM would prepare for the special edition included CG ships, creatures, and digital stuntmen inserted into the original footage, digital fixes of the old photochemical technology, and some entirely new footage.

Below: The original Star Wars opticals sometimes featured only two or three element layers, typically because the inevitable grain buildup of successive layering would take the image further away from first-generation quality. But working in the digital realm for the film's twentieth-anniversary special edition, ILM could layer multiple elements without any generation-loss problems and enjoy virtually unlimited control over CG creations, such as in this shot of the Rebel fleet lining up in formation for the Death Star attack. The final digital composite, which replaced an old optical composite of the same scene, boasts a CG starfield, Death Star, and X-wings. To create the new fighters, texture maps were taken off the original X-wing motion-control models, with ILM effects artists (led by visual effects supervisor John Knoll) able to exert fine-tuned control over the wing motion and general animation of the final CG models.

The special edition had its roots in the filmmaking realities Lucas had faced back in 1975, the year production on his space saga began in earnest. Back then The Star Wars (as the production was first called) had to contend with a tight budget, deadline pressures, the limits of pre-digital visual effects, and numerous special effects snafus during the tough first-unit shoot in Tunisia and EMI—Elstree Studios in England. Two decades later, Lucas could return to his masterpiece to enhance New Hope in ways not possible in those early rough-and-tumble production days.

“It’s like a virtual director’s cut,” laughed TyRuben Ellingson, New Hope visual effects art director (along with Mark Moore). “Dennis Muren told me that George really wanted this to be the archival version, the one that went down in history. It’s a very romantic notion. In a way, he’s adding some missing pieces to the puzzle. The things that are being changed are not frivolous at all but very specific to what George had originally envisioned for the film but wasn’t able to do because of budget and technology. Now we can do it digitally and retain image quality. It’s interesting that ILM was created to do Star Wars and after all these amazing pictures the company has worked on, the new technology that’s being developed is being folded back into the original picture.”

But while the 1995 rerelease announcement was generating some anticipatory excitement among the moviegoing public, the mood was not celebratory behind the scenes at Lucasfilm and Twentieth Century-Fox. Toward the end of 1994, Fox executives had been hit with a shocker: The original Star Wars negative, the template from which thousands of pristine rerelease theatrical prints would be struck, was discovered to be in such a deteriorated state it would be impossible to release in theaters. The once-vibrant color had faded away (10—15% overall, according to Leon Briggs, a former veteran of the Disney lab who had worked on such restoration projects as Fantasia and Snow White and was called in to help rescue Star Wars), and dirt embedded in the six reels of negatives had produced scratches and pit marks that would appear larger than life when projected onto the big screen. “It was my determination that all the backing didn’t get washed off originally and became stuck onto the negative during the final solution stage [of the developing process],” noted Briggs.

The color-fade problem was particularly troublesome as the original Star Wars negative had been stored, along with thousands of other films from all the major studios, in Kansas, far from the potential earthquake catastrophes in Los Angeles. Out in the heartland the studios had their vaults hundreds of feet underground, in the miles of man-made caverns dug out by long-gone salt miners. Besides its impregnable nature, the subterranean vault had another main advantage: it held a constant 50-53 degrees, the optimum temperature for preventing the irrevocable fading of original color photography. Star Wars, however, had been produced during a decade of increased location shoots, staged in all kinds of lighting and weather conditions, that demanded fast new film stocks to be developed. One of those color stocks, known as Color Reversal Intermediate (CRI) #5249, was so prone to fading that Kodak discontinued making it in the early eighties. Unfortunately, sixty-two different shots in Star Wars had been made utilizing the CRI stock.

In 1994, Ted Gagliano, Twentieth Century-Fox senior vice president for feature post-production, had first seen a print struck off the original negative at DeLuxe Labs in L.A., and had soon thereafter arranged a screening at Fox for Lucasfilm’s Rick McCallum and Tom Christopher. Upon returning to Skywalker Ranch McCallum gave a full report on the original negative problem, but Lucas had already had a premonition about the quality of the film. “Originally the challenge was getting the film back to the glory of what it was,” said McCallum, “but by the summer of ’94 George said, Tm worried about the negative because every print we get is bad.’ That’s when we got really scared about the presentation of this film.”

