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The Phantom Menace at 20: How the Star Wars prequel revolutionized movie tech

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May 19, 2019

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first episode of the Skywalker saga, Star Wars: Episode I —The Phantom Menace, SYFY WIRE has put together a series of retrospectives and oral histories that detail different aspects of the top-secret, often groundbreaking production of the movie. In this installment, we look at the technological advances of the film.

It’s often said that George Lucas saw the technology being used in Jurassic Park and realized that Episode I might begin to be possible, but in talking to the crew of The Phantom Menace, it’s apparent those seeds were planted even earlier than that.

We start with the director of photography on The Phantom Menace, David Tattersall.

David Tattersall: I got to know George Lucas very well, on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. It was during that time that he started to get really excited about the digital thing, and that's where the buzz really started. Young Indy was at the very beginning, and it was just little experiments here and there, replicating digital backgrounds and that sort of thing.

Young Indy was really the test bed and shot on 16mm film. George started to realize you could expand a location and do pretty much anything.

David Tattersall: After that, Radioland Murders was designed as an experiment to see if those learned lessons could be applied to 35mm film and the big screen. George pulled out one of his old scripts, and that was what he chose. As a result of that success, that's when he decided to [go forward] with The Phantom Menace.

Tattersall: George was thinking about the advantages of a digital pipeline all the time. Digital sound. Digital editing. The first time I visited Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), there were just several rooms with graphic designers working on easels and drawing boards, and the very next time, six months later, that had all changed. They’d taken all those easels and all the artwork out of the room and replaced them with Apple computers. That was the year ILM changed over, getting into computerization and digitization. That was ’91. George talked about it all the time. He could see the potential way before everyone else.

There were two or three shots in The Phantom Menace shot with a high-def camera. It was just sort of a fun thing that George wanted to do. Before we started Phantom Menace he asked me to do some tests. [Producer] Rick McCallum organized it. We shot something with the high-definition cameras and just compared them with something shot with film cameras, exactly the same thing without tweaking anything. We shot it at Culver City Studios, and everybody was there from Panavision and Sony to monitor this test.

We went through the whole works through to a release print, and the results were shown to George at the Ranch and we were all there. [The digital camera] clearly wasn’t good enough, because, at the time, HD was 30fps [frames per second], so to sort of make it work, to be projected on a film projector, the video had to be fast, and the artifacts were just not attractive.

Note: John Knoll’s quotes were taken from the Phantom Menace panel at Star Wars Celebration Chicago.

John Knoll [visual effects supervisor]: My first real exposure to what we were gonna deal with [on The Phantom Menace] was the 3,500 storyboards. Almost every one of which contains something that our pipeline at the time was not capable of doing. So I was taking notes. Every couple of boards I was like, “We need a way of doing that.” The list was pretty overwhelming. I walked out of that meeting with my head spinning.

Tattersall: George told Sony, “This doesn’t work. There’s nothing you can do about it?” They went into a huddle and some guy came forward and said, “Yes, we think we know what we can do.” And that was the birth of 24p, progressive scan. They went away with Panavision and [came back with] the HDW-F900, but it took about nine months to get it ready and it wasn’t ready for The Phantom Menace. Of course now, every cell phone in the world, every other camera, everything shoots 24P, but it came from those tests.

Rob Coleman [animation director]: That was truly like looking up at Mount Everest and I couldn't see the top of it. There was so much work, and to give you a comparison, the previous show I'd supervised was Men in Black and we had 200 visual effect shots in that film. They were projecting at the early stages of The Phantom Menace that there would be 2000. It was a magnitude beyond my ability to even process.

In those early days there was a sentence in the script that we couldn't even do for six months. That sentence was "The Gungan Army marches out to battle." That was over six months of work. We had no crowd system, we had no ability to put that many characters on the screen at a time, and week after week after week went by with us, as the creative management of the team, talking to the technical geniuses on the team about when we were gonna get that tool and when could we do that, as there was no possible way we could hand-place all those characters.

As the months went on we would have a Wednesday lunch meeting, the visual effects supervisors, the producer, and myself, and the number one item on the agenda every day was "Can we get the movie done?" And for many, many months the answer was "No. We don't have the technology. We don't have the talent. We don't have the manpower.”

Knoll: That was scariest part of the show, but it was also the most exciting. The best shows to work on are the ones where you have no idea how you're gonna do it when you go into it.

Coleman: For example, there was no discussion about doing a digital Yoda in The Phantom Menace as the film was starting. George felt that the character was too precious. And so did I, quite frankly, I would have freaked out if I had been asked to do Yoda for Phantom Menace.

That would come later, after they proved they could animate other characters.

My first step into tackling [the animation] was that I really felt strongly that I needed to get some wins on the board, and in reading the script and looking at the designs, I immediately had an affection for Watto. I knew how we were gonna handle Watto. I could just see him in my head, I could act him out myself — Andy Secombe did a brilliant job with the voice — but I could imagine how he would move and how he would fly and things like that. So I set the task for the team that we would start with that.

