Star Wars Weekends 2005, Week 2

Star Wars Weekends excitement this weekend as we had both Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) and Animation Director Rob Coleman from ILM. Rob and Peter told some great stories about making Episode III during the interview sessions.

Peter talked about the scene where Chewie scoops up Yoda. Seems that was a last minute addition by George Lucas. They were on a blue screen set filming the scene and Yoda was actually a bag of corn meal. They did a few takes where Chewie and Tarfful run by the bag, and on one of the last ones, Peter said George told him to pick up Yoda. He scooped up the bag, much to the chagrin of Rob, who was standing behind the stage watching. Rob said, “I was sitting there calculating how many frames we’d need to animate the character, hoping Peter had moved through the scene slow enough and was just horrified by the idea of having to have this digital character interact with this real character with all this real FUR!”

“I looked over at George, ready to tell him how hard this was going to be, and he just looked at me and said, ‘You’ll figure out how to do it later.'” Rob had a good laugh about the whole thing, and from my point of view it’s such a great scene and will certainly become one of the iconic moments of Star Wars to me.

Rob also talked about how he got to direct the live-action Wookiees in Ep3. He directed the group shot of the Wookiees and the shot where the two Wookiees attack the Separatist amphibious vehicle. “George just came up to me one day and said, ‘I think you’re ready to direct some live action now.'”

“I had never really thought about it, and I was so busy with the animation I just kind of said, oh, okay, and never really thought about it again until I was on the plane to Sydney and it hit me, I’m directing a scene in a Star Wars movie! I just started having this terrific fanboy moment.”

That’s one of my favorite things about the Lucasfilm people I’ve met — they’re all fans. Rob even made a comment about how he worked hard on all this stuff because he loved Star Wars so much. It’s nice to know that the people working on Star Wars are truly fans of the films.

Rob also talked about how they tried to get the animators away from their desks and “acting” for this movie. He showed some great footage of some reference he shot of himself hanging from a ledge at ILM. The footage was used to create the facial expressions for Yoda as he hangs from the Senate pod in the movie. Rob said he was very focused on making this last movie some of the best animation they’d done. Yoda had a complete makeover, with new skin, hair, and clothes. They added some translucency to the tips of his ears, which is very apparent in the film and very kewl looking. But most of all they studied things like the performances of digital characters like Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies and tried to bring real acting to the characters. I think it’s plain to see that they have succeeded in making some of the best character animation to date in a film.

More next week, from Star Wars Weekends!

Revenge of the Star Wars Weekends!

It’s once again time for “Star Wars Weekends” at the Walt Disney World® Resort. This year is bigger than ever! On the minus side, I waited in a four hour line to get anywhere near the merchandise this year. On the plus side, there were lots of nice fans to talk to and the whole process was a lot more efficient than the debacle of the Star Wars Celebration store.

I’m excited about the guests this year, since we get not only an actor a week, but also an ILM artist who can talk about how the films are made. I always find the behind the scenes stuff fascinating, and having the artists there makes it a little like having an interactive DVD, where you can ask them questions about the process.

This weekend, the guests are Daniel Logan (Young Boba Fett in Episode II) and John Goodson, a model-maker and viewpaint artist from ILM who has worked on all three films. John told a great story about how he’d always wondered how the Millennium Falcon’s docking arms worked (the forks at the front) . He was reviewing the model of the Trade Federation Battleship with George Lucas and talking about how the split design was there so they could load cargo like the Millennium Falcon. John asked George how that worked, and George explained it, to John’s delight. “All I could think was, here’s George Lucas and he’s explaining to me how the Millennium Falcon works!” Funny how all the ILM folks always seem to be just as fanboyish as the rest of us. =)

Daniel wowed all the local girls with his Teen Beat good looks. He’s a pretty down to earth kid, though and has a great rapport with the fans. When one of the younger fans asked him how he became so popular, he said, “I don’t know, I just was myself you know. That’s all I can really be is myself, and if you like me, that’s great. Of course, I’m not really popular. I hardly have any friends,” he quipped. Lisa, the host, got the girls in the audience to cheer to volunteer to be Daniel’s friends!

