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20. May 2013 07:43
by jedi1

The Men Who Made the Monsters

20. May 2013 07:43 by jedi1 | 0 Comments

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A guided tour of the new alien creatures which fill the world of "Jedi," hosted by those talented monster-makers of Industrial Light & Magic.


Photo: Make-up and creature designer Phil Tippett (left) and associate at work.

The final installment of the middle trilogy of George Lucas' sprawling space saga is the end result of an immense team effort spread out over months and years. The effects facility—Industrial Light and Magic—alone boasted more than 140 people at one point, toiling together to produce their most ambitious and magnificent work to date.

Return of the Jedi is so visually complex that three effects supervisors were needed to direct the creative energies of the ILM artists. The trio—Richard Edlund, Ken Ralston and Denis Muren—divided the film into three basic effects units. Richard Edlund's team handled the tunnels and the big reactor chamber of the Death Star. Ken Ralston's team created all of the space battle dogfights and the massive fleet shots. Denis Muren's team did the ground-based shots, including the deadly Rancor, the "Chicken Walker" shots on Endor and the startling bike chase sequence.

Creating the Creatures

The film's visual and story delights are many, but the one which catches the eye first is the horde of alien creatures populating the movie. What does it take to create the aliens who play so important a role in Return of the Jedi—both the principal characters and the colorful background creatures?

It takes "a successful blending of techniques," affirms stop-motion expert and creature designer Phil Tippett, plus the skills needed to meet tight deadlines under difficult—and even sweltering—circumstances. Although Jabba the Hutt and Bib Fortuna were the responsibility of London-based designer Stuart Freeborn, Tippett and his colleagues handled not only principal aliens like Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nubb, but pit monsters, "Chicken Walkers" and the throng of extraterrestrial guests at Jabba's monster mash.

More than one technique is needed to lend credibility to such an array, Tippett says. "When you use one technique, you fall prey to its limitations. The audience becomes aware of the system being employed.

"Ray Harry hausen, for example, is limited to certain types of staging, and after a couple of hundred shots, it shows. In The Dark Crystal, they were forced to crop the shots so the operators of certain characters wouldn't show, and you subliminally become aware of that fact. I think that a successful blending of techniques using hand puppets, stop action and live action can integrate for the best results."

It takes a little forethought, too, according to Tippett. Work on Jedi's non-human cast actually began before Dragonslayer's effects got underway in 1980. When producer George Lucas decided to begin work on Jedi's new aliens, he turned to Industrial Light and Magic veteran Tippett.

"George said he would like for us to put together a creature shop," Tippett recalls. "Some of the story points weren't clarified, but I have a feeling George works through telepathy. He says, 'Do what you want... ' and you see something in his eyes which tells you: 'I want something kinda like this... ' " It's a rapport that other ILM staffers have also mentioned.

Setting up a creature shop requires organization in facilities and hiring—tasks handled by Chris Walas. The shop was located at the ILM ranch in Marin County, separate from the special effects stages used by ILM for Star Trek II and Dragonslayer. Lucas, Tippett explains, wanted to keep all aspects of Jedi carefully under wraps.

It was frenetically busy at the plant during the six months allotted for creature design and construction. "Our job was to split the creature costume assignment with Stuart Freeborn," Tippett remembers. "Of the more than 60 aliens, some were multiples of the same creature, and not all were articulated for facial movement. In fact, some were only masks." In order to meet a six-month deadline, Tippett and his crew adopted a "get-it-done" philosophy. "It was running fast and furious as you could to get the job done. One of the prime motivating factors which kept us going was simply fear—fear of our work being substandard to Rick Baker's creations or Rob Bottin's handiwork. That was really scary!

"We had many such emotions about the project, because we remembered the work done by Baker, Bottin and Carlo Rambaldi." Lucas had passed over better-known technicians in favor of local talent. "I think George really wants to set up a situation here at Lucasfilm where the people who work here also live in the Bay Area, and we hire people locally," Tippett continues. "Everybody is kept 'in-house,' close to George."

