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Special Effects: Anything Can Happen [Star Wars Section] Transcript (1996)

JOHN LITHGOW: [shots from Return of the Jedi] In 1977, George Lucas created Star Wars. When the Rebels battled the evil Empire, a new era of special effects was born.

JOHN LITHGOW: [crew riding to set in dune buggies] Today, George Lucas is at it again. He’s sending a film crew into the Arizona desert. Lucas wants to enhance some of the original effects in Star Wars with new digital technology. The goal is a special 20th anniversary edition of the Star Wars Trilogy. In this scene, enemy stormtroopers are hunting robots R2-D2 and C-3PO on the planet Tatooine. [film crew filming troopers] First the major action is filmed in master shots, called “background plates”. Playing stormtroopers are US Marines, tough enough to work in plastic suits in the 110 degree heat. [crew holding printed stormtrooper helment on a pole between two live action troopers] This stick represents a stormtrooper atop a dinosaur-like beast called a “dewback”, as yet nowhere to be seen. [crew using full-sized dewback footprint on a stick for reference] Of course, a beast as big as a dewback would have to leave dinosaur-sized footprints. [more shots of dune buggies] The process may start in the desert, but it will end in a computer hundreds of miles away.

JOHN LITHGOW: [San Francisco flyover] Near San Francisco is the crew’s home base, Industrial Light and Magic. [shot of crew hauling Khitomer-damaged close-up Enterprise-A saucer] There are dozens of relics from the past here, or future depending on how you look at it. [miniature buildings breaking in half] A place where the extraordinary is routine. [robot spiders on bluescreen] And the truly creepy are always welcome. [Alex Seiden walking between miniature mountain set] Alex Seiden is a visual effects supervisor responsible for adding those missing dewbacks to the desert scene shot earlier.

JOHN LITHGOW: [French: still frame of original dewback on dune / Sansweet: still frame of finished TD3 with both CG dewbacks used as representation of original] In the original Star Wars, the dewbacks never moved. But now George Lucas wants them to come alive. [Finished TD1 without opening wipe] After all, what’s a stormtrooper without a fleet-footed dewback? [Finished TD2] Special effects like these are possible because our visual system can be fooled. It’s all a matter of perception. [sun rises over the earth from space] We perceive the world not only with our eyes, but also with our mind. Our eyes respond to color, form, light, depth, and motion. But its up to our brain to combine these elements and interpret what we see.

JOHN LITHGOW: [long shot beside motion control setup shooting 32″ Millennium Falcon model against bluescreen] Take the way we perceive motion. ILM used it to create many of the special effects for Star Wars. [closer shot of Falcon model being filmed] The goal was to make ships in flight look more convincing than any others on film. [Dennis Muren taking light levels from Blockade Runner model lit on stand] Dennis Muren, winner of nine Academy Awards, started out as a camera assistant on Star Wars. This model of a Rebel Blockade Runner is one in a long line of space ships made for the movies.

DENNIS MUREN: [shots from A Trip to the Moon] Spaceships have been a part of the movies since the beginning. Méliès used a painted cutout sliding across a studio floor. [shots from Woman in the Moon] In the 20’s, the Germans built superb miniature ships for Woman in the Moon. [shots from Flash Gordon serials?] In American films in the 1930’s, models were suspended on wires and manipulated like puppets. [shots from Forbidden Planet] The wire technique was greatly refined for Forbidden Planet. [original opening shot of Star Wars] The motion control camera was first used extensively on Star Wars, and it allowed us to create much more complicated motion with many elements in the same shot.

JOHN LITHGOW: [Dennis Muren and unknown crew memeber examine ESB Star Destroyer model] Motion control techniques turned this small model into a flying spacecraft. [dialog of Dennis and crew member pretending to be discussing how to set up the IMAX shot] [motion control IMAX camera filming the Star Destroyer model] The illusion of flight was created by having the camera move instead of the model. The illusion works because our eyes and brain perceive motion by noticing the changing size of an object. [demonstration shot of generic spaceship?] Watch how the size of this spaceship changes. As the ship gets smaller, it seems to move away. And as these asteroids get bigger, they seem to move towards us. On this giant screen, you’re fooled into believing we’re moving.

JOHN LITHGOW: [another shot of Star Destroyer model being filmed for IMAX] ILM has taken on the even greater challenge of recreating the opening of Star Wars for the giant screen. Now we can forget all about perception and technology, and enter the world of intergalactic warfare. [IMAX recreation of opening shots]

JOHN LITHGOW: [Paul Huston climbing on model Mos Eisley built for CA1] Paul Huston, a senior matte artist, is working on another shot for the Special Edition of Star Wars, a shot using this miniature desert town called Mos Eisley. He needs to make it look like any other town… populated by aliens.

PAUL HUSTON: [wide shot of the Mos Eisley model on a stand] The buildings are actually paint buckets and spray cans. But when they’re all painted in the same color, the shapes end up looking like a real city. [Mos Eisley models outside being photographed] The models are built in two different scales. A smaller, less detailed one for the background and a larger one I’ll use for the foreground. When it comes to using models, it’s important to understand perspective and how to create a sense of depth. [photo of model built for CA1] After scanning the photographs into the computer, I paint in the background and the sky. [background and sky fade in] Then I place the bigger buildings in front of the smaller ones. [foreground buildings fade in]

JOHN LITHGOW: To complete the illusion of depth, all these objects are familiar size, aliens. [BTS shots of ILM crew in costume] Volunteers from the ILM staff and their families, dressed in the latest fashions from Mos Eisley. [dialog of children in Jawa costumes talking about how good they look] [extras getting placed in position] Their destination is a vacant lot, ____ with sand. [film camera on a stand] The camera is positioned at a height and angle to match Paul’s photographs of the miniature city. [IMAX crane shot of extras being filmed] [Paul at his computer] Then Paul adds each alien character, one at a time, to the scene.

PAUL HUSTON: Our visual system is attuned to the real world. We have an expectation of about the way things should look. When I add the aliens to the scene, the buildings seem huge by comparison, so it looks more convincing.

JOHN LITHGOW: [finished CA1 on loop] The final shot, only four seconds long, is repeated again and again to help judge it’s effectiveness. Special effects like these have taken science fiction out of the realm of Saturday matinees into a new era of blockbuster action films.

Published by doubleofive

Curator of Star Wars Visual Comparisons, webmaster for Star Wars Revisited, former co-host of Standard Orbit podcast, all around nerd.

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