You never wanna start with the first characters in the film, ever. So it was a great scene, it was Watto out in the junkyard with Qui-Gon. Those are the very first shots we did, and I think in doing those shots we demonstrated to George that we could act, that we could be inspired by someone like Andy Secombe doing the voice, that we could bring our own acting to it.

Coleman: Eventually, they finally got me a crowd system [for the final battle], so we animated all the walks, and runs, and actions independently, and then those were then attached to gnolls or sprites — I don't know what we called them back then — so we could do the big marching out. We created little tiny vignettes of three, four, or five characters fighting so we could then place them into the battlefield, spin them around, and then we could make them look more unique than what you guys could see when you were watching the movie. There's a finite amount of action there.

For that, we studied films like Braveheart. If you really look at, say, Spartacus or Braveheart or any of those big battle sequence movies, and you're honest with yourself, when they're lining up for battle there's very little movement. There’s a spear moving here or there, a horse's head moving up and down, but basically everyone is still ... And so one of our approaches was to be honest about how much motion did we really need to put in there, rather than moving every single character, which was our initial impulse. It would have been too busy. Because we were being smart about what needed to be animated we were able to get more footage done per week, per month.

The digital pipeline also created new challenges in the world of live action that had to be solved for the film, as David Tattersall explains:

Tattersall: On The Phantom Menace, we never shot motion control, so there was a whole match moving team and they were constantly recording topographical and spatial data. And then Arriflex designed a whole system of recorders on the wheels of the dolly and on the heads [of the tripod] that recorded the camera movement. This was all designed for the show. [Note: This was all data they needed to replicate shots later in the computer.]

Knoll: [Phantom Menace was also] the biggest [physical] model production that we ever did at ILM and maybe on any film ever. We built a lot of models that we shot directly that are what you see in the movie. All of Theed city is miniatures, the pod race stadium is all miniatures. The hangar, the extensions inside the Neimoidian ship, the hallways and the bridge. There are miniatures all over the place in that film.

Coleman: I had serious insomnia in the early production of that film, to the point where I wasn't sure I was going to be able to finish the film because I was so freaked out. I kept thinking about the millions of fans out there who had been waiting for this film, and I wasn't sure that I was worthy of the task. So I remember driving up to Skywalker Ranch and asking to see George, and I sat down and I told him about my condition and where I was. I said, "You know, I'm worried about all these people," and he says, "What are you talking about?"

I said, "All these people, they've been waiting ..."

And he went, "You need to make one person happy. Just one person. And that person is me."

And I went, "Right ... Right ... "

And he went, "And I'm happy. I think you guys are doing a great job. So you need to stop worrying about the world and you need to continue working with me and making me happy."

I drove back down and I slept like a baby that night, because he just reset me. I'd lost the plot there.

Tattersall: It was great to work with John Knoll, such a clever guy. He contributed a lot during the shooting days. Often, the visual effects supervisor is more of an observer and really come into their own in post-production, but John, I remember a story about John.

We were all sitting at breakfast and John noticed that the sequence we were shooting was scheduled to be a day scene and the previous one had been a night scene or something like that. But we hadn’t got anything to join the two. John came up and said, “Look, all we’ve got to have is a shot of the queen’s spaceship traveling from one side of the planet to the other, from the dark side to the light side, to go from night to day. So there you go.”

It was a small continuity slipup, and John came up with a solution. During that day, he sat on the side of the set, and he already had a model, a 3D model of the spaceship in his computer. He created a world, he created a three-dimensional ball in Photoshop — the software that he wrote! — and built a planet. He animated it so it was spinning, and he put little blobs of light to show the cities that were lit on the dark side, and he put a starfield in the background. And then he animated this beautiful arc shape of the ship flying from one side to the other as the planet spun around. It’s a fantastic shot. He created that shot in one day, on the set. And it’s in the movie, that shot.

Coleman: At the end of the [first] screening, we’re all sort of ushered out, and George and Steven Spielberg were standing there talking about it, and I wanted to hear ... So I'm standing in the back of the aisle and George sees me and waves me down. So I walked into the aisle in front of them and he introduced me for the first time to Steven Spielberg and said, "Steven, this is Rob, he's the animation director on the film." And Steven sort of bows and says, "The work is absolutely amazing, it's astonishing."

And then George put his arm around me and said, "Ah, yeah, Steven, you can't talk to Rob anymore," and we walked out together, and that was the point where I'd reached the top of Everest. I got to a point where George's closest friend had told George that he thought the movie was amazing, that the work that we'd done was amazing, and that was the end of that journey for me. That was a moment I never thought I would ever experience.

George then, of course, asked me back for Attack of the Clones, and then we continued to work together, through to setting up the Clone Wars TV series.

I loved working with him, I truly did.


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