ILM, Skywalker Sound Honored

With the exception of Storm Trooper and Yoda costumes, the sidewalk outside of the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood began to look like the opening of a new Star Wars film last night as eager disciples of the franchise lined up to pay homage to the series’ visual effects work and share an evening with their hero, Geroge Lucas.

With help from sponsor NVIDIA, The American Cinematheque kicked off its eight-day retrospective “A Tribute to Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound” last night with a special appearance by the man who created both companies, as well as the Star Wars empire. Between clips of the best effects sequences from all five Star Wars installments, Lucas sat down with host Dennis Bartok to answer questions about the making of the films and the evolution of the visual effects.

“When we did Star Wars, we had no way of knowing how we were going to do all of the effects. I had to write the whole movie around the fact that I didn’t know that I could actually pull it off,” says Lucas.

As digital technology was yet unheard of in the mid-’70s when the first film was made, ILM relied heavily on models shot against blue screen and optical printer composits. That work turned into a reliance on computerized motion control camera rigs, which Lucas says they borrowed from animation. “Animation was just starting to use automation and computers to do moves on animation cameras at that point. And so we just basically came up with the idea of taking an animation camera, putting it on its side and taking the platform and replacing it with a post so we could actually put models on it.”

In addition to the spectacular space dog fights, the five films are known for outlandish creatures and mechanized wonders. Among other things, the retrospective screening showcased Phil Tippett’s amazing stop-motion animation and his transition into state-of-the-art CG effects for Episodes I and II.

Lucas mentioned that the most challenging aspect of Episode II: Attack of the Clones was the fully-digital Yoda and his battle with actor Christopher Lee in particular. “A lot of people thought it wouldn’t work.”

Lucas also noted how important sound has been to the Star Wars films. “As soon as I finished the screenplay and started thinking about doing [A New Hope], I hired Ben Burtt to create sound effects for me,” he says. “It started out in the basement of my house with a tape recorder and a [mixing] board, and that turned into Skywalker Sound.”

While the evening was veritable love fest, Lucas ruffled a few feathers when he confirmed his resolve not to include the non-Special Edition versions of the first three films when they are finally released on DVD. “To me, the other ones were unfinished and it always bothered me,” he says. “There are a couple of rough cuts I really love, too, but they never got released. I won’t put them on there either.”

Asked what technological challenges he was looking forward to conquering in Episode III, Lucas quips, “I do not look forward to conquering technical challenges.” He goes on to say, “With this one, in terms of the technology, it’s just a matter of using it to tell the story and we really don’t have to invent too much.”

Tonight’s presentation, “ILM and the Genesis of Computer Generated Visual Effects” will be followed by “Program 3: Bringing Dinosaurs To Life: ILM and the Jurassic Park Films on Saturday and “Program 4: ILM, Skywalker Sound And James Cameron on Sunday.” For a full list of programs, visit www.americancinematheque.com.