Phil Tippett has been part of the 'in-house' team of FX experts for a long time. His involvement with Lucasfilm dates back to Star Wars. For that landmark adventure, Tippett and Jon Berg animated the famous holographic chess sequence between C-3PO and Chewbacca, aboard the Millennium Falcon. This well-received sequence led to increased implementation of the technique in The Empire Strikes Back, particularly for the graceful Tauntauns and the towering Imperial Walkers.

However, Tippett admits that he approached Return of the Jedi with a degree of inexperience. "I've done very little 'realtime' effects," he notes. "Our ILM crew basically had the same background as I do, so, to a degree, we all really approached this whole project blind."

For two major characters created by ILM, Admiral Ackbar (leader of the Rebel Fleet) and Nien Nubb (Lando Calrissian's co-pilot), two methods of costuming were employed. For full shots, a mask without articulation was filmed; in close-up, a full-sized puppet mask was operated with off-camera cables, in addition to an operator moving his mouth, Muppet-style.

In fact, Muppet techniques were adapted for many of the characters. A number of aliens photographed in the foreground were articulated in a manner similar to the characters in The Dark Crystal (STARLOG #65, 66): an operator inside the costume handled full-body physical gestures and actions, such as walking and pointing, while cables attached to flexible latex masks were controlled off-camera to produce facial expressions. The composite is an alien who can walk, talk, blink and wiggle a nose.

Stuart Ziff, who worked on articulation for Dragonslayer's Go-Motion creature, was hired to insure that all the creatures would work properly without breaking. As is the case for other ILM FX technicians, a new screen credit was devised to describe Ziffs job: Chief Articulation Engineer.

Photo: Star Wars Return of The Jedi Logo

With the creatures almost finished and lensing in London about to begin, Tippett and five other ILM technicians headed to EMI-Elstree Studios, for filming on the Star Wars stage. A group of 25 mimes, puppeteers and assistants (who would break people in and out of costumes) were hired in London.

The set was raised and, as was done with The Muppet Show and The Dark Ctystal, portholes were cut into the floor, allowing operators access to their puppet characters. At the height of filming Jabba's "monster party," there were more than 200 people on the relatively small set, with about 25 percent of them on-camera. The scene, Tippett remembers, was bedlam.

''It was nothing but horror,'' he says. "They were moving so quickly we could hardly keep up, and George was there, cracking the whip. There was a schedule and it was met. Still, it was very hot and it was difficult to communicate with the people inside the costumes."

Despite the difficulties, the final result was planned to rival the classic Cantina sequence from Star Wars—with more articulation and more monsters. Most moviegoers agree it succeeds on both counts.

The time devoted to Nien Nubb and other prominent aliens was necessary to convey a sense of realism, Tippett explains, though achieving such telling detail was unimportant for the background characters. "In E.T., you have a character who's on screen for a large part of the picture," Tippett notes, "so you must put in the time and research to make it real. But when your character's only on screen for, say, three minutes, I don't feel a great deal of pressure to do overkill on it—spending $2 million on a creature who may be state-of-the-art, but who doesn't advance the story."

Manning the Monsters

A work pattern emerged which relieved Tippett and other high-level technicians from the London grind. People in supervisory capacities would work for the first three or four weeks of each FX sequence and then move off to another project while others completed the work. Ziff remained in London to finish the scenes with Nien Nubb (operated by Mike Quinn), while Tippett left the hot, crowded studio to prepare for the hot, uncrowded desert around Yuma, Arizona.

Shooting the scenes featuing Jabba and Admiral Ackbar took six weeks, and Tippett gladly returned home to California—only to get a frantic call from London. Ziff and Nien Nubb were returning to ILM. Nubb's part had been increased, so he would need to look more realistic. Working feverishly for a week, Tippett and Ziff gave Nubb blinking eyes, wiggling brows, and increased mouth movement. Then, Nubb was flown back to England for additional scenes co-starring with Lando Calrissian.

