Digital and analog special effects collide in the retooled version of STAR WARS.

For many movie mavens, Star Wars represents the ultimate in science-fiction cinema. At the time of its summer 1977 release, the film showcased some of the most wondrous special effects ever to trip through an optical printer, visuals which subsequently earned Academy Awards for John Stears, John Dykstra, ASC; Richard Edlund, ASC; Grant McCune and Robert Blalack. The end result of their efforts arguably displayed the most important technical achievement in filmmaking since the traveling matte. Whatever your personal feelings about this space opera, the film refined motion-control cinematography to the point where it became both a creative and extremely efficient approach to the effects process.

So, 20 years later, what's wrong with Star Wars? Plenty, according to director George Lucas, who initially envisioned the film as a springboard for a series of nine films divided into three separate trilogies. The filmmaker has always been pained by the technical flaws in Star Wars and its two sequels, and reportedly poured more than $10 million into restoring and updating the original trilogy's landmark miniature and optical effects to the current digital standard. Remarkably, the $10 million price tag of the three new Special Editions is almost equal to that of the entire negative cost of Star Wars itself (in 1977 dollars). But according to Lucas, the experience of viewing his original vision onscreen for the first time was worth every penny. "When I was working on the film, we fell short in certain areas because we were trying to do so much," he says. "We did the best we could under the circumstances, and they were extraordinary, but we got the chance to go back and make the film closer to what was originally envisioned."

Lucas recruited producer Rick McCallum and visual effects producer Tom Kennedy to shepherd the work on Star Wars. The two men had worked with Lucas before, pioneering the use of inexpensive digital effects as a means to dramatically increase production values on the Young Indiana Jones TV series and the feature Radioland Murders, respectively.

Says McCallum "On Young Indy, we wanted to set a template for a way to make features, and now we're applying that template to the existing Star Wars trilogy and hopefully, the prequels. For the redo, we didn't change anything more or less than what George wanted. There have been special editions of other films where directors have gone back to restore the cut the studio took away from them, but nobody's ever gone back to reshoot and augment those things that they clearly saw but couldn't achieve at the time. It's such a romantic vision."

Recalls Kennedy, "George said, 'As long as we're going to re-release Star Wars, I always wanted to do more in the sequence at Mos Eisley [the metropolitan spaceport of Tatooine] because the town didn't appear large enough.' So we went back to expand Mos Eisley, and then to do matte paintings of the Sand Crawler and Jabba the Hutt's lair. The initial scope of it involved just two dozen shots."

However, everyone involved with the Special Edition has a different recollection of how the process came together. "I remember first hearing that they were going to re-release the movies in anticipation of the new series of films," says Dennis Muren, a senior visual effects supervisor for ILM who served as a visual effects second cameraman on the original Star Wars. "A few weeks later, I heard that George was going to add some scenes that he had always wanted to do, and fix some things up. I felt we could improve the matte edges on some shots that had been done at the last minute—particularly those involving explosions. But there were also a number of shots in the space battle where the movements just weren't right. If we could smooth them out, the action would have more clarity, and viewers would be able to follow the movie a little better. I suggested digitally re-doing shots in which the models were moving incorrectly."

Any concerns about using digital technology on a film 20 years old soon vanished in the wake of Lucas' growing enthusiasm for the project. Many of the Special Edition's new effects fall under the category of what Kennedy calls "further faster" shots, where computer-generated X-wing and TIE fighters were made to move twice as fast, and therefore travel twice as far, along their original trajectories. "In 1977, we couldn't make the ships start any bigger and get any smaller because we had only a three-foot run on the Dykstraflex [motion-control camera, designed by John Dykstra]," says Lucas. "But now, doing everything on a computer, we can make these shots be whatever we want them to be. It just means that some of the shots are more dynamic. They're the same shots, but they're cleaner, they look better and, in some cases, the ships move better."

Although Muren does not precisely define his role on the Special Edition, ILM's effects artist emeritus made some significant contributions to this effort in its early stages. "I was kind of a supervisor at the beginning in that I was not just trying to get the shots looking good. I was also saying 'Here's how these maneuvers should happen' when John Knoll was doing the first animatics on the Death Star battle. In addition, I had suggestions about the sort of technology we should use. We did a lot of full animation and rendering tests at the beginning, comparing several different software packages. I felt that we shouldn't necessarily just look at the old way of doing things or the ILM way of doing things, but see if there was some other way to do it."

Lucas wanted the new effects to appear as if they had been generated during the era of the original Star Wars, despite the fact that Jabba and the other CG creatures populating Mos Eisley were then technologically impossible to achieve. The film's original models had been re-shot to good effect in the Star Wars segment of NOVA's 70mm Special Effects venue film (see AC Aug. '96), but Muren refused to consider using those same models again for the new Special Edition shots, opting instead to re-create them via computer. "Spaceships flying around have been done so many places digitally—and so successfully—that it just didn't make any sense for us to do it any other way," he maintains.

The same can be said for the Special Edition's most audacious moment: the restoration of a deleted scene depicting a meeting between smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his gargantuan employer, Jabba the Hutt. While Jabba appeared in the sequel Return of the Jedi (1983) as a giant slug-like puppet created by the ILM Creature Shop, the original Jabba featured in the 1977 sequence was a portly Scotsman clad in a furry vest. While planning the Special Edition, Lucas realized that the only way to add the extraterrestrial equivalent of Sidney Greenstreet into the shots was via digital technology.

Fortunately, animator Steve "Spaz" Williams (Jurassic Park, The Mask) and CG supervisor Joe Letteri (Jurassic Park, Casper) were available to join forces on the complex task. Their first conference with Lucas led to some interesting mutations of the Jabba concept established in Jedi. Recollects Letteri, "George wanted to put Jabba on a floating anti-gravity couch, because that's how we saw him in Jedi, but there were two problems with that: first, Harrison Ford was talking to this guy, who was shorter than him, so Ford's eyelines were looking down; secondly, having Jabba just sort of floating around was not that interesting, so we thought, 'What if we put him on the ground?"

Grounding Jabba and making him more svelte placed him in Ford's eyeline. But this created the greater dilemma of how to execute the character's movements. Steve Williams infused the CG creation's movements with the coiled power of a rattlesnake, but Letteri reveals that "a sea lion was actually the model we used, because Jabba had to throw his weight forward, bring his tail up and push off with it. We wanted him to have this big, thrusting-his-weight-forward movement, so he'd feel really massive and really menacing."

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