Smallest Star Wars secrets revealed: Behind the scenes with model-maker to the Sith

Jedi hero Anakin Skywalker is seduced by the dark side of the Force to become the Emperor's new apprentice, Darth Vader. The Republic crumbles, the Jedi are slaughtered, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Jedi Master Yoda are forced into hiding. The only hope is... that it is all coming to your lounge room in a DVD release on November 2.

Star Wars Episode III "Revenge of the Sith" is a two-disc set that will have picture and sound mastered from the original digital source material. It includes a documentary on the making of the epic, and a variety of deleted scenes - including the one where Yoda arrives on the swamp-planet of Dagobah to meet Luke Skywalker in "The Empire Strikes Back." It also includes featurettes that look at two of the movie's most popular aspects: Anakin Skywalker's transformation into Darth Vader and the creation of the amazing stunts in the climactic lightsaber duel between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi.

PC World enthusiastically took the opportunity to go behind the scenes with chief model maker from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Brian Gernand.

What's it like to work for and with George Lucas?

It's fantastic. I supervised Episode II and III and so I was working closely with George and he is just amazing - his creativity, his vision and his ability to see the project in its completion. He knows what exactly what the film should look like so his direction is very clear and his decisions are always the right ones. They are what make the film beautiful. So it's a pleasure.

Do you work on practical or computer-generated models?

Even though we create physical miniatures, it requires a huge amount of digital input at the front end and also in the importing of pre-existing digital files that have the exact dimensions and proportions of something that we need to work into an image.

We use a tremendous amount of 3D modelling programs such as Rhinoceros and AutoCAD. We have a laser cutter. We have a Computer Numerical Control (CNC) mill that works from 3D digital files. We combine computer science and digital images to create our 3D models.

Also, I work closely with the digital effects guys and we'll look at an animatic of a scene and together decide what will be practical (miniature) or digital/computer-generated (CG). Together we are able to create an entire environment, with a horizon, that is completely photo-realistic without building too much CG or too much practical, but combining them both to create one beautiful vista.

So the practical modelling and the computer-generated modelling are quite interlaced?

In our unit, yes. One literally becomes merged into the next. There is also a separate department that builds digital models exclusively.

Often there is a pre-existing digital model and we need to come in behind them to create a section, maybe a close-up section that has to match exactly to what they have created digitally. So we will import their files and work from there. If we can, we'll laser cut so that everything is exactly the same. It is not uncommon for us to blend a physical piece into a digital model based on the two departments working together to create one product that is partially digital and partially physical.

It's pretty fascinating. We also use a lot of 3-D digital animatics, which are fully fleshed-out cartoons with all the camera angles and movement actions for direction. George used this a lot to direct Episode III, so that when we receive the animatic we know exactly how George would like to see the scene in the film. Based on that, we will often call up and ask for the files that are in that animatic and we use them to build our miniatures. We rely on the digital technology to make sure that the composition and geometry of a scene is exactly the way George wanted it. It takes all the guesswork out of it.

So you have been with ILM since 1987, what technology-enabled changes have you noticed in that time?

Tremendous changes. This is quite a long story so I'll try to make it brief, but we could go back to the years where we flew a spaceship hung by big wires on stage and we would shoot that physically. Those scenes would go off to a department that had to hand-remove the wires through a paint process to get them off the film.

I remember the first time I noticed the benefits the digital revolution had to the process of making Star Wars. We'd built a space ship to fly across the stage and we were all concerned about the wires crossing over each other, and our visual effects supervisors said, "Don't worry, we'll remove them digitally." That's when things really started to change and open up with the mechanisms and rigs that we could then conceive of, that we could never use before because they had restrictions in the photography. Suddenly the wire rigs and the ability to have stuff removed digitally opened the creative floodgates for us. It was a whole new world to be able to create at that level.

And it goes on from there - as the digital world became better still we, as miniature-builders, feared for the possibility that miniatures were going to go by the wayside. But in fact, it was a huge boom for us and our skills. Because in the past where we might have had to shoot an entire landscape all in camera, like a desert, for instance, now we have the ability to do just sections of the landscape which are much more cost-effective and those sections can be rotated and twisted around and tiled and mapped together to create a whole new landscape. Digital technology opened up the opportunity for the miniatures department to create more environments and landscapes in addition to objects. So the stories are long and we've gone through many changes as digital technology has gotten better, but ultimately it has been nothing but an additional tool for us to work with.

How many employees does ILM have now compared to when it started out?

It's both grown and shrunk. It depends a lot on what projects we are working on. But there was a time when we had about 2000 people working for us and now it's more like 600, and that has a lot to do with the efficiency of technology.

But in the miniature world, our project staff goes up and down based on the size of the project. While we were doing Episode II, I had about 80 model makers working for me and on Episode III we found more efficient ways of doing things and we had maybe 50 model makers at a peak time.

Were there any particular challenges and/or rewards to working on Episode III, compared to the other films you have worked on?

The challenge of building the entire Mustafar river in miniature, and the challenge to make the lava flow and be bottom lit and glowing and have the proper opacity and colour as it spat up. And it needed to be a different colour where it was hotter and as it slowed down it needed to turn a deeper red, and the crust material had to bunch up and it had to move along the edges of the river properly and create its own little eddies... all of that was very challenging. The Mustafar river shoot itself was the longest shoot in ILM history. We shot it for about six months. When you see it in the film it comes off really well though, and we were very happy with the end result.

Why do you think Star Wars attracts such a huge fan base, especially within the IT community?

Star Wars in the beginning developed such unique, iconic and diverse characters that everybody had a chance to latch on to and relate to them. You've got the loveable Chewbacca, the hate-able Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker and the love interests and the cowboy in Harrison Ford. As the films went on, the technology that revealed itself was truly visionary. A lot of the objects and concepts - like the holograms, and the various propulsion methods - have inspired scientists and technologists to say "you know, we might actually not be so far from doing that." A lot of those ideas that started out as just fantasy are now being developed into real technology. I'd prefer to stay talking about Star Wars, but a perfect example of that is actually in Star Trek, where they flip their little clamshell phone open and start talking to each other. And guess what? We all have one now. And we're not so far away from having lightsabers as weapons.

All it takes is an idea. I know some people who, as children were watching the Star Wars trilogy and fantasising about being able to drive around in a hovercraft or using a lightsaber as a weapon. They have grown up to became scientists or technology professionals, but did not let go of those "wouldn't it be cool if we could beam holograms or fly at warp speeds" kind of ideas. They have devoted their grown-up lives to trying to scientifically realise fantastical ideas. Many of them have found solutions. It's like the chicken and the egg. Did George plant the seed and then the kids grew up and made it real? We don't know, but it is an interesting question.

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