- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Force may guide the “Star Wars” universe, but the use of computer technology has made it much easier to visualize it before director George Lucas ever yells “action.”

The creation of his unrivaled array of creatures, characters and environments over the last 28 years has forced the maker of R2-D2 and C-3PO to be ever-resourceful in finding new ways to stay organized and convey his ideas to production staff.

For the latest ode to the Skywalker clan, “Episode III, Revenge of the Sith,” the digital previsualization of shots became crucial to his approach. The “previz,” as it’s known in the trade, required a dozen artists behind desktop computers to transform the traditional storyboard into a real-time, immersive experience for the director.

“George can look at a sequence on our computer and fuss and play with it as much as he wants to without ever having to worry about ending up with a million dollar shot that has to go through expensive revisions” or might even wind up on the cutting room floor, explains Dan Gregoire, previsualization supervisor for “Episode III.”

“Not only are we getting into the rough blocking, camera work and composition of the shots before anything is filmed, but we are getting into the touchy-feely parts that [Lucas] does not like to leave to chance,” he says.

Through the years, directors mapping out complicated action film sequences have simply used hand-drawn pictures pasted on walls to convey their thoughts to special effects teams.

In the case of the “Star Wars” films, it began to get more involved, as Mr. Lucas cut together World War II footage of fighter plane dogfights as a visual storyboard for the attack on the Death Star in the original 1977 film, “Episode IV, A New Hope.”

That idea soon evolved into using miniature mock-ups of Snow Speeders and hand-drawn cartoons for the AT-AT Walker assault (All Terrain Armored Transport Walker) on the planet Hoth in “Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back.”

In 1994, Mr. Lucas adopted a new approach for the second trilogy’s “Episode 1, The Phantom Menace,” hiring digital effects artist David Dozoretz, who worked with a pair of artists to help shape the previsualization revolution.

Using standard, off-the-shelf software and hardware, they generated three-dimensional Quicktime film shots, known as “animatics,” that could be used as virtual blueprints for both shooting crews on location and special effects studios to work from.

The digital previz process had already been experimented with in the early 1990s in such films as “Clear and Present Danger,” but never before to such an extent.

On “Episode III, Revenge of the Sith,” previz was further improved with much assistance from the speedy AMD 64-bit Opteron processor chip that gave Mr. Lucas almost immediate, virtual creativity at his fingertips.

“‘On Episode II,’ George just used to meet the previz crew during editorial meetings and convey his wishes, desires and complaints, and we would go back to our hole and do the best we could,” Mr. Gregoire says.

For “Sith,” Mr. Gregoire set up AMD 64 processor-based desktop stations with 4 gigabytes of RAM and FX 3000 video cards running Microsoft Windows XP Pro, Alias’ Maya and Adobe After Effects software to create a powerful new working environment.

“We could now fully build out all of the shots, texture everything, light everything, add particle systems and surface dynamics simulations to produce sequences above video game quality and just below final visual effects quality,” he says.

Mr. Lucas became a more frequent visitor to their department.

“He would come up every day during lunch,” Mr. Gregoire recounts, “sit down behind an artist and direct the scene with one of my computer designers driving the engine, just as he would if he was on location in Australia.”

Using this method, the previz team could pound out between 15 and 20 shots per sitting, which allowed Mr. Lucas to preshoot to his heart’s content. The result was 6,500 original shots, of which 2,200 were eventually fully realized by Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the special effects company used for all of the Star Wars movies.

One of the sequences Mr. Gregoire is most proud of occurs in the first minute of “Sith” as a space battle rages over the planet Coruscant.

“We went through 23 revisions in the previz department, and we were able to do that for a fraction of the cost of having to first go to ILM,” he says. He adds that senior animatics artist Euisung Lee’s work on the sequence was almost completely duplicated, one to one, by ILM, including all of the animation.

Mr. Lucas has said that the digital previz team easily trimmed $10 million off the film’s budget.

Still — we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, Mr. Gregoire promises.

“Five years from now previz work will be all real time with game engine flexibility while, in ten years, everything done will be in photo real time with kids building movies on their PCs,” he says.

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