SWCC 2019: 9 Highlights from the ILM Model Shop Panel

StarWars.com

For more than 40 years, the hardworking talents behind the curtain at Industrial Light & Magic have been conjuring worlds and rewriting the rules of cinematic storytelling. During Sunday’s Star Wars Celebration Chicago panel, host David W. Collins was joined by legendary modelmaker Lorne Peterson, model makers Bill George, Jean Bolte, and John Goodson, and visual effects supervisor John Knoll as they recounted their decades of experience helping to forge the Lucasfilm legacy. Here are some of the most exciting moments from their discussion.

1. Many of the folks who pioneered the modern visual effects industry got the job out of sheer luck. “I was the right person in the right place at the right time,” Peterson recalled. One day in 1975, he ran into a friend from school while he was working various jobs — he once worked at an auto-body shop — and his old pal asked him to come help out with a project called Star Wars. In the early eighties, model maker Bill George got a job working on films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Poltergeist, and he begged for the chance to be part of Return of the Jedi. ILM still has old photos of George dug up a few photos taken during his teenage years, when he and a small group of friends who go Dumpster diving at the ILM lot, hoping to recover bits of exploded spaceship models used on Star Wars and the original Battlestar Galactica. John Goodson began sending letters to ILM at the age of 14, to the point where they politely asked him to stop. He was hired by the studio about a week after his college graduation.

2. Training and information related to VFX was once incredibly scarce.Star Wars altered all of our lives,” said model and creature artist Jean Bolte. “It was so real.” Due to the sense of mystery surrounding how practical effects shots were achieved, would-be artists and filmmakers like Bolte sought out every bit of information they could find — in magazines like CinefexCinefantastique and Starlog — in the hopes of breaking into the industry. “I wanna work there,” Bolte thought, “because they can do anything.” Bill George agreed that his knowledge and skill was not something he learned in a class or in a book, but rather through hands-on experience. “I am who I am today because of the people I worked with,” he said. When you work alongside people like Lorne Peterson, he added, “you can’t help but get better.”

Cheif Modelmaker Michael Lynch and Alex Jaeger on the Utapau 1/90th scale set.

3. ILM models contain some hilarious Easter eggs. The practical model of the Naboo capital, Theed, was a massive 40-by-60-foot affair with lots of artificial grass; as a joke, Goodson snuck a model lawn mower and gas can into the miniature set. Likewise, Bill George thought the Death Star hangar bay in Return of the Jedi resembled a basketball court — so, naturally, he installed a basketball hoop on the wall. “Unfortunately,” he said, “it never showed up on film.” Peterson said he put a micro-sized pin-up calendar in the interior of the Millennium Falcon.

4. Mustafar was a trial by fire for the ILM Model Shop. Slightly larger than half a tennis court, according to Peterson, the main miniature used for Mustafar could be tilted to direct the flow of “lava” along its many rivers of flame. The model was used for about 400 shots during photography on Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, requiring several large crews to manage things like the pumps that generated the lava effect. Theed and the Boonta Eve podracing track were comparable in size, Knoll noted, if not complexity. 

5. Visual effects is a great avenue for anyone to enter the film industry. “To the girls out there: visual effects is a level playing field, so take advantage of that,” Bolte said. “It’s not a boys’ club.”

Modelmaker John Goodson with miniature Tatooine Hanger Set.

6. Some CGI shots have surprisingly humble beginnings. Those thousands of spectators at the Boonta Eve podrace in The Phantom Menace? Those are all Q-tips; they’ve just had their white tips painted various colors to create the illusion of crowded stands brimming with life. Some shots have a bit of light digital editing to hide anything that might give the trick away, but there are wide shots of the track where the audience is looking at the original Q-tips themselves. ILM achieved the waterfall shots in The Phantom Menace using granular sugar and salt. (They switched to salt because ants took a liking to the sugar!)

7. According to Knoll, the feature-length documentary The Beginning is perhaps the most authentic window behind the scenes at ILM and Lucasfilm. George Lucas wanted a film crew present at almost every major Episode I meeting, Knoll said, so cameras were a frequent sight. ILM got so used to them being around, they eventually stopped noticing; the result is an incredibly authentic look at the magic of moviemaking. The Beginning “tells a very truthful story,” Knoll added.

8. The advent of computer graphics caused the Model Shop a lot of anxiety in the ’90s. Bolte recalled being one of the first of ILM’s model makers to make the leap to the realm of CGI, and as a result, she feels the best visual-effects artists are typically the ones who understand the strengths and limitations of both methodologies. The best CGI artists, Knoll agreed, are generally ones who started with some form of practical effects.

