The latest Homing Beacon has arrived, and today we get to talk about the Battle of Geonosis! Where in the world is the rocky terrain of Geonosis? The overwhelming final act of Episode II was reason enough for repeat viewings. The chaos of the Clone War battlefield was vividly brought to life by the digital artists at Industrial Light & Magic under the leadership of Ben Snow, Visual Effects Supervisor. With the freeze-frame clarity of DVD, fans can revel in the intricate detail and craftsmanship of these amazing shots. Here are a handful of behind-the-scenes factoids from the epic battle.
Posted: by Jedi Power
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
The latest Homing Beacon has arrived, and today we get to talk about the Geonosian droid factory! A late addition to the postproduction of Episode II was the elaborate Geonosian droid factory set piece, which was conceived, scripted, previsualized and shot months after principal photography had wrapped. Visual Effects Supervisor Ben Snow and his unit tackled the eleventh hour action sequence.
"We used a combination of computer graphics and miniature work for the environment," says Snow. "Since everything in the factory is moving and interacting, we made a lot of it in computer graphics so we can deal with the complexity and the interaction."
The rust-hued smoke-belching clamor of the factory was a perfect showcase for the signature "used universe" feel of Star Wars. "To get a realistic grime and gritty feel, we enhanced our shots with CG and real smoke, sparks and pyrotechnical elements," says Snow. "To make the sequence tense and scary, we wanted to push for a realistic feel."
To that end, Snow took a crew of computer graphic artists and model-makers to a real automobile factory in the San Francisco Bay Area. "We looked at all these machines in action and try to get a good feel for it," he says. "One of the daunting things is just how much complexity there is in this real factory, and trying to reproduce that in computer graphics and visual effects is a bit overwhelming. But you're trying to convey an impression of it rather than having to get every bit of grime in there."
Even the car factory was judged too austere. "We decided we needed to take the team somewhere a bit nastier," says Snow. "We visited a foundry in the East Bay, and this was paydirt as far as I was concerned. Dark, and dirty, and old, I think it really defined the look we were going for. It had the texture and the sulfuric industrial smell that we wanted to try to evoke in our work. We took a bunch of photographs that we used as texture reference when painting our CG models and miniatures. It's really important to have good reference. It keeps us honest, particularly if we're doing a largely computer graphic scene."
The final factory environment was created using a combination of computer-generated elements and miniatures, with bluescreen plate photography of the actors properly aligned into the virtual surroundings. Helping add to the realism of the finished shots was a sense of purpose to the enveloping chaos.
"In a lot of the shots the machines could just be whirling around threateningly, but I thought it would make the sequence more exciting to see that the machines were actually building things," says Snow. "One of the things I did was to sit down and try to work out what each conveyer belt was doing, and made little maps showing the manufacturing process for the animators and artists on the sequence."
Posted: by Jedi Power
The latest Homing Beacon has arrived, and today we get to talk about the Kaminoan cloning facility! As Obi-Wan tours the Kaminoan cloning facility, he sees an immense hatchery of fetal clones suspended in glassy jars affixed to disc-like pods. This sequence incorporated live action and miniature elements, but the centerpieces of the environment -- the hatchery pods -- were entirely digital creations.
"Because the hatchery pieces were really comprised of five basic components that are repeated numerous times throughout the shots, computer graphics were a really good solution for creating this scene," says David Meny, Computer Graphics Supervisor at ILM.
The "real" elements of the shot included bluescreen photography of actor Ewan McGregor, a miniature corridor environment, and a miniature of the far dome interior. The glassy forest of hatchery pods outside the corridor was all digital.
"The main challenge in this sequence was realizing an environment that has so many glass elements with so many reflections and refractions. Also, there's a large number of models that you have to render, because in each of these jars there's a fetus with significant detail and motion," says Meny.
Each hatchery "tree" consisted of five repeated pieces: a fetus, a jar, a pod, a base, and a tube. "Because of the depth of the shot, we needed some pods that would stand-up very close to the camera and some that could be seen way in the background. We created multiple resolutions of the models to put the detail where we needed it, but not incur the expense of rendering that detail when we didn't expect to see it."
Within each jar was a fetal clone. ILM crafted two models to suggest different stages of clone development. The animators created one long sequence of motion for the fetus model, which was than offset throughout the jars for the illusion of individual performances.
