Star Wars Episode VII: CGI versus “practical” effects


There has been an interpretive jump regarding Kathleen Kennedy’s words at Star Wars Celebration Europe II. She said:


 
“The conversation we’re having all the time now about ‘Episode VII’ is how much CGI.  We’re looking at what the early Star Wars films did; they used real locations with special effects. So [for 'Episode VII'] we’re going to find some very cool locations, we’re going to end up using every single tool in the toolbox.”

 

Kennedy’s words has been interpreted as if they are going back to a golden age where they actually built life-sized AT-ATs. I’m not going to single anyone out, but all hyperbole aside, that is not far from their interpretation. I believe those people are setting themselves up for disappointment when Star Wars Episode VII hits in 2015 and it looks like a movie of its day, as it should. Why is it Star Wars cannot be held to the same standards as its blockbuster peers (The Avengers, Man of Steel, Avatar and the likes)? The Kathleen Kennedy quote above is not unlike the talk from productions of Episodes I-III.


I maintain that CGI is not bad, it is simply a creative tool. CGI was never bad in Episodes I-III, even if you disagreed with George Lucas’ choices. The varying quality of shots was something plaguing all six Star Wars films we have had so far. The fact of the matter is that a shot designed to be seen for half a second on film is seen so many times, the shot is experienced for more than the intended time frame. A thirty-second shot is experienced for ten minutes with enough viewings and Star Wars is one of those sagas where that happens and split seconds. But for some reason, there is a discourse that matte paintings from IV-VI are stronger than photo realistic digital mattes made in the early 2000s and this is just really far from the truth.


The promotional discourse for Episodes I-III loved to champion the digital revolution and the work ILM were completing at the time. The focus on such ideas as digital sets, digital creatures, and led to the idea that everything in Episode I-III was artificial, digital, and somehow inferior to the past Star Wars films where “artisans’ made movies for the passion of filmmaker. I in no way wish to belittle the work of the model makers and painters on Episode IV-VI, but simply to make sure the artistry of Episodes I-III is given its due. The fact of the matter is that Episode I-III was more of an amalgamation of model work and CGI than commonly believed or talked about online.


The work on the above Trade Federation Tank is just as valid as the work these gentlemen completed:


Truthfully put, there were models made for every Star Wars film as complex as the Star Destroyers in The Empire Strikes Back:


The same thing can be said for the built environment and blue screen work:



Star Wars is not real. It never has been. One technique is not better than another, the best technique is the one that suits the production. Cloud City is as real as Kamino. The work done for Empire is beautiful but it was no more photo realistic than the work done anywhere else in the saga. I do not see how this is convincing and somehow superior. The technique shown below is the same one they use in digital work>


The exteriors of Kamino are actually less of a “cheat” than the exteriors of Bespin’s Cloud City:


 

Probably the most crucial set in what is considered to be the best of the Episodes:


The set above is not altogether more “real” or practical than:


A composite shot is a composite shot and the degree of success does vary:


Once again, I love Star Wars. Some writers and critics were too concerned with visuals and were not paying attention to the beautiful, deep, dark, and complex story in Star Wars Episodes I-III. The anti-CGI rhetoric is just baseless. It is not that far off from hipsters thinking 8-Track is better than any other audio media.

These environments never existed. They are as tangible as from one Star Wars film to the next:


Kathleen Kennedy’s quote at the start of this article is essentially telling the audience they are going to do what they need to do to complete the shots and get them in on time and on budget. Star Wars was never that “practical” of a thing.


I’m not attempting to say there were no differences between Episodes I-III and Episodes IV-VI in terms of methods. There were differences because Episode I-III had more tools in the tool box. It is absurd to think Star Wars Episode VII should have less CGI than any of the Star Wars films it is following. The movies all reflect the state of the art from the time in which the work was completed.

Digital composites allow us to not have giant black matte lines. There is no reason to think they are superior, better, or preferred.


It is my guess Star Wars Episode VII will likely have models made at the same frequency as the last three films in production and they will be placed into the frame digitally in the same way. I think the major difference will come via the digital creatures in the main character sphere. Jar Jar Binks and Gollum. I predict they will likely shy away from having to animate a major character. When you really look at the history of blockbuster filmmaking in the last fifteen years, Jar Jar and Gollum are still the go-to characters for digital actors and maybe Avatar. Beyond that, major characters have been humans in CGI environments with some CGI augmentation (such as Superman’s cape). But then again, Peter Mayhew is getting older and walks with a cane now, so maybe we’ll see a CGI Chewbacca? After all they did spend a lot of time motion capturing and studying him for Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

I look forward to Star Wars Episode VII. I look forward to see the visual effects from Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith but done ten years later. It should be stunningly cool to see. We live in a time when storytellers can tell any story and it generally amazes me there are people who cross their arms and want to go back to a time that never really existed. The thesis that limitations lead to genius is just flat-out illogical. If we gave The Beatles crappier guitars or we gave your new favorite band vintage equipment, would they make better music? No. They would make music with the tools at their disposal. The anti-CGI discourse needs to end.

 

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