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Galactic News

Friday January 24, 2003
Homing Beacon #77

The latest Homing Beacon has arrived, and today we get to talk about Geonosis! Where in the world is the rocky terrain of Geonosis? Some of it can be found in the American southwest. Some of it, in the model shops of Industrial Light & Magic, and much of it as computer-generated imagery and digital information that stitches all these pieces together to make a unique and foreboding alien world.

"We put a lot of thought into the landscape of Geonosis, as to how it might look, with different buttes and rocks," says Ben Snow, one of ILM's Visual Effects Supervisors on Episode II. "George Lucas had a very specific look in mind: Monument Valley but much redder and more alien. Because Monument Valley is so distinctive to filmgoers, we tried to take that spirit and look at some real world locations that would be different, yet with the same qualities."

Snow's initial plan was to shoot background plates in the American southwest, but Lucas and Producer Rick McCallum challenged the digital artists to provide a solution that wouldn't require a costly location shoot. Instead, only a trio of effects artists with still cameras -- Snow, Effects Director of Photography Martin Rosenberg and Digital Matte Lead Jonathan Harb -- voyaged to the Hite Marina in Utah to gather the raw data that would become Geonosis.

"We tiled our stills together, and used it as a background, digitally altering it as needed, and removing the vegetation. The other thing we had to do was to create the sky of Geonosis. George wanted a really yellow, different sky, so we painted a large sky panorama," says Snow.

For much of the Clone War ground battle, the landscape consisted of three distinct parts. The distant horizon was a digitally altered photographic plate. The mid-ground was computer-generated terrain. The immediate foreground consisted of detailed miniatures.

For the swooping approach shots of Padmé's starship soaring through the canyons, Snow's crew favored an all-digital method that was nonetheless rooted in real world topography.

"We actually pulled United States Geological Survey data from the USGS website, and we converted that data into our format. We took the data from the area where Ben and his crew shot stills," says Computer Graphics Supervisor Curt Miyashiro. "It gave Ben and George the flexibility to choose the shots any way they wanted, since they weren’t locked into any particular flight path or plate work"

The online data was fairly low-resolution, but formed the topographical foundation for more detailed work. Procedural shaders added erosion and texture to the canyons and mesas, significantly altering the landscape to make it an alien world. Since the landscape was entirely digital, it was easy to extract the necessary vantage points to create the reflectivity of Padmé's silvery ship.

When audiences were first given a glimpse of Geonosis in the "Breathing" teaser trailer in November 2001, what they saw was a work in progress. "We were still doing R & D work for a terrain system at that time, so we had to cheat it," says Miyashiro. "We used what we had developed at the time, as well as some elements leftover from the Podrace in Episode I to create the canyon walls." The shot was of course finished in time for theatrical release. 

Posted: by Jedi Power