Once the visual characteristics of the models were finalized, the shot began to be assembled layer by layer. For this shot, this was necessary since the visual and lighting complexity of the environment would be impossible to render in one pass. Some of the most complex layers alone required 12 hours per frame to render.
"We break it down to as many rendering layers as we can manage reasonably," says Meny. "In this shot, there's about 120 rendered layers that are then combined in the composite. The main reason in doing that is it gives you a lot more control to change things. If a certain part of the shot isn't working, you only have to re-render a subsection of that," says Meny.
With the outside hatchery assembled complete with lighting and atmospheric haze, one final addition gave the shot an added hint of realism. Since there was no reflective glass on the bluescreen stage during Ewan McGregor's shoot, ILM had to trick a reflection of Obi-Wan on the inside of the glass corridor. "The compositor had to cheat it using elements from other shots, and slip-sync them to give you a sense there's a reflection in the glass. The final composite is pretty subtle, and we hide it behind the principal element of Obi-Wan."
Posted: by Jedi Power
The latest Homing Beacon has arrived, and today we get to the Episode II Attack of the Clones DVD! This week marks the arrival of the Episode II DVD. While the two-disc set has hours of expanded material exploring the creation of Attack of the Clones, a DVD-ROM weblink provides a gateway to even more content.
The DVD format has huge amounts of storage space, but producers must carefully balance the quantity of content placed on a disc, since it comes at the cost of image and sound quality. Basically, the more stuff jammed on a disc, the worse it all looks. As a result, some things couldn't fit on the DVD.
Some of this content is finding its way to dvd.starwars.com. Over the coming months, new material will be added to the site, but to start off, there's over 20 minutes of video there right now. Users will need a PC DVD-ROM, an Internet connection, and the Episode II DVD to take full advantage of these features.
Not all the DVD-ROM extras require an Internet connection. Two of Lucas Online's most extraordinary website efforts have now been archived on the Episode II DVD.
First up is HoloNet News, a website of dozens of news stories as reported from within the Star Wars galaxy. First launched in the spring of 2002, this site kept track of the major happenings in the Republic in "real time" as the events of Episode II began to encroach. Archived on Disc One, this off-line version of the site allows readers to immerse themselves in the Star Wars galaxy as a citizen of a Republic threatened by Count Dooku's Separatist movement.
Another Episode II online experience that has been archived on the DVD is the Episode II College Campaign, which can be found by snooping around the walls of Dex's Diner on Disc Two. Although visible through just a standard DVD player, a DVD-ROM translates the full multimedia experience of these funky little websites -- including downloadable wallpapers and messenger icons. These sites launched last April to promote Attack of the Clones to select college audiences across North America.
Posted: by Jedi Power
The latest Homing Beacon has arrived, and today we get to talk with Samuel L. Jackson! Next month, Mace Windu comes to home video as Episode II arrives on DVD and VHS on November 12. No longer just sitting around the Council chambers, Windu gets to face off against enemies of the Republic and dispense Jedi justice with his violet-bladed lightsaber.
"I was thrilled about that," Samuel L. Jackson says. "It's wish fulfillment. All my life I wanted to be in a swashbuckling adventure movie but no one really makes them anymore."
Jackson has often equated the Star Wars films to the adventure epics of yesterday, ranking the Jedi warriors alongside such legends as Errol Flynn. It was that derring-do spirit that made Jackson a Star Wars fan way back when he first saw A New Hope during its original release.
"If George Lucas hadn't offered me the part of Mace Windu, I'd have gladly dressed up as an extra in stormtrooper gear. As long as I was in a Star Wars movie somewhere, even hidden in some kind of costume, I'd have been happy," he admits.
Episode II has become the key to unlocking the saga, as audiences can clearly see the connections that bind the Star Wars films together. Jackson was impressed at how well prepared director George Lucas was in piecing together the universe. "When there's something I don't know, then I'm not afraid to ask. I've watched all the movies and read a lot of the background stuff. You could spend hours on the ‘net checking out details, but a lot of the time people embellish Star Wars lore or just plain make stuff up. You have to filter a lot of things. As I say, the only person who really knows how everything fits together is George."
