special effects

Technical Innovations in Star Wars Through the Ages

We have now marked 40 years since the first Star Wars, “A New Hope” astounded moviegoers with its otherworldly look and stunning special effects. Since then, special effects have morphed into CGI and the growing pains of this change and subsequent balancing act between analogue and digital mark the three distinct “Star Wars” trilogies. As the triumph of “The Force Awakens” subsides and excitement mounts in anticipation of “The Last Jedi,” we take a look at how technical innovations shaped the look and sound of some of the most beloved (and reviled) “Star Wars” moments.

A long time ago … There were SFX.

In order to make his first Star Wars movie approximate his elaborate storyboards, George Lucas hired special effects wizard John Dykstra to head up a new company — Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). Lucas’ ideas required Dykstra and his team to invent as they went along, as this quote from Dykstra in a The New Economy article demonstrates: “Back in the days of ‘Star Wars,’ we kind of walked into an empty warehouse and sat on the floor and went ‘How are we going to do this?’”

ILM has since been responsible for some of the biggest special and digital effects of the past 40 years, including the incredible leaps from SFX to VFX.

“But,” continues The New Economy, “a mere two decades after Dykstra destroyed the Death Star in ‘A New Hope’ using nothing but a cardboard box and titanium shavings, Lucas turned his back on animatronics and practical effects in favour of expanding his ‘Star Wars’ universe digitally in the prequel episodes…”

The literally unbelievable.

by istolethetv on Flickr

by istolethetv on Flickr

Indeed, the prequel trilogy pushed the limits of CGI, creating incredible virtual sets, and “the first CG star” in the form of Jar Jar Binks. But the technology was not quite there yet, which brought a little too much attention to the fact that the actors inhabited a post-production world. “Worse,” as this Wired article points out, “the special effect that was meant to be ‘The Phantom Menace’s’ crowning glory instead ended up as the biggest albatross around its neck.” Wired concludes that Jar Jar Binks “became instead emblematic of the film’s flawed CG heart.”

Sounds of a galaxy far, far away.

The famed sound designer Ben Burtt was a student at USC when he began collecting sounds of the real world destined to be manipulated into the iconic sounds of the original “Star Wars” trilogy. In an article detailing the sounds behind those sounds, Burtt is quoted as saying, “In my first discussion with George Lucas about the film, he [said] — and I concurred with him — that he wanted an ‘organic,’ as opposed to the electronic and artificial soundtrack. … Therefore we wanted to draw upon raw material from the real world: real motors, real squeaky door, real insects; this sort of thing.” An example is the use of his TV set blended with an old 35 mm projector to create the hum of a light saber.

The sound designers for “The Force Awakens” continued in Burtt’s footsteps. In a Daily Dot interview, David Acord tells how he turned his cat’s purring into Kylo Ren’s Force rumble: “It’s pitched and kind of slowed down, and it’s got a ton of low-end added to it. But you listen to it, it’s one of those things … it’s tough when you sort of pull back the curtain for sound effects, because then that’s all you’ll hear, is that. [laughs] But yeah, that’s Pork Chop purring.” Perhaps it is this seamless melding of analogue and digital that most beautifully captures the spirit of “Star Wars.”

A new movement.

The development of motion capture — the use of the physicality of actors to animate CG creations — melds together the real and virtual worlds to great and seamless effect. Although, in an effort to reclaim some of the original trilogy’s magic, “The Force Awakens” director JJ Abrams famously eschewed much of the CGI available to him, Lupita Nyong’o enlivens her CGI character with motion capture as space pirate Maz Kanata.

Supreme Leader Snokes, another CGI character played by Andy Circus of Gollum fame, will be physicalized as a giant puppet in “The Last Jedi,” according to Making Star Wars, assuring fans that the union of real and virtual wizardry continues.

What is your favorite “Star Wars” sound effect? Let us know in the comments below. And learn more about Filmmaking and 3D Animation & VFX at New York Film Academy.

 

Kids’ Films that Broke Ground with Special Effects

When you think of groundbreaking special effects, you likely think of summer blockbusters and big budget productions. But, children’s films are often a source of innovative special effects.

While early films were intended for general audiences rather than being targeted to specific age groups, some found inspiration in the kid-friendly fiction of Jules Verne and Lewis Carroll. Georges Méliès’ “A Trip to the Moon (1902) and “The Impossible Voyage” (1904) and Cecil Hepworth’s “Alice in Wonderland (1903) used pioneering special effects and editing such as multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, substitution splices, and creative use of set design and camera placement to bring imaginary worlds to life on screen.

