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Star Wars and the Light Side of the Force

There was, thankfully, one bit of good news last week: On Tuesday, Disney announced it had acquired Lucasfilm and was planning the 2015 release of Star Wars: Episode VII, which most fans had given up hope of ever seeing. The internet erupted upon hearing the news, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in exultation. Somewhere the six-year-old me wept with joy.

To mark this totally exciting turn of events, let’s take a look back at the history of the Star Wars franchise — in particular at how optics-based technologies have served the franchise, and vice versa. From “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi” to the AT-ATs of Hoth, and on again to the Gungan pestilence in Episode I, optics has played an integral role in Star Wars. The movies — and the movie industry — would not be the same without it.

3-D Conversions

The re-release of the two Star Wars trilogies in 3-D, which began with Episode I: The Phantom Menace in February 2012, is not likely to be a game-changer technologically — at least not in the way that James Cameron’s Avatar was, for example. Still, industry observers are keeping a close eye on it. Episode I marked the first time a studio converted a summer blockbuster to 3-D and its performance at the box office — along with that of Episodes II and III — could determine whether we see more such conversions in the future.

Knowing this surely only added to the pressure to get the conversion right. John Knoll of Industrial Light & Magic, the effects shop behind all six of the Star Wars movies, spent ten months supervising the conversion of Episode I, which was performed by Prime Focus using its proprietary View-D conversion process.

Knolls, who also worked as a visual effects supervisor on Avatar, avoided gags and “in your face” stereography in the conversion, preferring a more naturalistic approach. “I was cribbing a lot of my stereo style on Phantom Menace [from] Jim Cameron’s playbook on Avatar,” he said in an interview with fxguide.com. “There’s really no stereo arc on Avatar. It’s done on a naturalistic basis [so] that the amount of depth is presented to you based on subject matter — all the way from the beginning of the movie to the end it’s consistent with that logic. I tried to do the same thing on Episode I.”

“Holograms”

The scene in the original Star Wars (1977) in which a hologram of Princess Leia implores Obi-Wan Kenobi to help her and the rebel cause — “you’re our only hope,” she adds, guessing that poor Obi-Wan will respond to that kind of pressure — is iconic. The only problem is, the image here is not a hologram; it’s a clever film effect achieved using multiple camera angles and a bit of post-processing.

Still, the scene has given generations of writers — myself included — an excellent lede for stories about holography (holography is exciting enough in itself, of course; name-dropping Princess Leia just makes us feel regal or something). More importantly, it’s likely inspired many of the researchers working in the field today.

Motion Capture

The character of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (first appearing in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring [2001]) is recognized as one of the first major characters in a movie generated with computers using motion capture technology — a remarkable achievement, observers say. Of course, the very first such character was the universally reviled Jar JarBinks in Star Wars: Episode I (1999). But people don’t like to talk about that.

For Episode I ILM used a Vicon 8 motion capture system, which was introduced only in 1998. The Vicon 8 was the first such system designed from the ground up for animators, Brian Nilles, CEO of Vicon Motion Systems’ U.S. office, said in an interview with Animation World Network. A single datastation could run up to 24 cameras, allowing capture of both greater volumes and greater numbers of characters. Also, the Vicon 8 could recordup to 24 hours at a time, in contrast to the few minutes that was possible with earlier optical systems. This greater duration proved especially useful for long facial captures with Jar Jar Binks and other characters.

Stop Motion / Go Motion

Industrial Light & Magic made full use of stop motion animation in the original Star Wars — in the chess game between Chewbacca and R2D2, for example — but for the next movie, The Empire Strikes Back, they needed something more.

Stop motion animation can create a slightly disconcerting effect; because the animated object is still in every frame, stop motion lacks the blur one would see if the object were in motion while the camera shutter was open. To achieve this effect in Empire, during scenes like Han Solo riding a tauntaun and the four-legged imperial AT-ATs marching toward the rebel base on Hoth, Phil Tippett and others at ILM developed a technique called go motion. Here, the animated model is moved slightly during the exposure of each film frame — usually using rods attached the model and controlled by a computer. Thus each of the frames shows the model in motion, with the attendant motion blur.

Go motion was rendered largely obsolete by the advent of CGI in the early 1990s, but not before contributing memorable, even iconic scenes to the movies Dragonslayer, E.T. the Extraterrestrial and Jurassic Park among others. We won’t hold Howard the Duck against it.

Lightsabers

Here we are: the #1 example of optics technology in the Star Wars universe. Lightsabers are not real, of course. And truth be told, the means of achieving the effect isn’t especially exciting — actors film duels using sword-length rods and animators later add the shimmering glow. But just try to imagine Star Wars without them.

The lightsaber — in early drafts of the script it was called the “lazersword” — was introduced early in the original Star Wars movie, its tremulous light and low hum mesmerizing the character of Luke Skywalker as well as millions of kids and other wide-eyed moviegoers. And it featured in key moments throughout the series, most significantly in the climactic duels: between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader, Darth Vader and Luke, Yoda and Christopher Lee. It’s a critical piece of optics technology, and an integral part of what made Star Wars wondrous and exciting and all-around awesome.



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