The unparalleled digital clarity of the DVD is the perfect showcase for Industrial Light & Magic's work, and even having been part of the filmmaking process doesn't blunt the impact of the visuals for an actor. Jackson had no problem with the amount of bluescreen shooting, since it appealed to a type of role-playing he had done as a youngster. "It kind of feels like I've been doing it all my life. Being an only child and having an active imagination, I did the same sort of thing in my room as a kid. I fought things that weren't really there and had conversations with people that were just in my head."
Despite such digital breakthroughs, Jackson isn't worried about being replaced by a computer-generated simulacrum someday. "You'll always need real people," he says. "Audiences like to imagine themselves in these situations, and the only way they can do that is through flesh-and-blood actors. You need a real person to relate to. Plus the public will always need movie stars to admire or gossip about."
Posted: by Jedi Power
The latest Homing Beacon has arrived, and today we get to talk about Padmé Amidala! Senator, activist, warrior, secret newlywed -- Padmé Amidala keeps a schedule as busy as Natalie Portman does, not that the young actress minds.
"I'm in school during term time, I make movies in the summer, then I do publicity on the weekends," she explains. "It's not that difficult. I love going to school and all my school friends are great. They're not at all jealous or intimidated. A couple of them came to visit me [on set]. I need to be surrounded by friends as well as work people. We had a lot of fun in Sydney."
"Fun" is Portman's one-word summary of Episode II, soon to be available on DVD. Freed from the cumbersome makeup and stately wardrobe of Episode I, Portman delights at Padmé's more aggressive actions in Attack of the Clones. Sure, she got to storm her own palace in Menace, but that's nothing compared to fighting alongside Jedi warriors and going toe-to-claw against a nasty cat creature. "I got a few small bruises and pulled muscles, but nothing serious," she says.
Yet through it all, Padmé Amidala remained well coiffed and fully accessorized. "That makes me laugh," she admits. "A lot of the time, Padmé is running around without her assistants, but she always has amazingly flamboyant hair. She must be very skilled at styling it herself."
Another perk of Episode II is that for once, Portman gets to play the older woman in a romantic scenario. "It's about time, isn't it? After Leon and Beautiful Girls, I kept being made out as this 'Lolita' character, and now I get to be the cradle-robber," she laughs.
She also chuckles at the rumors alleging an off-screen relationship with co-star Hayden Christensen. "I'm now the envy of little girls everywhere, which is better than being perceived as a bad person who robs stores or something," she says. "There are much worse rumors people could make up about you."
What is true is that she swiped an Anakin-related memento from the set; she now owns one of the Padawan's braids used in the film. "There were like 12 of them so I knew one wouldn't be missed."
Knowing that young girls around the world are watching Padmé Amidala with a twinkle of heroism in their eyes, Portman switches to a more serious gear when discussing her alter ego as a role model. "I hope she has elements that young girls would aspire to," she says. "She's a leader, she's idealistic and a good human being who has compassion for others. Plus she's not corrupted by politics; she takes care of herself and she's vulnerable to love -- which everyone is."
Portman's commitment to her educational pursuits would make good role model material as well. "It is important for me to be the most rounded human being I can possibly be and to learn as much as I can learn," she says. "For me, school and college have helped me understand myself better and given me the tools to live a full life and grow as a person."
Posted: by Jedi Power
Residing on disc-two of the upcoming Attack of the Clones DVD are eight deleted scenes. Viewers will have the option of just watching the scenes themselves, or watching brief introductions by Writer-Director George Lucas, Producer Rick McCallum and Editor Ben Burtt, explaining why the scenes were cut.
Now if I only had a DVD player, maybe I would get the chance to see these deleted scenes! Actually, I have not even seen the ones for Episode I yet! I need to get on the ball.
Posted: by Jedi Power
The latest Homing Beacon has arrived, and today we get to talk about Count Dooku's Sith lightsaber! Count Dooku clearly does things his own way, but his ideology is not the only thing that sets him apart. His lightsaber handle design is unique among the Jedi weapons fans have seen to date in the saga.
The distinctive curved lightsaber first appeared in early sketches of the new Sith enemy, and this direction was later expanded with the help of Art Department Assistant Roel Robles, who brought in some of his own cultural roots to the design table.
