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On MakingStarWars.net’s Now, This is Podcasting! we have discussed the ramifications of CGI on Star Wars as a whole. Often times, people assume CGI was an idea that came into the Star Wars world much later in Lucasfilm and ILM’s existence, which was kind of true, but they were aware of such ideas very early on. CGI work was being conducted as early as during Star Wars: Episode V The Empire Strikes Back. Shown here is a 1978 test reel of footage of a few X-wings flying, shooting, and proving what was to come.
In 1978 pioneer CGI programmers John Whitney Jr (The Last Starfighter) and Gary Demos (The Last Starfighter) programmed a CGI X-wing fighter test to show George Lucas and Lucasfilm the potential power of computer graphic images in film. Nearly twenty years later, the work Whitney and Demos proved could be achieved would come to fruition upon Star Wars’ 1997 re-release. This 1978 proof of concept which was completed for The Empire Strikes Back had ILM employees at the time predicting they were all on the verge of termination. Of course, that wouldn’t be an issue for years to come as the cost of the work was staggering and not possible on a film budget, even the film budget of Star Wars.
It is neat to think of the 1997 releases of the Star Wars films, Episodes I-III, and The Clone Wars and see how this one test was the start of something gargantuan. While Jurassic Park was the trigger that let Lucas know the time had come, the digital revolution had began, in many ways, this was the first shot fired in that revolution that would change movie making forever.
Supposedly, Demos and Whitney never heard back from ILM about their CGI tests. Rumor has it that Gary Kurtz laughed at the idea because of the budget it would require, around a billion dollars.