It was in Yuma that Tippett had to animate the Tatooine pit monster—a horrible, slimy creature resembling a sea anemone. For entertainment, the creepy Jabba throws captives into the monster's yawning maw—to be digested over a thousand years. Their fearsome fate wasn't much worse, Tippett maintains, than what the technicians endured.

"We were working the creature at the bottom of a gorge," Tippett recalls, "so we had no breeze and sand falling down on us. We were covered with this glue from the costume. I almost cracked on that one. I cried then, it was so terrible." Fortunately, Ziff arrived shortly thereafter, and Tippett returned to ILM to prepare the Ewok scenes, which was something of a vacation since the location was a shady forest. Tippett's only worry was breaking actors in and out of costumes.

The Ewok sequence also boasted some of Jedi's most challenging effects, according to Tippett. The scenes include an updated Empire weapon first glimpsed in The Empire Strikes Back: The Chicken Walker (officially termed the All-Terrain Scout Transports). A full-sized, stationary Walker was employed in the forest location, with the final on-screen version mostly a Go-Motion animated miniature. Tom St. Armand constructed the Walker's armature; Tippett set it up for the first and most difficult shot.

"Several Ewoks roll wooden logs downhill toward the Walker," Tippett explains. "The Walker does a cartoon-like skid, as if it's on a bunch of marbles, and topples over." The miniature Walker was shot with blue-screen, using Go-Motion to provide a realistic blur as the wild footwork commences.

Although some of the Walker action is matted over live footage, ILM visual effects director Denis Muren shot the log sequence in miniature, rolling small pieces of wood down a hill while shooting at a high film speed. When the logs reached a designated point on the set, they bounced back as if striking an object. Tippett plotted the logs' movements with a moviola, transferring their locations to the new Go-Motion computer, which was set to control the Walker's movements.

"The shot took close to four weeks to perfect," Tippett explains, "because it was the first and most difficult. Somehow, that's the way we end up working, shaking down the system by doing {he difficult stuff first. Once we trained ourselves on it, things went quite smoothly. We even topped ourselves with both the Chicken Walker arid Denis Muren's rocket-bike sequence."

Tippett's crew discovered some limitations in the blue effect when combining Go-Motion with blue screen, however. The dailies had plenty of blur, but the final matte introduced a hard edge on the miniature's outline, reducing the realistic blurring effects in fast scenes. In the future, Tippett says, front projection may be combined with Go-Motion for shots requiring extensive blur.

Photo: Jabba the Hutt, a fabulous Muppet-like creation, rules Tatoolne's seedy and sinister underworld. Here he gets a final touch-up.

One of Jedi's greatest technical challenges was getting the Rancor to walk, Tippett recalls. The creature, which looks like "a cross between a gorilla and a potato," as Tippett terms it, confronts Luke Skywalker in an underground maze below Jabba's inner chamber.

the claustrophobic set didn't allow too many wide-angle shots of the creature's somewhat un-horrific waddle or his hideous feet.

But the Rancor was not always a puppet. At first, it was planned to shoot the scene with a full-size monster. "We did two complete video versions of the Rancor sequence," explains Denis Muren. "The second one we shot with the nearly completed suit. But George thought that it really wasn't getting anywhere. So what we ended up doing was comparatively very easy. Working with rod puppets, it only took a few weeks from beginning to end."

With the rigors of Jedi past him, does Tippett get the opportunity to put up his feet? After all, it's been years since Star Wars, and Tippett went from Empire to Dragonslayer to Jedi. Can he relax? "No," Tippett responds. "I can't just wind down after coming off a picture like Jedi. I have a 16mm project to do, so there won't be any 'cold turkey' to deal with—at least for me."

Sketching the Spacecraft

The credits for Jedi scroll past the viewer, a seemingly never-ending list of titles and names—some familiar and some not so familiar—but united towards a common goal and all sharing an intense love of film making and for the Lucasfilm product in particular.

Searching through the long credit list of Return of the Jedi, Joe Johnston is listed as "Art Director—Visual Effects."