The Disney-MGM Studios look great this year. Exciting looking banners representing the Alliance and the Empire fly proudly throughout the park, identifying the areas factioned for either side. The Star Tours attraction area is the Alliance base, where the good-guy characters hang out, and Mickey Avenue is the dark side, where the Imperial characters and bounty hunters tighten their grips on the guests.

There’s a great new Anakin Ep3 character! The young Jedi hero greets guests on the Alliance side, but he is getting awfully close to the dark side….

I got to meet Matt Stover today, the author of the EXCELLENT Ep3 novelization, who was signing books at the park. Matt is really a great guy, a true fan, and a fun author to meet. He made a special effort to personalize my book and I had a great time talking to him.

As always, pics in the gallery, and I will be covering the action for the next four weeks.

Letterman Digital Arts Center / Episode III Release Party

The Presidio in San Francisco is an old, abandoned military complex, originally created to defend the West Coast of the United States from attack. Now mostly made up of abandoned brick buildings, it has become the home of the Lucasfilm empire. Lucasfilm has been working for a few years now to create a new, state of the art campus on the site. The campus will house Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), LucasArts, and Lucasfilm. While much of the direct movie-making divisions will stay at Skywalker and Big Rock Ranches, a large part of the new digital division will move to the new site. This is probably about as historic a place as is the old Disney Studios . So it was a real honor to be able to step onto the campus for the Episode III after-party.

We entered the complex through a huge underground parking garage. There were dark suited, men-in-black security guards checking badges and faces at the entrance. “Keep those badges in sight,” they advised us, in that gruff, sort of good-fella tone. “The Boss is here today, and he wants everyone wearing one of those.” I started to wonder if I might not be going to a party hosted by Jabba the Hutt!

The parking garage reminded me of the Mines of Moria from Lord of the Rings. My first thought was how easy it would be for someone who spent a totally focused day at work to take an elevator down to the complex and be at a loss for where they parked!

We were greeted at the top of the elevators by a trio of Wookiees  —  a group of costumes from the film setup on display in the entry hall of the event. Signs everywhere proclaimed various dining areas themed to locations from Episode III — the Mustafar Dining room, Coruscant Dining room, and others.

A huge crowd had gathered around one corner of the first room we entered. There, Robin Williams and George Lucas had stopped to greet guests, chat, and take pictures with them. I’d been warned that there wasn’t really supposed to be any picture taking or autographs at the event, but since both of the celebrities seemed to be open to it we decided to sidle up and see if we could say hi.

From 2005 – Star Wars Episode 3 Revenge of the Sith Premiere and After-Party

Robin was wonderful. I shook his hand and told him I liked his work, and he thanked me. I asked him if we could take a picture and he said, “Sure.” He’s looking really good, as you’ll see in the picture. Very trim and well muscled — cut like the movie star he is. Natasha asked him how he liked the film. “TERRRRR-riffic!” he said, sounding kind of like Tony the Tiger. He was a blast to meet. He was one of my heroes as a kid.

I couldn’t believe George Lucas was actually just hanging out there taking pictures and shaking hands. He played a lot with the kids that came up — you can tell he’s truly a parent at heart. When we finally got over to him I think he was trying to sort of sneak away from the photo ops. I kind of felt bad bugging him. I walked up and, to tell you the truth, I know I said something to him like “I really enjoyed the movie,” or “Hi there, Mr. Lucas,” or “Gurgle, smip, Star Wars!” But I can’t remember what it was. Natasha walked up and followed up with a more coherent, “We came all the way from Walt Disney World to see the movie.” George, ever laconical, said, “Oh?” Natasha asked if we could take a picture and he said, “Sure.” Sort of during the picture his secretary was trying to grab him and pass along some info, so it took a couple of seconds to get a shot of him looking into the camera. He got dragged away by his secretary so we said “Thanks” quickly. It was totally, totally, incredibly cool to have a minute or two with him, and I’ll treasure the look into his world that we got for a long time. I really equate George with Walt Disney — a true innovator in entertainment who has made changes to the very basic nature of the art that will reverberate for many, many years.

It was really gracious of both George and Robin to pose for pictures with us. They seemed very down to earth and friendly and I really appreciated the minute or two they took with us, since they were swamped with people and probably wanted to enjoy the party.

We also met was Matt Wood, the voice of General Grievous in Episode III and the Supervising Sound Editor on the prequels. Matt actually started his Lucasfilm career in LucasArts, and is a good friend of the friends who invited us to the event. We got to be buzz droids on the wall for a conversation where some of his friends were teasing him about his newfound fame.

