VFX

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.

 

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

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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!

CoSA, Zero Effect, Brickyard, & Beyond: VFX Studios to Know

Of all the computer technologies that you have to try for yourself to truly understand, virtual reality is the king. Unless you put on a VR device and find yourself in a completely virtual world, you’ll never understand the immersive power of virtual reality, and why it’s poised to play such a vital role in the futures of many industries.

In the past, attempts to make VR something the average consumer can enjoy at home failed due to technological limitations and high costs. But today, many companies are investing in devices that most people can afford to purchase. 

Among these companies are Sony, Google, Microsoft, Oculus (Facebook), tech and video game companies, and communications/media companies like Time Warner and Viacom. Communications and media companies like Time Warner and Viacom are also investing in VR/AR. But without talented VFX companies to help create captivating experiences, the devices are all but useless. The following are some of the most talented VFX companies that have a future creating amazing VR projects:

CoSA VFX

The Company of Science and Art was a founded by Tom Mahoney and Jon Tanimoto, two guys who previously worked together in post-production and broadcast design. They served as VFX artists and supervisors on big films like “Titanic,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.”

Now, as VFX studio CoSA, the duo has grown a team that serves various clients. Working with the likes of Marvel, Warner Bros, Disney, and more, they’ve worked on popular shows and movies like “Gotham,” “Minority Report,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” If there’s anyone who could provide ground-breaking VR scenes for film and television, it’s CoSA.

Framestore

Founded way back in 1968, VFX studio Framestore has grown to become an award-winning company that uses creativity and technology unlike anyone else. In collaboration with some of the best directors and producers today, they’ve helped provide visual effects for films like “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Doctor Strange,” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

Even more exciting is the fact that Framestore is very interested in VR, enough that they’ve already developed experiences for many devices. These include HTC Vive, Oculus, and Samsung’s Gear VR. They are also currently working on exciting projects for the popular PlayStation VR and anticipated Microsoft HoloLens.

The Endless Collective

Some of the former Framestore folks, award-winning game developers, and VFX artists have joined forces in a VFX studio called The Endless Collective that’s been doing some very cool stuff. Their company mission to push boundaries on the edge where technology meets the impossible is reimagining commercial campaigns.

With a client list that runs the gamut from Warner Brothers studios to the Hubble Telescope, credits have included “Gravity,” “Inception,” and “Batman Returns.” The Endless Collective was part teams that won two Academy Awards and two BAFTAs for the film “Gravity.”

Zero VFX

Starting out in a basement in 2010, Zero VFX has since grown to become one of the most artistic and innovative technology companies around. They also developed the world’s first fully cloud-based rendering solution, which Google eagerly purchased in 2014.

In five short years, Zero VFX already has an impressive resume of projects where they provided ground-breaking illusions. These include: “The Magnificent Seven,” “Ghostbusters,” “Southpaw,” “Black Mass,” and countless other films and commercials.

Industrial Light & Magic

ILM is a giant in the film industry. The acclaimed special effects company was founded 40 years ago by George Lucas to create all the illusions we know and love from the original Star Wars. Since then, ILM has amassed an incredible resume of award-winning projects.

It’s no surprise that ILM is interested in the virtual reality space. In mid 2015, it was revealed that a new division called the ILM Experience Lab was formed to focus on virtual reality. While they have worked on any retail projects, many game-like experiments have shown off that feature interacting with Jurassic Park dinosaurs and even speeding through a Star Wars battle.

Brickyard VFX

Brickyard Pacific Works began in 2004 at the helm of industry leaders in the visual effects world. As one of the top VFX companies, especially in the advertising trade, chances are you’ve seen one of their many commercials.

Their clients include everyone from Disney, Doritos, and Carl’s Junior to Puma, Cadillac, and LEGO Systems. If the day comes where we’ll be watching television on VR devices, you can bet Brickyard will be responsible for many of the immersive commercials you see.

This is only the beginning of the list of companies joining in the quest to advance and develop exciting new virtual reality technologies. It’s an exciting time and an exciting industry, which is why the New York Film Academy is pleased to now offer three innovative and unique workshop programs to bridge the worlds of VR, filmmaking, and game design.

Learn more NYFA’s new VR workshops, and let us know which VR developments you are most excited about in the comments below!

What is Virtual Reality (VR)?

First things first: virtual reality is a communication medium, not a technology.

