How Star Wars’ StageCraft Technology Is Poised To Shake Up Next-Gen Movie-Making
Star Wars has influenced the movie industry in many ways. A long, long time ago it set the template for the blockbuster movie, but it’s arguably with its technology behind the scenes that has had an even longer reach in terms of impact. It was all started in May 1975 by George Lucas when he established his visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), to handle the visual effects for his new space movie.
ILM’s milestones have included the introduction of a motion control computer for A New Hope (1977), which completely revolutionized how miniatures could be filmed with a moving camera, which was critical in making the space battles appear realistic. We also got a revolution in the use of computer graphics in movies, with the Star Trek franchise ironically the first beneficiary of this tech with the Genesis device sequence in The Wrath of Khan (1982), (CGI that still stands up to this day). Next was the very first all-CGI character in the Young Sherlock Holmes TV series (1985) while other notable firsts were the animated water in The Abyss (9189), the liquid metal killing machine in Terminator 2 (1991) and the first glimpse of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993).
The innovations continued over the years, such as numerous fully 3D rendered X-Wings attacking the Death Star in A New Hope: Special Edition (1997) and to bring us bang up to date you should check out Ewan McGregor talking to Pedro Pascal for Variety discussing their experiences making the new Star Wars TV shows; the former in the upcoming Obi-Wan and the latter in the much-acclaimed The Mandalorian.
As has been widely discussed, The Mandalorian introduced ILM’s latest incredible leap forward in the guise of “The Volume” – a virtual set where the locations are created in photoreal detail (using the Unreal game engine and professional 3D modelling tools such as Houdini, 3DStudioMax and Maya), and then displayed on huge wraparound video walls and ceilings, against which the actors and props are filmed.
As they are created in full 3D the images are not just a static background; the camera moves the background moves in sympatico, creating a true virtual environment the actors can move around in. Not only that, but the light that comes off the screen appears in-camera, giving everything an extra sheen of realism. I’ve seen similar technology in person using a Sony video wall at CES 2019 and it is very impressive.
MORE FOR YOU
As the IMAX slogan goes, “don’t just watch a movie, be part of one,” – which for the actors is now more real than ever. This is what so delights Ewan McGregor, who has for years bemoaned how difficult it was to act almost the entire Star Wars prequels against blue or green screens. With Stagecraft, there’s no need for the actor to visualise the fantastic worlds they are meant to be in – they, and everyone on the set, can see them. Everyone also knows what they are supposed to be looking at, so it helps to make the performances more real.
What was fascinating to me was how McGregor compared this new technology as coming full circle to the old Hollywood technique of the actors jumping between sets which would change to create the illusion of new locales. “We’re doing sort of the same thing except it’s just the background changes instead of the stage,” he says to Pascal.
The Volume is also a perfect solution for post-pandemic filmmaking, as McGregor points out, as it gives the illusion of being on location, without having to travel. “You don’t have to fly ever!” he enthuses. “I mean traveling has been great for the first 30 years of my career but now I just want to stay at home, you know. I just want to drive to work and drive home from work. I want a proper job!”
In the video, Rob Bredow, SVP, Chief Creative Officer at ILM, says the Stagecraft technology means that visual effects are becoming possible in real-time. The mastermind behind it all, Jon Favreau, executive producer of The Mandalorian, says, “It has also forced us into having a more efficient workflow. That draws pre-production, post-production and production into one continuous pipeline.” He waxes lyrical about certain shots having live-action, miniatures, and stop motion all layered on top of each other and all captured in-camera all at once
What’s remarkable is that it’s early days for the technology and is only going to get better – and inevitably more affordable so that more productions can access it. “It’s less about what Stagecraft can do now, but more about what it can do moving forward,” Favreau says, sounding very much like a new George Lucas. “You can’t rest on your laurels; you have to find new ways to innovate.”
It’s all very exciting, and we can only look forward to what other strange new worlds the technology will enable TV and movies to bring us.