9. How does it feel blowing up models they’ve spent untold hours making for the sake of a single, quick shot? “That was the best part,” according to Goodson. Bolte agreed. “We love that.”

Visit StarWars.com’s Star Wars Celebration Chicago hub for all the latest Celebration news.

Alex Kane is a journalist based in west-central Illinois. He has written for Fangoria, Polygon, the website of Rolling Stone, Variety, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @alexjkane.

Site tags: #SWCCPanel, #StarWarsCelebrationChicago2019

SWCC 2019: 9 Highlights from the ILM Model Shop Panel

Inside the Lucasfilm Archives: The Jedi Texts

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Through the props and costumes of Star Wars, we find a tangible link to connect with the characters from a galaxy far, far away and the stories they inhabit. Inside the Lucasfilm Archive, take a closer look at these artifacts and the stories behind their design.

There’s a feeling of reverence surrounding the ancient Jedi texts. Secreted away on Ahch-To in a sacred place built a thousand generations ago to keep the knowledge of the Jedi Order safe for future disciples, the venerable tomes represent the last remnants of the Jedi religion, the last echoes of wisdom from an order on the verge of extinction.

The Jedi texts.

In-world, the library is a symbol of Luke Skywalker’s lost faith — in himself, the Force, and the teachings of his masters, — realized as simple, incendiary paper volumes that he tries but fails to torch in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Printed books are a rare find in a modern galaxy that prefers datapads and holograms as primary forms of communication. But stashed away in a drawer aboard the Millennium Falcon, the scriptures survive for another day in Rey’s care.

Portia Fontes, Lucasfilm's physical assets coordinator, shows off the hero prop.

Portia Fontes, Lucasfilm’s physical assets coordinator, shows off the hero prop.

To create the hero Jedi Order book, pulled from the petite row and opened to reveal the Jedi emblem for mere seconds on screen, prop makers and artisans designed and printed painstakingly detailed vellum-like sheets then bound them in the cast of a hand-carved cover.

The final effect is mesmerizing in person. “This is a pretty prized piece,” says Lucasfilm Archivist Madlyn Burkert. Beyond that first page are a host of individual pages, designed and lettered as if they truly held the knowledge of those first Jedi practitioners. There’s incredible attention to detail on each page, layers of gold leaf mixed with blue pigments and an unidentified script, perhaps inspired but some of the earliest scrolls and scribbles from our own human history.

Concept art of the Jedi texts.

Concept art of the Jedi texts.
Concept art of the Jedi texts.
Concept art of the Jedi texts.

Originally, the props team conceptualized about 40 different volumes, of varying sizes and finishes, which director Rian Johnson narrowed down to a slim 10 finalists for the sacred shelf.

Burkert says the prop makers were given free rein with their own personal inspiration, provided that the final series looked like a set of ancient volumes when they were finished. As part of the process, the team researched old book-binding methods, so that each book would be unique in its fabrication.

For the hero book, the only volume that gets pulled from the stacks and cracked open on-screen, Burkert says the prop makers created the cover by hand, with lettering cut from leather and applied to the front before being covered in layers of vellum-type paper for texture. Then the entire thing was cast and molded from resin before being tied back together. “For the cover, there’s leather strapping that holds it together,” Burkert says.

Concept art of interior pages by Chris Kitisakkul

Concept art of interior pages by Chris Kitisakkul

Meanwhile, Lucasfilm’s graphics department created about 80 unique interior pages on handmade paper, taking great care beyond the single page glimpsed in the film. Look closely and you can see the way the ream of paper has some give beneath Luke’s gloved hand.

To complete the work, the props department aged and weathered the pages, rebound the book, and added the gold leaf accents. According to Propmaker Martyn Doust, it took the props team two weeks to complete a single volume from start to finish.

Portia Fontes, Lucasfilm's physical assets coordinator, shows off the hero prop.

The finished prop volume has a substantial weight to it, although the bindings make it difficult to flip through like a contemporary printed text. It’s now kept sequestered in a special slip cover and carefully boxed away in the Lucasfilm Archives, a testament to the precision of the prop makers who imbued such an important piece of Jedi history with its own awe-inspiring mystique.

Prop photos taken at Lucasfilm headquarters by Kyle Kao.

Associate Editor Kristin Baver is a writer and all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Do you know a fan who’s most impressive? Hop on Twitter and tell @KristinBaver all about them.