“When I had first seen the print at DeLuxe, I was shocked,” Gagliano recalled. “I was a Marin [County] high school student when I first saw Star Wars and it had been so spectacular—it was the reason I ultimately went into the movie business. But after seeing the dirt and the problem of fading it didn’t have the same feeling. It looked like an old movie. At the ILM screening I had prepared everybody for what they were going to see, and afterward Lucas said to me: ‘Well, the speech was worse than the viewing.’ I think he was disappointed but slightly relieved. He could tell it was fixable. The challenge was to integrate the new [special edition] footage into a good negative.”

The actual restoration work would be undertaken by a team comprising Lucasfilm (with Tom Christopher as editor-in-charge) and Twentieth Century-Fox, Pacific Title (for recompositing of opticals), YCM Labs (to provide the color timings), and film restoration consultant Leon Briggs (who helped supervise the overall process, including the cleaning of the original negative).

Although a master interpositive (IP; a positive image made from an original negative) had been made in 1985 for the purpose of video releases (including a 1993 THX laser disc release of the Star Wars trilogy and a boxed THX video set released two years later), making prints entirely off IPs wouldn’t provide the highest-generation release print. No pristine prints befitting a grand anniversary release existed either—any available prints had suffered their own scratches and general damage from the wear and tear of shipping and exhibition. Even if an acceptable print was available, a negative from a print would still fail to produce the best possible big-screen visuals. “The original negative is the best, which was Lucas’s whole scheme: to make it look as good as it possibly could,” noted Pacific Title optical supervisor Chris Bushman.

“We could only go back to the original negative,” summed up Rick McCallum. “It’s our source, the only life-force we have.”

Restoring Hew Hope

Although the restoration battle plan would utilize scanning technology to make needed repairs in the digital realm, the prohibitive costs of doing the entire negative that way (many millions of dollars) led to a strategy of utilizing master elements, such as the IP, to restore the original negative. A major part of the restoration process was cleaning off the dirt in a special 100 degree—plus bath solution (although two of the four film stocks that comprised the original negative couldn’t be subjected to those temperatures and had to be addressed separately). “After selectively cleansing the negative they’d remove and send us those sections of the original negative for which we were doing the special edition work,” explained New Hope visual effects producer Tom Kennedy. “We’d scan it and match it to the new print as wc did our work. For parts of the film that were too damaged we went hack to the interpositive struck from the original negative, which was the closest we could get to the original negative.”

Part of the problem with Star Wars, faced by both the restoration and the special edition teams, would be that the film encompassed many different photographic styles, from location and soundstage work to complex motion-control shots and simple opticals, with the four film stocks scattered throughout. While the in-camera, live-action, and special effects work was cut in as original negative, all the opticals, rephotographed using old optical printers, were dupe negatives.

Thankfully, the original negatives that composed the final composite elements had been safely stored at the Lucasfilm archives. In a ironic touch, the old optical printer technology' used to create Star Wars but abandoned years later in ILMs conversion to digital technology' would be utilized again to restore the many wipes, the skip frames, and the rest of what Pacific Title vice president Phillip Feiner called "the bread and butter opticals.” Pacific Title’s work involved taking the original elements from Lucasfilm and recompositing them, utilizing the company’s eleven state-of-the-art optical printers. With modern lenses and the latest, best Kodak film stocks, the old-fashioned printer technology delivered new comps boasting “a boost in resolution and color saturation,” according to Feiner.

Above: This explosion of an X-wing during the fateful battle along the Death Star trench was one of six explosions that underwent a digital fix for the special edition rerelease. Originally the model pyro had been shot against blue screen and the explosion matte had not been completely extracted in the final composite. By scanning in the original negatives, ILM was able to create a digital composite and fully extract the matte for a seamless "explosion fix."