“I looked you up on eBay and your signature is worth $60,” our friend Johnny kidded him.

“I know, I’m expensive because I’m RARE,” Matt chuckled, obviously feeling a little awkward about his newfound fame. “I spent two whole days at the autograph table, and I’m rare! Go figure!” (Matt did spend long hours at the autograph table at Celebration III, I can confirm. A friend of mine from the Orlando Sentinel actually brought him lunch one day when Matt couldn’t find the time to get away.)

Matt also related a great story about the cough Grievous has in the film. “We were looping the dialog,” he explained, “And George was there and he had a bad cough. He said, ‘Go’ to prompt me to start a line and then coughed before I could get it out. I said the line after he finished, but when we showed it the next time, we left the cough in. I guess George liked it because when it was done, Grievous had developed that cough. So Grievous is really my voice and George’s cough.”

“The great thing is,” Matt added, “When the Clone Wars people saw it, they actually ended up adding a scene where Mace Windu kind of Force-squeezes Grievous’ innards and he develops the cough. So there’s actually a story reason for it now. Pretty cool.”

I also got to meet Pablo Hidalgo, the Jedi Web Master who helped all of us fans enjoy the filming of Episode III with his deft handling of the web cam and his scintillating set diaries. Okay, I’m a web geek, but it was great to meet Pablo. He’s done a lot for the fans by being our eyes and ears on the set, and I appreciate it. He was also the writer of a couple of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game books, which I’ve always been a big fan of.

The rest of the event was amazing. Huge buffet tables filled with lasagnas and baked salmon and veggies and such. The dining rooms were decorated with these huge banners with stills from the film. Some of them were like 40 feet long, covering an entire section of the hallway with a still shot of Coruscant or a shot of some of the characters. There were props from the movie setup in various places. The Wookiees, Darth Vader, Tion Meddon, and other characters from the films. Another building housed a huge display of props and costumes from the film. There are a bunch of pictures of these in the gappage gallery.on Picasa.

The Letterman Digital Arts Center is a really beautiful facility. It’s nestled right at the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge and has a stunning view of the Palace of the Fine Arts (the dome in some of the pictures that looks kind of like Naboo from “The Phantom Menace”) across the street. There’s a public park there with a brook and a garden. It’s really peaceful, kind of a wonderful college campus. Natasha and I both commented later that, yeah, we could work there easily. I know I had an envious moment as I watched some kids rolling down the hills that made up the park. I really wanted to just jump over and do that too.

I was sad to have to leave, but it was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I hope I’ve done some justice to the wonder of the trip, and I hope everyone enjoys the pictures! I have to say a big special thanks to Tabby and Johnny, who invited us. They really made a couple of Star Wars fans’ dreams come true!

Revenge of the Sith Screening

If you’d told me back in 1977, at nine years old, that I’d be seeing the last of the Star Wars movies in 2005 in a theater with George Lucas, well, I’d have probably responded with a “coooool!” and gone off to go and battle imaginary foes with my home-made lightsaber.

Time and the wisdom gained through it has given the event a slightly larger impact.

I’m very lucky to have friends who thought enough of me and my passion for Star Wars to invite me to fly several thousand miles to see the last of the movies as a guest at their employee premiere. When they asked me to go, I was excited, but I did kind of sit around sort of hemming and hawing and thinking, “Well, that’s a lot of money to spend just to see the movie. I mean, yeah, I’m seeing it early, but…wow…it’s a couple hundred bucks a movie ticket.” I even went so far as to think to myself, “If I wanted to see the movie early I could spend that much on a charity premiere and at least the money would go to a good cause.” (Not saying supporting the airline industry isn’t currently a good cause as well, as they seem to currently be operating as not for profit agencies as well.)

At some point, I took a second to travel in time and talk to that nine-year-old me and ask, “Hey…what would you do?”

“Oh man,” he said, rolling his eyes and throwing his arms up, one of them holding a Han Solo toy blaster pistol. “You’ve got to go!”

And I couldn’t dissapoint the nine-year-old me, because I’ve found that, often, he’s a lot smarter than me, and as long as I keep his hand in my adult one when we go into the video game store or toy superstore, things tend to be okay. Perhaps more than okay…they usually turn out to be the more memorable moments in my life.