Inside the Lucasfilm Archives: The Jedi Texts

These Gorgeous Game of Thrones Storyboards Offer Just a Glimpse of a Massive New Book

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As Game of Thrones comes to an end, many of us find ourselves looking back to the beginning. Why did the show become so huge? What were our favorite moments? How did it all happen? Like the show itself, those are rather large questions, but the “how” is getting a suitably large answer in a new book.

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Inside the Lucasfilm Archive: Han Solo’s Dice

StarWars.com

Through the props and costumes of Star Wars, we find a tangible link to connect with the characters from a galaxy far, far away and the stories they inhabit. Inside the Lucasfilm Archive, take a closer look at these artifacts and the stories behind their design.

Even after Han Solo’s luck had run out, his golden dice still dangled in the cockpit of his beloved Millennium Falcon, a symbol of a simpler time, when he was a young man on Corellia just dreaming of getting out of the slums and escaping to the stars.

In-universe, the aurodium-plated chance cubes were Han’s lucky charm, whether adorning the windscreen of a stolen landspeeder, tucked into the palm of his beloved friend Qi’ra, or clutched in the hands of his son, Ben Solo. For many years, the dice hung in the cockpit of the freighter he called home, a relic from the Corellian Spike variation of sabacc.

Three sets of dice props from three different films.

The evolution of Han’s dice (from left to right): the original dice prop created for The Force Awakens, concept art by Laura Grant from The Last Jedi, and the prop created for Solo: A Star Wars Story.

In reality, the prop counterpart to this particular piece of Star Wars lore has developed over time from simple set dressing trinket to major plot point, with several iterations along the way. “What makes the dice interesting is their evolution over time,” says Lucasfilm Archivist Madlyn Burkert.

The dice were first spotted in A New Hope, most notably in a brief shot where Chewbacca’s head knocks them slightly, Burkert says. Many props and costumes from those earliest days of filming have been lost to time, but the first prop was a simple pair of Earth dice painted gold.

If you’ve never spotted these dice from their brief appearance in the film, you’re not alone, says Pablo Hidalgo, Lucasfilm’s Senior Creative Executive for Franchise Story and Content. “They did not make much of a splash in the pages of comics, guides or novels either, but there is one noteworthy appearance in Marvel Comics’ Star Wars #81, cover-dated March 1984,” Hidalgo says. In one panel, when Han is reunited with his beloved ship after the Battle of Endor, he spots the dice he “won her with.”

Nearly 40 years later, the creative team working on The Force Awakens resurrected the diminutive dice when they resurfaced for Han’s reunion with the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy. The prop used for the part appear to be a light plastic resin casting of Earth dice once again given golden deco by hand. “These are really, really light,” Burkert notes.

In both cases, the dice were seen at such a distance, “they didn’t have to have to be uniquely Star Wars,” she adds. “They didn’t have to have the visual language of Star Wars and so they used a regular set of dice as the basis for it.”

For The Last Jedi, the dice prop became more of a focal point, a symbol of loss passed from Luke Skywalker to his sister, and Han’s widow, Leia Organa. This time, prop makers experimented with fabricated metal, two bronze-colored versions that were slightly larger and heavier than earlier incarnations with finer attention to the detailed symbols on each side, and a golden-hued duplicate for background shots.

Han's dice as seen in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

But for Solo: A Star Wars Story, where the prop plays an even bigger role in exploring Han Solo’s psyche and the events that shaped him, designers returned to the drawing board for yet another, smaller version. “It’s at the discretion of the props making team who is fabricating it,” Burkert says. And each design choice takes into account the prop’s role in the story and how it will be used onscreen.

Han's dice as seen in Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Today, the Lucasfilm Archive contains several copies and versions of the sturdy dice forged from brass, equally perfect for close-up shots and fast-paced chase scenes. “There’s a reason they might make a lot more of any given prop as it has prominence in a film,” Burkert says. “It’s look. It’s weight. But it’s also damage control. Sometimes props break on set. They also could get scratched.”

Even with lucky dice, it helps to have a stunt double or two.

Concept art by Molly Sole

But that still leaves the question – “Did Han and Lando indeed play a Corellian Spike version of sabacc and were the dice used in that fateful game on Numidian Prime seen in Solo, where Han wins the Falcon?” Hidalgo asks. “Perhaps.” The game doesn’t play out onscreen in full, “But it should be pointed out that Han could have used them in their most basic form: as a good luck charm.”

For more props from The Force Awakens, check out this week’s episode of The Star Wars Show below.