Below: Another special edition explosion fix along the battle zone of the Death Star trench. Here R2-D2, fitted into the exterior shell of Luke Skywalker's X-wing, takes a hit of laserfire from Darth Vader's pursuing TIE fighter.

The restoration team also had recourse to such master elements as the YCM (yellow-cyan-magenta) separation masters, a process that essentially uses primary-color light sources to convert color film into three separate black-and-white film records for each reel. The black-and-white separations, with their metallic silver composition, aren’t prone to the fading fate of original color dyes. “You know the original negative will fade, so you can turn to the separation masters; it’s the record of what it’ll look like and it’ll last forever,” explained Gagliano. “So the negative you make off your YCMs should be just as good as the original negative.”

Also coming to the rescue were two prints done in the vibrant colors of the “three-strip” Technicolor process, which had been introduced in 1932 but had become an almost lost art soon after the making of Star Wars. One of the prints that had used this venerable process had come from George Lucas himself. “George had a private [Technicolor] print in the basement of his home,” Gagliano noted. “For the color timing he told us to go for that look: ‘That’s the Star Wars I made,’ he told us.”

At the end of more than a full year of restoration work, the team had a renewed appreciation for what Gagliano called the “fragile medium” of film. In many ways the mere act of developing exposed film was one of moviemaking’s greatest magic acts. “I could send a film to five or six different labs and it’d come back as totally different images; that’s how bizarre, and magical, this film process is,” McCallum noted. “Film has been proven to be inherently unstable, like any chemical process. It’s alchemy, the temperature of the bath. It comes with intense feelings. The saga of what happened to the Star Wars negative is you’ve got this process that’s so fundamentally incomprehensible for us to deal with—the alchemy of what happened to these stocks.”

Virtual Cuts

In late 1993, before the New Hope original negative problems had been discovered, ILM’s special edition work commenced with a brainstorming session between Dennis Muren (who along with John Knoll, Joseph Letteri, Alex Seiden, and Steve Williams supervised the project) and art director TyRuben Ellingson.

Lucas’s major interests had been in expanding the desert town of Mos Eisley and adding original footage of a Jabba-the-Hutt-confronting-Han-Solo scene that had been dropped from the original film. The special edition was also an opportunity for Star Wars veteran Dennis Muren to address a slate of fifteen to twenty shots that had always troubled him. "I suggested to George that we expand the vision and he was open to it.” Muren recalled. "Motion issues, particularly in the space battle scenes, were my main concerns. Then Tom Kennedy and others contributed their own ideas for redoing shots.”

The initial art direction stage began with Muren. using a Star liars videotape of the film as a guide, describing the proposed shots as Ellingson dashed off a quick succession of storyboards. "Dennis told me 1 had fifteen seconds a board to get down the rough concepts. Ellingson recalled. "He was making a point that Star liars was first done with a young, savvy crew and things had happened really quickly. By the end we had twenty-some numbered storyboards that could start dialogue about how the shots were going to be done.”

Above: Stormtroopers scan the Tatooine sands in this frame from a Yuma sequence. Besides the new stormtroopers (in foreground), the shot was enlivened with a CG Imperial landing craft coasting low on the horizon and a synthetic trooper and dewback moving along the dunes.

Soon after, an available Star Wars print was screened at ILM’s main screening room with Lucas pointing out the special edition changes to Muren, Ellingson. and Ned Gorman (who would share visual effects production credit with Tom Kennedy). "George might say, ‘Mos Eisley wasn’t big enough: 1 want to make it more of an urban center with some spaceships in the sky and more buildings visible.” Ellingson explained. "In certain shots it would be adding a new creature, in others it would be an entirely new shot that would intercut with the existing sequence. I was amazed at how quickly George could articulate what he wanted. W ithin a twenty-minute period I had enough information to do all the artwork that was subsequently approved.