Gertie The Dinosaur (1914)

One of the earliest examples of animation, Gertie the Dinosaur influenced animators such as the Fleischer Brothers and Walt Disney. In the film, Winsor McCay draws Gertie “live” in a clever sequence that is humorous and graceful. The short film also gives viewers an inside peek at the animation process when McCay references the 10,000 drawings needed to make a few minutes worth of film.

Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

The Walt Disney Company’s 1937 film was the first full-length feature film using cel animation. Concept Artist Albert Hurter oversaw every part of the film’s design from backgrounds to individual characters. Disney’s team drew inspiration from German expressionist films as well as mainstream cinema. The Queen’s transformation scene is one example of where the Disney studios borrowed from the likes of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” as well as 1931’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Disney Studios developed the multiplane camera in order to create realistic depth and movement of backgrounds; it was first tested on the short “The Old Mill and used for Snow White and other classics. “The Little Mermaid” was the last Disney film to use a multiplane camera.

Toy Story (1995)

Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story was hailed by critics and audiences alike. The film was the first feature film to be fully animated with computers. As Julia Zorthian discusses in her look back at Toy Story twenty years after its release, one of the keys to its success was excellent storytelling that has helped give the film longevity long after CGI has become an industry standard.

The Harry Potter series (2000s)

Creating a believable world of magic and Muggles has been a task for the director and production teams on each film in the series and they have used every trick from old fashioned optical illusions and model sets to CGI and green screens to pull it off.

Hugo (2011 )

Director Martin Scorsese wanted the opening shot of Hugo to be a seamless long shot from outside the railway station through the clockworks and into Hugo’s hidden home. To bring Brian Selznick’s book to life, Visual Effects Supervisor Rob Legato and Pixomondo Ben Grossman devised many tricks and transitions to create the signature opening and other scenes that pay homage to Méliès and other filmmakers of the earliest days of cinema.

The Jungle Book (2016)

Using a live actor with computer animation and motion capture had not been done on this scale, but director Jon Favreau and visual effects supervisor Rob Legato worked with hundreds of designers to create the seamless animated backgrounds and animal characters. And they did all the previz using VR headsets. The end result is also a testament to Neel Sethi’s talent as an actor, since he had to deliver an emotionally true performance while responding to puppets and stand-ins.

Want to know more about animation and special effects? Check out NYFA’s articles CGI Animation History: Defining (and Awesome) moments in Cinema or How To Do Stop Motion Animation.

Behind the Visual Effects of “The Man in the High Castle”

One of the challenges of filmmaking is making sure your world feels believable. Even when you have “Star Wars'” many species and planets or you’re dealing with various races and magic like in “The Lord of the Rings,” all the visual elements need to keep viewers engaged. This task is even more difficult to pull off when you have a story set in an alternate universe.

“The Man in the High Castle” is a fairly new television show that took on the challenge of alternate history and got it right. The Amazon Studios series has already received numerous awards in only two seasons, including praise for its outstanding special visual effects.

Below are some of the creative hurdles the VFX team faced and how they overcame them:

An Alternate 1962

M60A3_Panzer

In “The Man in the High Castle,” America lost WWII. The Axis powers emerged triumphant after WWII, leaving Nazi Germany and the Japanese to split the U.S. between each other. This means the entire country, especially the major cities the TV series is set in, would look drastically different.

But since the show is set in 1962, the crew had to first study what New York, San Francisco, and Cañon City, Colorado looked like half a century ago. They also had to consider how developed these cities would actually be without the post-war boom the U.S. experienced after the actual conclusion.

Amazon Studios clearly did their homework and created a scary, new 1960s America. Despite the series being shot in Canada, the audience is able to feel like we’re seeing a New York and San Francisco that has embraced an imperial Japanese and Nazi German society.

Getting The Details Right

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It took much more than slapping swastikas and Japanese Kanji all over to make this alternate history believable. Every department had to make sure the people and places look like they actually live in these fictional cities. Wardrobe, for example, had the job of recreating what fashion in America would be like while influenced by two different cultures.

Of course, the visual effects department had plenty of work to do as well. Everything from the signs and advertisements to even the cars had to be thought out and executed well. This is why you’ll see vehicles in the show without any American influence, such as the classic tail-fins made popular in the 1950s and 1960s.