Associate Editor Kristin Baver is a writer and all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Do you know a fan who’s most impressive? Hop on Twitter and tell @KristinBaver all about them.

Inside the Lucasfilm Archive: Han Solo’s Dice

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One of Solo: A Star Wars Story’s Giant Explosions Was Inspired By the Slow Mo Guys on YouTube

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Much to Learn You Still Have: 5 Things You Might Not Know About Kowakian Monkey-Lizards

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Much to Learn You Still Have is a rundown of trivia and fun facts, both in-universe and behind-the-scenes, about the aliens, droids, ships, and species of the Star Wars galaxy. Whether you’ve never set foot in a cantina or you’re a well-traveled Jedi Master, you’ll find the intel you need.

Kowakian monkey-lizards are more than meets the eye. Star Wars fans met their first monkey-lizard in Jabba’s Palace from Return of the Jedi. But did you know that Salacious Crumb was almost an unnamed, background alien until George Lucas and the crew fell in love with him? Or that monkey-lizards are born from eggs and live in tree nests?

Here are five things you might not have known about Kowakian monkey-lizards.

1. Out in the wild, Kowakian monkey-lizards work as a team.

Monkey-lizards out in the wild have been known to move in packs and are not often seen roaming alone. Although their groups aren’t very structured, they do seem to assign members with different duties to maintain where they live.

Fun Fact #1: The leadership within a group of monkey-lizards usually goes to the oldest female.

2. That shrill cackle can be very useful.

Many know the monkey-lizards by their boisterous laugh, but did you know the sound is useful for more than reacting to jokes? In the wild, monkey-lizards will use their signature laughs to ward off any oncoming predators. Since they are known to roam in packs, their laughter builds up to a powerful clamor, which helps keep away any unwanted guests.

Fun Fact #2: The unmistakable laugh of Salacious B. Crumb came from crew member Mark Dodson. Sound designer Ben Burtt described it as a “funny, hyena-like laugh.”

3. They often have ties to the underworld.

Some monkey-lizards find themselves as pets to underworld kingpins. Salacious B. Crumb was the companion of Jabba the Hutt, the powerful gangster. Brothers Pilf Mukmuk and Pikk Mukmuk belonged to Hondo Ohnaka, the notorious pirate.

4. They’re more than just pets.

They may be small, but monkey-lizards can do some damage. In Return of the Jedi, we see Salacious B. Crumb attack C-3PO’s eye on Jabba’s sail barge. We also see Pikk Mukmuk at the controls of a gunner tank doing some damage on the planet Felucia, when his owner Hondo Ohnaka is fighting with Anakin Skywalker. Pikk’s brother, Pilf, has also put Anakin in a tough spot by trying to crush him with a chandelier, although he obviously didn’t take Anakin’s Force abilities into account when coming up with his plan.

Fun Fact #3: Kowakian monkey-lizards are closely related to the Kowakian apes, the creature that terrorized Poe and Kaz on board a freighter in Star Wars Resistance. They both share the facial features of a bony beak and tufts of fur, but the Kowakian ape is much larger in size and strength.

5. What’s in a name?

Ever wonder how Salacious B. Crumb got his name? The crew of Return of the Jedi and George Lucas had fallen in love with the little puppet  and Lucas tasked them to come up with a name for him. During a lunch outing with ILM’s Phil Tippett and others, Tippett noticed his shoe was untied. “Wait a minute guys while I tie my soolacious,” said Tippett as he bent down. A combination of the misspoken word and the name of comic artist Robert Crumb became the name of the most popular monkey-lizard.

Fun Fact #4: The original idea for the character of Salacious B. Crumb came from Ben Burtt. He said “Wouldn’t it be funny if there was a little tiny creature that sat on the shoulder of one of the creatures and repeated everything that the big creature said during the argument?”

Ready to adopt your very own monkey-lizard now? Let us know what your favorite monkey-lizard facts are in the comments below.

And be sure to check out our “Much to Learn” segment feature on The Star Wars Show this week!

Sources: The Making of Return of the Jedi, J.W. Rinzler, Del Rey, 2013., Star Wars The New Essential Guide To Alien Species, Ann Margaret Lewis and Helen Keier, Del Rey, 2006.

Amanda Jean Camarillo is an associate producer for The Star Wars Show. She is a big fan of droids, space waffles, and Loth-cats and spending her time with watching movies, crafting, and visiting Disney parks. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram and tell her about all your favorite Star Wars things.

Much to Learn You Still Have: 5 Things You Might Not Know About Kowakian Monkey-Lizards