by Neal Weinstock
Neil Weinstock, is a free-lance writer on technology.
At one time George Lucas wanted merely to make a few commercial movies, support himself well and get out of "Hollywood's clutches." Along the way to accomplishing two out of three, he built the world's greatest special effects workshop. Which in turn is spawning some of the world's most advanced computer graphics work. The three main Lucas companies, Industrial Light & Magic, Lucasfilm and Sprocket Systems, are evolving machinery that will make ordering up a realistic, wide-screen space battle as easy as ordering up a pizza (moviemakers at work do a lot of both).
On a suburban California industrial road stands an assortment of low-slung, boringly modern warehouses, including a place called Kerner Optical Research Lab. This is San Rafael, in Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate. Behind the door that reads Kerner Optical is George Lucas' movie production and research complex. With the last picture of the first Star Wars film trilogy finally released, a few of the magicians at the Industrial Light & Magic subsidiary are working toward the next episode in the saga of Luke Skywalker. A lot of the IL&M folks are busy doing special effects for movies made by other production companies, and the Sprocket Systems subsidiary hums along on its merry way.
"How do they do that?" is a time-honored question asked of all studio guides. There are a few basic techniques that have been with the movies almost from the birth of the industry, and Lucas uses all of them. Then there are a few techniques that have developed since the marriage of the computer to film over the last couple of years; Lucasfilm uses all of these, too. Computer effects break down into two major categories: motion control and image generation. Motion control is a movie phrase for robotics, in which a camera is operated by an elaborate robot assembly that can precisely execute-and infinitely duplicate-any programmed shot. Image generation, another euphemism of the film world, is what the industrial world calls computer-generated graphics.
On the most sophisticated terminals, made by Evans & Sutherland, General Electric or Adage, threedimensional images are created in a minicomputer's memory, then viewed from any two-dimensional "camera angle" on a monitor screen. Ideally, the images thus produced can be animated in "real time," that is, moving 3-D constructs with each new position created spontaneously.
Computerized image generation is used extensively by Lucasfilm, together with motion control, traditional matte painting, optical printing, puppetry, modeling, miniatures, water effects and mirrors. The rear projection method of making actors appear to be where they're not was invented in 1904 by George Méliés for A Trip to the Moon; the front projection method was invented by Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Outer space has always been a stimulus for special effects design, and it's no wonder that the makers of Star Wars have worked their own improvements on all of these old technologies.
Return of the Jedi, the most ambitious Lucas film so far, contains the single most complex special effects shot ever attempted. Involving some sixty individual effects, the shot lasts all of two seconds on-screen. For the movie as a whole, 150 miniatures were constructed, as well as scores of moving models, hundreds of mattes and a whole repertoire of other effects. Several "creatures" seen in the film were completely generated by computer (the first such imaginary beings were the Imperial Walkers in Empire Strikes Back.)
George Lucas once said that, on a scale of 1 to 10, he'd give the special effects in Star Wars a 3.5. Asked the same question after Empire Strikes Back, Richard Edlund, art director for the movie and one of three for Return of the Jedi, gave Empire a 6.5. Edlund is noted in American Film magazine as saying: "I'm not going to say they represent a perfect 10, because then I may as well retire next year."
Inspired use of computer animation theatrical motion pictures is hard to come by. Hollywood filmmakers have taken their time catching up with the available technology.
Futureworld (1976) was the first major film to use computer animation. Two reporters (Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner) discover a madman's plot to replace people with robots. Director Richard Heffron used existing technology to picture Fonda's machine "makeover," with the computer redrawing grid lines so it had a picture of Fonda's face in its memory banks.
Writer-director George Lucas showcased the possibilities inherent in computer animation in Star Wars' (1977) Death Star Briefing sequence. The scene shows Luke and the other spaceship pilots studying a moving computer animation of the space station trench they must traverse and the exhaust port they must shoot to destroy the Empire's planet-killing machine.
The Genesis Project sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1983) still stands as the most dramatic use of computer animation in movies. George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic created the two-million-dollar sequence in which Captain James Kirk (William Shatner) watches tape of a dead planet being reborn-complete with sweeping computer-animation shots of terrain and striking imagery.
Tron (1983), brainchild of director/writer Steven Lisberger, put Triple-I, Synthavision-Magi, and Bob Abel and Associates to work full-time on the fifty minutes of computer animation the movie required. Video game designer Jeff Bridges, "digitalized" inside a computer, confronted luminescent tanks, grid gremlins and firefly-like ships coursing across beams of energy.
In director Richard Lester's Superman III (1983), perpetual loser Richard Pryor builds a supercomputer with a Superman defense system like a video game. Steve Wright, Pat Cole, Vicki Parish, Mike Marshal, Richard Sachs, Larry Wright and Paul Hughett of Atari spent three and a half months on the twenty-six seconds of computer animation.
Star Wars III: Return of the Jedi (1983) repeated many themes and concepts of the first two Star Wars movies, including the Death Star Briefing scene. This time, the computer animation was far more sophisticated than Larry Cuba's 1977 skeletal green diagrams. The Death Star images were presented to the rebels as a 3-D representation floating before them.
RICHARD MEYERS, author of SF2: A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films from Rollerball to Return of the Jedi
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