So my wife and I made the journey to San Francisco for the premiere. Early Saturday morning we set out for the Metreon entertainment complex in San Francisco, where the movie was showing in four theaters at 9:30 am. Only one of the showings was digital, and we all decided that getting into that theater was more important than sleep. (I think the nine-year-olds in all of us were talking.) The line stretched about halfway down the block when we got there at 7:00, showing that Lucas employees are fanboys and fangirls, too.

We passed the time that morning chatting about the movies, the games, all the things George had wrought, until the doors opened and we charged into the building. When we got into the digital theater, our elation was great as we saw a couple of rows of prime seating available in the very middle of the theater. Our hopes were dashed when we discovered those rows were reserved. So we settled in left of center near the front, still happy to be there, and suddenly had the thought, “Hey, who are those seats reserved FOR?”

We didn’t have to wait long for our first celebrity sighting. Robin Williams snuck in with the rest of the crowd and settled into one of the reserved rows. Robin was a hero of mine when I was a kid. I read all the interviews he gave about how he wasn’t a very popular kid and how he was shy, and that was why he developed the whole frenetic comedy persona we all love. I emulated that a bit, and while I never had the talent to be as funny as him, it did help me come out of my shell with people. I was still shy (still am till this day, to tell the truth), but he showed me you could be an extroverted introvert sometimes. So it was cool to share the theater with him, and watch him kind of sneak in and find a seat in much the same quiet way I would, despite the fact that, hey, he’s Robin Williams.

So could it be? Did this celebrity sighting mean we were in for more than just a movie? Sure enough, shortly after that the Lucasfilm celebrities joined us. I recognized Rick McCallum, John Knoll, Howard Roffman (president of Lucas Licensing), and a few others as they settled in. And yes, George was there, too.

When the credits rolled and the “Star Wars” logo shouted across the screen, fading like an echo, I thought, “Wow, somewhere behind me, George Lucas is watching this movie with me. Wow!” And the nine-year-old me sort of thundered with glee. This was total coolness.

The crowd was a little muted during the film. There were only a couple of moments where the collective inner geeks in us allowed us to cheer. (But come those moments did.) It was a great audience to see the film with, and a great way to see it the first time. To really be able to soak it up, and hear all the lines, as opposed to having some washed out by the cheers of the enthusiastic audience. Sounds weird, but I enjoy both ways of seeing the movies, though usually the soaking-in way is reserved for DVD viewings at home.

Having been to a few Walt Disney Feature Animation movie screenings in my time with my wife (who worked for Disney Feature Animation here in Florida for many years), I was aware that at these screenings you don’t jump up to leave when the credits start to roll. It’s a sign of respect to applaud throughout the credits for the people you know whose names are going by on screen.

Once the credits ended, there was a pause, in the dark, and then the lights came up, and as one, we, the audience, rose, turned to George, and gave him a standing ovation that just went on and on.

I swear, George blushed. He kind of looked around and at the ground and waved it all off and when it got quiet he said, simply, to his gathered employees, “This is about you. That,”  he pointed at the screen, “Is YOUR hard work up there on the screen, and I thank you for it.” It was genuine, appreciative, and respectful. George really is a humble guy, and he seems to truly appreciate the artists he works with to make his visions a reality. I felt really honored to be there, and to watch him thank the folks he worked with to make Star Wars for that nine-year-old kid who was jumping up and down and cheering in my head.

More tomorrow about my visit to the Letterman Digital Center, the new home of many of the Lucas companies.

REVIEW: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

First off, let me start off my review by saying I liked “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones”. No, they don’t measure up to the original trilogy in terms of story or emotional involvement to me, but they had some incredible visuals, some great characters, and the lightning storm Jedi swashbuckling that has become the signature of the new trilogy. I can’t resist a good sword fight.

“Revenge of the Sith” is brimming with sword fights. It’s more full of flashing swords than Jabba is of gorgs. If you like Jedi action, you’re going to walk out of the movie giddy as a Naboo schoolgirl after she’s elected queen of the planet.