"I'm given that title," Johnston explains, "because they really don't know what to call me." Indeed, what do you say about a man whose job includes storyboarding, designing spacecraft and using dolls to create a live-action preview of a rocket-bike chase?

Johnston has also been with Industrial Light and Magic since Star Wars. He works alongside George Lucas, Howard Kazanjian, Ralph McQuarrie and others who create effects never before seen in motion pictures.

photo: Jabba menaces a desperate Princess Leia. The sequence was shot live, an unseen crew manipulating Jabba. Opposite: Jabba confers with his majordomo, Bib Fortuna.

photo: Luke manages to wedge a bone in the mouth of the deadly Rancor. Opposite: Phil Tippett paints the puppet used in filming.

Originally from Texas, Johnston's family moved to Los Angeles in the mid-60s. Intensely interested in industrial design, Johnston attended art school at California State University at Long Beach (where Steven Spielberg had produced his student films several years before). The Star Wars project had been greenlighted, so former Cal State Long Beach students John Dykstra and Bob Shepherd contacted the school in search of candidates to do model work and design concepts. Johnston and two other students brought their portfolios in to Dykstra—and all three were hired.

"It was the last time I used the portfolio," said Johnston, who never graduated after failing to pass a critical course in engineering physics. He did go on to design one of the cinema's most famous spaceships: the
Millennium Falcon.

As most Star Wars fans know, Princess Leia's Blockade Runner was originally destined to be Han Solo's ship. At the time, the Space: 1999 TV series was airing. Several ILM technicians felt that the original Millennium Falcon was a bit too similar in shape to the 1999 Eagles—so, a last minute concept change was required.

"It was the quickest ship we've ever done," says Johnston. "The Falcon was designed in one day. We took some components from the Blockade Runner, like the cockpit, and stuck it on the side of a big dish with some mandibles out in front." Johnston also refined Colin Cantwell's original concepts for the X-Wing, Y-Wing, and TIE Fighters.

For Return of the Jedi, two additional fighters have been added to aid the rebellion: The A-Wing (named for its visual impression when seen from overhead) and the B-Wing, one of the few ships since Flash Gordon which requires piloting from a standing position.

photo: Sy Snootles, lead singer in Jabba's palace band, was filmed as a hand puppet for close-ups. Note floor holes for operators.

The A-Wings are one-man fighters, faster and more maneuverable than the X-Wings. The crafts are reminiscent of the snow-speeders used by the Rebellion on the ice planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back; however, these cruisers are very much at home in space. The B-Wings are slower, but very powerful weapons, unusual in design. The B-Wings presented problems in special-effects photography: shooting them from the side resulted in a "blur." That's why they are only seen moving towards or away from the Jedi camera.

With the sheer number of spacecraft on view in high-and low-budget films since Star Wars, isn't it difficult to come up with a new design?

photo: Alien keyboardist Max Rebo is part of Jabba's musical trio. Opposite page: Droids and Ewoks.

"It's impossible," Johnston answers, noting that the difficulties are simplified by sifting through the 50 to 75 sketches created by ILM artists until something really eye-catching is found. Another help is the "look" already achieved in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back: the "used future" appearance of the Rebellion ships, contrasted with the diamond-pointed and sleek Empire craft.

Another new ship debuting in Jedi is the Imperial Shuttle, a bird-like vehicle with wings which retract in a fashion similar to World War II-vintage Navy dive bombers. A full-sized version was built for hangar scenes, with a blue-screen miniature used for others.

Johnston also designed the flying skiff used by the main characters to escape Jabba's barge (designed by Ralph McQuarrie, seen in STARLOG #73). "The main thing in designing all this hardware is that it looks good," Johnston says. The ILM artists have technical provisions that they must justify, but then again, what kind of power does a ship like the
Millennium Falcon use: chemical rockets, magnetic attraction, or atomic particles? Not even Johnston really knows. Again, the effect of a flying lifeboat is more important than how it flies.