"I started bringing in my arsenal of various Filipino swords, spears, and knives to give the Art Department a different feel than what we had before. At one point, we had a room full of artists playing with these deadly balisong (butterfly) knives before a meeting," he recalls. Robles' collection included a wide variety of blade types, but his favored weapon was the barong, which featured a curved handle to prevent weapon slippage during combat. "It looks cool, sharp and deadly," he says.
At one Art Department meeting, Design Director Doug Chiang had Robles lay out his weapons for George Lucas to inspect. "George picked out the barong, which I was really happy about not only because it was my favorite blade, but also since it was a Filipino blade, it had cultural and historical bonds. I am proud to say I was able to put a small part of my Filipino heritage into the film," says Robles.
As further inspiration to his fellow Art Department members, Robles arranged a demonstration of escrima, a Filipino martial arts employing multiple bladed weapons. He and a friend, Jonathan Soriben ("one of the best Filipino martial arts masters that I know," he says) reserved the basketball court at the Skywalker Ranch fitness center and went at it with sticks rather than knives. "So as not to scare anyone," Robles clarifies.
"When Dermot Power came up from London to work with the team, Iain McCaig encouraged me to set up a demonstration. Iain and Dermot were designing the Sith at the time, and were very impressed. They began to do more work on the Sith with escrima in mind," says Robles.
Posted: by Jedi Power
The latest Homing Beacon has arrived, and today we get to talk about the Clones! The description of the shot is deceptively simple. Queues of clone troopers receive their helmets from an armory dispenser, while Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Kaminoan guides walk by in an overhead corridor. "There are several hundred rendering layers in this shot, not including the bluescreen and miniature elements as well," reveals David Meny, a Computer Graphics Supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic.
Working from concept art devised by Alexander Laurant of ILM's Art Department, this shot is rooted in reality with a number of live action elements. Firstly, footage of Ewan McGregor as Kenobi was shot on a bluescreen stage. "This element was flopped left-to-right, so that Obi-Wan's walking direction would be continuous throughout the sequence," explains Meny. "It was also shrunk significantly in the frame so that the focus would remain in the foreground."
With the live action element positioned, an animatic was created to determine correct camera lens and framing. That virtual camera data was taken to the motion control stage and miniatures of the glassy skywalk and the background dome interior were photographed in multiple passes. "These were shot with miniatures because they were static elements that could be reused for several shots in the sequence, each filmed from a slightly different angle. They also served as great bookends for the whole sequence and gave us something to match our computer graphics to," says Meny.
In the foreground are the clones, entirely computer-generated. "Since we are seeing thousands of these characters on the screen at a time, a lot of time was spent making variations in their armor." Scuffmarks and rank coloring diversify the crowd. Their movement was supplied via motion capture sessions, supplemented with some key-frame animation. The animation was divided into three portions: standing in line, picking up and donning the helmet, and walking back. "We're using the Maya software application and a particle system in Maya, to drive the performances of the characters. The particle system allows us to script when each of the characters transitions from one cycle into the next. By choreographing the performances with Maya's particle system, we can render hundreds to thousands of characters in a single shot very efficiently."
The armory, jokingly called the "bowling ball dispenser" by the artists, was a computer model. "Computer graphics were used because it was a single model that needed to be used only for this shot, and would require a lot of interaction with the digital characters," says Meny.
Pools of light, reflections, cast-shadows and layers of atmospheric haze help to blend the disparate elements together. These are rendered separately and composited together to allow for efficient tweaks of just one element.
Filling out the backgrounds are dozens of non-armored clones undergoing combat and calisthenics routines. These were less detailed computer models since in the finished film, they would appear only in the background. "Because we were seeing thousands of these models in subsequent shots, we created two different uniform colors to add some variation to the squads," explains Meny. "Twenty-nine different performances were recorded and motion-captured."
Since this was the only shot of unhelmeted yet armored clones in the movie, a CG model of a clone bearing the likeness of a young Jango (modeled from actor Bodie Taylor) was specifically designed. However, when it came time to don the helm, it became apparent that the computer artists had to fudge some of the real-world measurements. "The model of the helmet didn't actually fit on the digital Jango's head," says Meny. "His head was too large, so parts of his cheek and nose were actually poking through the helmet. The animators had to enlarge the helmet and shrink down the face slightly to so that they would actually work together and the audience wouldn't see any artifacts."
Posted: by Jedi Power