They also had to consider the major differences in style between the two global superpowers. While Germany under Hitler used impressive statues and neoclassical architecture, the Japanese preferred neon lights and propaganda influenced by their Rising Sun Flag.

The Best Kind of Visual Effects

When most people think of visual effects they think of breathtaking CGI monsters and environments. Some shows and movies depend heavily on VFX to create their world, such as Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy. As technology advances, the artist’s ability to create believable visuals with computers gets better and better.

But most of the time, the best effects are the ones viewers never suspect. This was the case with “The Man in the High Castle,” where a lot of the visual elements you see in city streets and on buildings aren’t real. Instead, they were created with computers in such a way that you’d think they were actually there.

Amazon Studios had to rely plenty on their VFX team, especially when certain communities where the show was shot weren’t 100 percent on board. For example, some locations, including Canadian and Chinese communities, refused to allow their buildings to be covered with swastikas and imperial Japanese content. So many of the large Nazi flags and Japanese banners were actually placed in digitally.

Have you watched “The Man in the High Castle”? What are your thoughts about this show’s use of VFX to create an alternate world? Let us know in the comments below!

The 4 Most Epic VFX Moments That Owe It All to Green Screen Backgrounds

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The average person walks into their local theater and walks out mesmerized by the incredible visual effects. They talk with friends about how vivid a specific place looked or how lifelike a fictional creature appeared as it interacted with real actors. The legions of pleased moviegoers have show us that although there’s still room for special effects in the industry, it’s thanks to CGI and green screen that we’ve experienced cinematic moments that are otherwise impossible to share.

But perhaps you’re different than most moviegoers. As an aspiring animator or filmmaker, maybe you leave the theater wondering how they made the fake backdrops and monsters look real. Sometimes, it was clever use of a technique that’s almost as old as cinema itself — green screen. Below are some of the greatest uses of VFX that to this day look fantastic.

1. We Enter the Great Elven Realm

Film:  “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship Of the Rings” (2001)

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It’s hard to believe that it’s already been 15 years since Peter Jackson’s 2001 film took the world by storm and made everyone a fan of elves, dwarfs, and, of course, hobbits. The later Hobbit trilogy was criticized for using too much CGI (so much that Ian McKellen had a breakdown on set), but the first three films set in Middle-earth used the perfect combination of green screen along with forced perspective, clever camera tricks, and even the use of miniatures

“Best Effects, Visual Effects” was one of the many Oscars this film won at the 2002 Academy Awards. And while there are plenty of great scenes to choose from, few are as breathtaking as the first reveal of Rivendell. The gorgeous waterfalls, glowing trees, and beautiful Elven architecture all work to make you feel like you’re really standing in an Elven sanctuary.

2. The Final Battle

Movie: “Avatar” (2009)

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James Cameron’s epic sci-fi film still stands as one of the most respected and critically praised films of all time and currently holds the record as the most financially successful film, with a worldwide gross of $2.7 billion dollars. The movie earned every dollar thanks to innovative new special effects that made the planet of Pandora a sight to behold.

With all the new tricks and technology at his disposal, Cameron often relied on the tried-and-true method of green screen. This allowed him to merge the characters and environments together, creating a captivating movie experience. There are few better examples of this than during the final battle of the movie where, despite the heavy use of VFX, the scene still feels intense and emotional.

3. Pretty Much Every Fight Scene

Film: “The Matrix” (1999)

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Show a young viewer today “The Matrix” for the first time, and they’ll probably see it as just another sci-fi action movie. Maybe they’ll comment on how cool the unrealistic kung fu and physics are, but that’s about it. Yet those of us who were there during its original release know just how big a deal these incredible special effects were.

While plenty of 3D computer models were used during certain sequences, most of the time it was real actors fighting in front of a green screen background. Whether they were hanging from wires or on flat ground, the awesome combat scenes revolutionized the filmmaking industry and helped evolve it into what we have now.

4. Welcome to Jurassic Park

Film: “Jurassic Park” (1993)

These days, the people in post-production have more work than ever before in the movie industry. Where before only a few dozen VFX shots were taken, today’s film averages around 200 shots. While there are benefits to ever-evolving technology, sometimes it’s all about quality — not quantity.

No movie is a better example than “Jurassic Park,” which used no more than 40 special effect shots. Arguably the most memorable scene in this acclaimed film is when Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler first set their eyes on a pair of Brachiosaurus making their way out of a lake. In the video above, you can see how this scene was put together in order to make the audience feel like they too are standing in John Hammond’s “promising” theme park.