Photo: Two of the ancillary alien thugs designed for Jedi, Yak Face and Ree-Yees, aboard Jabba's desert Sail Barge.

The new Death Star plays a prominent part in Return of the Jedi. Still under construction, the Death Star's uncompleted framework is visible on its camera-right side. Johnston and the Jedi team encountered an unexpected problem in filming this new creation— photography, using lighting from above and right, was done first on the many ships seen approaching and leaving the Death Star. When the Death Star itself was filmed, using the same angle of lighting, the construction details fell into the shaded area and were totally lost. The resulting optical composite looked like the original, finished Death Star from Star Wars.

The solution was simple. "We lit the new Death Star from the construction side and flopped the film," Johnson says. Of course, this meant that all shots of the Death Star had to be reversed, as well as the traveling mattes and separate exposures for interior lighting.

Johnston isn't exactly chained to his drawing board. For him, the most challenging part of his work on Jedi was collaborating with Denis Muren on storyboarding and visually previewing the thrilling rocket-bike chase.

It began with a situation similar to the one faced by ILM's designers on The Empire Strikes Back. Producer George Lucas had no script for the Imperial Walker sequence; he simply told Johnston and his colleagues to create a battle.

"There was no script for this chase scene either," Johnson explains. "George said, 'Here's what leads up to the bike chase. Afterwards, they go and do this... '"

The sequence, which accounts for about two-and-a-half frenetic minutes on screen, was first storyboarded in the traditional manner. Then, a videotape presentation was accomplished using toy action figures of Luke and Leia mounted on crude rocket-bike prototypes. The models, suspended on wires over a miniature forest set, were shot from different angles, whizzing around, and then the tape was edited together.

Effects supervisor Muren explains that the bike chase sequence was a very heavily designed sequence, but designed in a new way. "As we storyboarded the sequence on videotape, we were able to come up with new shots as we worked our way through it. The sequence was designed from the aspect of continuous motion rather than with still storyboards.

"Everything seemed to come together for the bike chase," exults Muren. "There were some tough things. For example, we had to create a way to do the front and rear point-of-view shots without showing a pathway or a track on the forest floor. In the end, we used the Steadicam and operator/inventor Garrett Brown to shoot the background plates, in the forest near Crescent City, California. We had to put gyroscopes on the Steadicam and prepare the pathway in advance for him to walk on, but there was still a little bit of shake in the plates which had to be plotted out before the bikes could be shot in Go-Motion."

Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, pursued by stormtroopers, were filmed atop full-sized rocket-bikes in front of a blue screen at ILM's studio. For several shots, hand puppets on miniature bikes were photographed against the blue screen, while off-camera operators controlled the puppet's head movements
with black rods. Later, ILM artists roto-scoped the rods out of the final optical composite.

"The bike chase is the one sequence which stood out as very cohesive, moving..." Johnston comments. Adding to the excitement are a number of "razzle-dazzle" shots that involve pans and tilts tracking with the moving bikes.

Johnston's contributions to the sequence offer confirmation of his increased involvement beyond the traditional title of art director. "I'm not really an art director in the 'Hollywood' sense," he insists. "It's good, because ILM is as far from Hollywood as we want to be."

This attitude is shared by many of the workers at ILM: it's undoubtedly due to George Lucas' influence. "Someone called me an 'aesthetic influence' on things that go through ILM," Johnston says."It includes things which most art directors do, and some designing and storyboarding and shot breakdowns, which is more varied than a Hollywood art director would be doing."

Suppose Johnston wasn't working wonders in film... what would he be doing? "Since I'm not really a science-fiction fan, I would be doing industrial design," he explains. "I like the images...and good design."

And Joe Johnston's next project at ILM? "Indy II," he answers. "No spacecraft, thank god! I hope I never see another star field after eight years of this work!"

MIKE CLARK, LA-based freelancer, visited the E. T. Earth Center in STARLOG #69. DAVID HUTCHISON is STARLOG's Science & SFX Editor and Editor of CINEMAGIC.

[Source: Starlog #74, September 1983 P34-41, 64]

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