Technologically speaking, there are three variants: virtual, augmented, and mixed. These exist on a spectrum of RL integration, or we can call it degrees of immersion.

  • VR refers to full immersion, entirely computer-mediated content presented in total isolation through a headset and optional headphones (although social exists through embodied avatars). Think Fruit Ninja VR and Oculus Rooms.
  • AR refers to complementary immersion — a screen projects computer-mediated information into the real world, where users can synthesize and contextualize the screen-based content. Think Pokemon Go and Google Maps.
  • MR uses light, projected into the eye via mirrors (HoloLens) or prisms (Magic Leap’s rumored approach), to present content that is completely integrated into RL, even interacting with/responding to the environment and actions of the user.

The future will likely see more points of RL+CG integration and synthesis, so I refer to the medium as “MAVR” when talking about aspects that are true across all the tech.

As a communications medium, it’s important to put the technological advancements of MAVR into context: this is a tool for sharing ideas, experiences, and information. Just like paint, print, photography, and film, it has limitless uses and applications.

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The early 21st century has seen the medium of video reach true saturation. We don’t even notice that we’re using it, and that’s what makes it a tool rather than a technology, or a novelty. And it’s no accident that along the path from flat screen ubiquity to the novelty of immersion (surround-screen? no screen?) is just a hop, skip, and a jump, technologically speaking. It’s just wrapping screens around your head or projecting the light directly into your eye, thereby forgoing the screen entirely. Once you know how to direct the light, it’s only a matter of where you put the projector

So here we are, back in Plato’s Cave, just seeing the silhouettes of the visual spectrum through a new medium. It’s an exciting time ripe with possibility. But understanding it and using it require us as creators to redefine our relationship to our audience, and learn some 21st century skills.

First, you have to understand experience design. There are a bunch of complicated ways to explain what that is, but I’ll put it to you the way it was put to me: Ever been to a city park? Everywhere through the park there are paths — concrete, asphalt, brick, what have you — designed to take you the scenic route. Crossing over and around those paths you see dirt tracks that cut right through the grass. Those are the user-created paths, and your job as an experience designer is to anticipate the use and put the paths where they are most useful (and beautiful — never underestimate the importance of beauty).

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The second characteristic you have to understand about immersive design is framing. Though headsets limit the area you can see in any momentary gaze (just like your eyeballs do, but with a slightly smaller periphery), the “camera POV” no longer dominates. You’re surrounded, not compelled to look at a rectangle of information dictated by the director/designer. So, if you’re telling a story, the whole world is “on stage.” Very Shakespearean.

As a user, the most relevant feature of MAVR is agency. Video game designers understand this, because even though your designs only create the illusion of choice, you are rightly vilified if those choices are merely superficial masks for a golden path. But even when we’re not talking about entertainment apps, you still need to make room for the user who will co-create a personal experience. Whether you’re learning anatomy or meditating with Tron fish underwater or overcoming post traumatic stress, no one user will follow the exact same paths as any other. A whole new vocabulary of symbols, gestures, and space is being formulated to move creators beyond the limits of the frame.

Once you establish a conceptual foundation from these concepts, you can start focusing on execution. You will definitely need a computer, so building a foundation in programming, 3D modeling & animation, VFX, post-production, and 360 sound design (all rapidly evolving, complementary skill-sets), is a good start. You can try out 360 video, and experiment with cuts and transitions to move through time and space. But you may also want to make that live footage interactive, so you’ll need to learn compositing and utilize a game engine or webVR app to add those trigger points. And while we’re talking webVR, just wait until you can surf through a 3D internet (yes, it is just like Johnny Mnemonic and The Matrix … what does Keanu know that we don’t?)! Not happy with the design of the headsets, headphones, hand-held controllers, and other wearables? Look into AI, robotics, mechanical engineering, networking, human-computer interaction, product design, and software development.

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Career-wise, you can take one of two VR paths: technical or conceptual. Technicians will be the ones to build the content and solve the usability problems that will evolve into the same universal saturation for immersive content that we discussed with respect to flat screen media at the beginning of this article. Concept people will be the creative directors and storytellers of the immersive age.

The immersive age is upon us, how will you shape it? NYFA has programs in Game Design, 3D Animation & VFX, VR Filmmaking, Interactive VR, and VR Game Design. Choose your path.

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.