On the creative side there were concerns that ILM s new generation of tech-driven cybersurfers wouldn’t be grounded in the material reality of the Star liars universe. "In the virtual world you don't have to worry about materials, or drilling holes and putting things together, but everything about the first Star liars was very much about putting things together in the real world." Ellingson noted. "For the special edition 1 d done some concept sketches for this low-rider motorcycle that flies through Mos Eislev, and the CG modelers working on it created something that looked soft and interesting, but it didn't feel like it came from the Star liars universe. So l went out and got a box filled with shower heads and threaded pipes and stuff and showed them: ’Look, this is the kind of stuff the Star liars universe was made out of— very mechanical anti real-world. You can t let your CG aesthetic get in the way of that.

Above: Luke jets along the ground in his landspeeder, a scene originally accomplished by driving the craft with a tricycle rig, a mirror attached to the bottom to reflect the sandy ground (providing the illusion of being suspended in midair), and an animated shadow. It was a nice bit of magic in its day, but to sell the shot to modern audiences, ILM digitally freshened it up, erasing any telltale evidence of the suspended mirror and providing a softer edge to the animated shadow effect to better blend it into the plate.

A key to the special edition work would be that the new CG elements not jump off the screen in contrast to the original footage. ILM had to contend with such artifacts of the bygone opticals age as a diffusion look created by pantv hose stretched over camera lenses (for the bright wastes of the Tatooine sand dunes). "The challenge was to seamlessly put our synthetic images into the image space from the original footage—to enhance and not change, explained CG supervisor John Berton. "Not only were we working with twenty-year-old footage, but a lot of the .shots chosen for improvement were not Vista Vision.

There was a lot of work in funky 35mm four-perf with filters and artifacts that required us to write special image-processing software to duplicate the look of the original photography. It was a lot more complicated than just dropping in a CG image.”

A particularly challenging shot in the Mos Eislev portion of the film was a sequence in which the droids observe stormtroopers conducting a search for Obi-Wan and Luke. For the special edition the scene would be augmented with two CG dewbacks, including a synthetic stormtrooper dismounting from one of the creatures. The challenge in integrating the new footage was that the original Mos Eisley street scene filmed in Tunisia had not only been photographed in four-perf but with what Berton recalled as a “very wild” camera move. Although the films original camera notes were available (indicating that the particular shot had been made from a truck platform), the CG crew still hail to figure out whether the actual camera move had been a pan, zoom, or dolly.

"That was a major hurdle, to take a twenty-year-old film and rebuild the camera moves to allow us to put in the CG elements.” Berton said in summing up the match-move challenges. "Computers work well with smooth curves, but real cameras have vibrations and minute adjustments. The new cameras are steadier, and normally we ll take measurements [at background plate shoots]. Sel Eddy and Terrv Chostner, who handled the camera match-moves on the special edition, did a tremendous job allowing our virtual camera to match the real camera.”

Above: On the streets of Mos Eisley, Imperial stormtroopers conduct a search for Obi-Wan and Luke as the worried droids look on. This shot is as it appeared in the initial release, but has been enlivened with the addition of two CG dewbacks and the completely synthetic stormtrooper dismounting at left "This scene was shot in Tunisia in four-perf," explains visual effects producer Tom Kennedy. "It was never imagined that it would be a visual effects shot." Integrating in the new elements required matching the original lighting scheme and the yellow-hued color timing, as well as old and virtual camera moves.

A major shot involving both original footage and new, computer-generated elements was the excised scene of crime lord Jabba the Hutt confronting Han Solo over a botched smuggling operation the cocky pilot had undertaken for Hutt. The scene, set in the Mos Eisley docking bay where Solo’s Millennium Falcon was stored, had been scripted to feature Hutt as “a fat, sluglike creature with eyes on extended feelers and a huge ugly mouth.”

The production couldn’t physically create that fearsome creation, and scenes shot with a human actor proved woefully inadequate to the image of a vicious crime lord. But the missing Jabba scene had alw ays been troublesome. After all. Solo’s run-in with the crime lord would be a major plot point in the trilogy, with bounty hunter Boba Fett taking Solo, encased in a living prison of carbonite by Darth Vader, to the crime lord’s lair at the conclusion of The Empire Strikes Back. By the third film a gargantuan, sluglike Jabba would finally appear, created as a full-scale, foam latex, animatronic creation. With the digital advances available to the special edition team, it wTas finally possible to take the original docking bay footage and replace the actor with a CG Jabba.