The biggest feeling I left Episode III with though was very similar to the feeling I had when I walked out of “Return of the King” — I wished there were more. The movie rockets by like the Millennium Falcon making the Kessel run. There are plenty of new and beautiful locations, there are great performances by many of the actors involved, and great moments of story and revelation. In fact, George Lucas has so many great ideas in this one he can’t spend much time with any one of them. It’s a story told in one long, fast, enthusiastic breath, and I was an enraptured listener. And once you’ve heard it once you’re going to want to stop that excited storyteller and ask them to go back to the beginning and tell it again, so you can ask questions and think about it some more. You’re going to want to know the whys and the hows. Like “Return of the King”, I walked out of the theater thinking, “I can’t wait for the extended DVD release where maybe we’ll get to see some of the scenes that were cut, and get even more of the story.” At the end, I really thought it was just a terrible shame this movie is only two hours long. It has the same adrenaline rush of a good roller coaster ride, and the same draw to repeat it again for the good parts.

I read the book and the script beforehand and was just amazed at the level of story and emotion in this one. This is, of course, the story of how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader, but it is also the story of the fall of the Republic, the ruin of the Jedi, the rise of the Empire, the end of a love story, and the birth of hope. Comparing the movie to the book and the script , I really missed the loss of some of the subplots and the stories of the other characters. (Padmé especially suffers in this regard, since she has little to do once her subplot was cut but to sit and watch her husband’s fall.) But it’s probably a wise choice, with as much is packed into this movie, to focus it on Anakin, for it is ultimately his story.

And given the real spotlight on him, Hayden Christiansen really shows his talents. There’s a great scene between Hayden and Natalie Portman at the beginning that really sets up Anakin’s fall. The actors’ work in that scene is so good, it reveals a complexity of character that makes the rest of the movie work. Hayden really shows Anakin being pulled in a million different directions, and the internal pain he must be suffering trying to make his life work as a Jedi, a warrior, a husband, and perhaps even the Chosen One of prophecy. I think people who don’t really get this scene might have issues really accepting Anakin’s fall, but the scene really worked for me.

Ian McDiarmid is also given a platform to truly flex his considerable acting muscles here. He is wonderfully Evil as Palpatine, and his scenes really engaged me. It is his performance, his ability to be Evil and yet convincingly deep at the same time, that makes the conflict between the Sith and the Jedi work. McDiarmid really creates the tiniest bit of…maybe not sympathy, but a sort of understanding for his character. I really want to know more about the history of the Sith now.

Yoda and R2-D2 really steal the show at points. Some of my favorite moments feature either everyone’s favorite astro-droid, or the little green Jedi Master.

The movie won’t be perfect for everyone. There is some cheesy dialog, but hey, this IS a Star Wars movie. It’s somewhat graphic in its violence, but lives up to its PG-13 rating. There’s nothing outright terrifying, but there’s a little bit that’s gross (hey, we all know how Anakin becomes Vader). It might be too much for young kids. But the movie’s violence is portrayed as a consequence with moral overtones associated with it. There’s a good lesson at the center of the Star Wars mythos, and this movie tells it in a very direct and emotionally engaging way.

I think for me, George really left me wanting more in a good way. I wanted to sit in that theater for three hours and really linger on these characters and soak in the places and the story. It is truly a moving, involving action movie, and I think fans of the series are going to find a big place in their hearts for this one.

This IS the movie you’re looking for, Star Wars fans. Rush out, get tickets, and get ready for an experience that truly brings the circle to completion on the Star Wars saga.

No one will ever believe me….

I’m in Marin County near San Francisco this weekend to go to a advance screening of “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” that I was exceedingly lucky to be invited to, and I had a chance encounter that no one will ever believe.

After flying in and checking in to our hotel, we spent an hour or two chilling out and decompressing and then decided to go across the street to get some food at the food court at the local mall. As we were wandering through, trying to decide what to have, I looked to my left and noticed a bearded man in a flannel shirt sitting at a table in the food court with a teenage boy.

Please, someone tell George Lucas to stop stalking me. =) Turns out my fellow food court gourmands were George and his son Jett. Go figure. I decide to go to C3, George shows up. I fly out here, and he shows up at the food court to see me. I only wish I had brought my camera with me, but I thought, what am I going to have to take pictures of at the mall?

So tomorrow or Sunday I’ll post my spoiler-less review of “Revenge of the Sith”.