“Jabba wasn’t finally designed until the third film, so now you’re seeing the result of that whole period of time retro’d back in,” art director Ellingson noted. “Every attempt was made to make Jabba look like the same character, although a little younger. You see him move faster and under the power of his undulating organs, which is amazing because it takes this kind of computer technology to deliver that kind of freedom.

For many ILMers the restoration and special edition work was an opportunity for a little time traveling back to a vanished optical age. It also had been a more primitive era for animatronics and physical effects.

"Nothing worked was how Rick McCallnm explained the English crew's first-unit work. "It was sort of a missing link period of film history in England, and George entered into that filmmaking landscape at the worst possible time. To be fair, [in England] there wasn't a lot of experience with that kind of science fiction movie. Nobody was doing robots. Just to get R2-D2 to move was like a miracle. The radio controls were constantly failing, so there were cables pulling R2-D2 through the scenes, which had to be painted out later [with garbage mattes or some other optical technique]. ”

"In Star Wars there were a tremendous amount of opticals just to make the practical effects work.” added Tom Kennedy. “Clever techniques like step printing and jump cut-tine—things we take for granted today because of the ease of digital painting and rotoscoping. Rack then the opticals were obviously painful. The first film was more matte paintings and motion control and blue screen in its early days. Then there's this huge, fast step forward in the art of rotoscoping and rig removal on Empire and Jedi.'

Although the restoration and special edition work on A New Hope was initiated to finally accomplish the director's original vision, the project was also approached as "a dress rehearsal for building the Star Wars prequels, ' according to CG supervisor Berton.

"By Return of the Jedi. George had tapped out, in a way, the ability to create a universe with the density he wanted. Berton noted. "Of course, you don't want to fall into the trap of the technology driving your vision. It s easy for people to look at CG dinosaurs and shape changers and virtual reality, but Lucas always has storytelling at the heart of any film he wants to make. Now we have the technology [to accomplish it]. I he special edition work has provided us with information on how to make ourselves more efficient for the next Star Wars films. I know there s a lot of talk for the next trilogy about digital creatures and aliens that can move with total freedom and not have the constraints of puppets or a guy in a suit, and the sweeping grandeur of a total environment. That s possible now. One such special edition shot was a vista-shot of Mos Eisley seen as Luke’s Landspeeder enters the city'. Yusei Uesugi built this entire city in 3-D and painted on top of it, all completely CG. This gives us the digital back lot, an interactive digital set in which you can put real actors. This kind of shot really stretches our muscles. This is a harbinger for the future.”

It’s appropriate that the next Star Wars chapters will not only mark the beginnings of ILM’s third decade but take audiences worldwide into the new' millennium. The creative force of ILM. with both a century’s worth of special effects tradition and a decade of discoveries in the digital realm behind it, will create those mythic visions, will once again transport audiences into the mystery of space and back to that story of “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”

“There’s an anticipation of the new Star Wars trilogy, that we’ll see a whole other evolution and a whole new set of technical changes,” said visual effects supervisor Mark Dippe, who along with ILMer Steve Williams was hailed as among the “shock troops of digital Hollywood” by Premiere magazine (January 1996). Dippe had been living in Los Angeles when Star Wars was unleashed and he recalled a rock concert-like energy crackling through the Westwood area theater where he first saw the film. Star Wars was a visual revelation. It was unbelievable how they achieved that dynamic camera movement. Seeing it was like, ‘Who the hell is this guy George Lucas?’ The film just stood apart. It still does. I think George Lucas’s films had a big influence on changing the process and vocabulary of filmmaking. The legacy of Star Wars is that at ILM we get a chance to work on creating things that haven’t been seen before, and we also create the technology to do it.”

[Source: Industrial Light and Magic - Into the Digital Realm, P.285-295. Copyright © 1996 Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL) All rights reserved. Reproduced here for educational purposes only.]

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