When George Lucas went on to make Episode I: The Phantom Menace, things had changed quite a bit from the time of Return of the Jedi. The movie making process had become more and more digital as time went on, which opened up many new opportunities for characters and effects. For example in the memorable scene where Qui-Gon Jinn pushes Jar Jar Binks under a hovering vehicle to save him from being hit. Most of the vehicles in Star Wars have always flown or at least hovered, however in the original films this effect was achieved much more practically. If you were to visit the desert where they were filming Luke’s speeder scenes in A New Hope, you would have seen a car shaped like Luke’s speeder equipped with mirrors angled along the underside to give the illusion that it was in fact hovering and not just driving. The CGI technology used in the prequels was not the first CGI used in Star Wars as a whole, but it was still a new level of technology because instead of just replacing backgrounds and adding blaster bolts or creating the illusion of huge pits to throw evil dictators into, it could allow characters to directly interact with those computer generated images and characters. Remember how we talked about the manual process of animating a lightsaber? By the time Episode I came around, that process was nearly automatic; it no longer had to be done frame by frame. Another impressive leap in the technology was the emergence of digital video itself. No longer do filmmakers have to budget for one-time-use lengths of film and plan every shot meticulously before shooting so as to eliminate waste; with digital all they have to do is hit record, and when they make a mistake, delete and start over. This breakthrough was critical for not only Hollywood, but also for independent filmmakers, which I’ll be touching on at a later time. Most of the savings made with this new ability to rewrite footage, got fed back into the films in the form of special effects, which we all love. Although with this great power came great responsibility, the responsibility to not get carried away with special effects. The prequel movies did look really cool, but their main problem was that all their new toys and techniques took priority over a compelling storyline. Luckily, this difficulty is something that has been remedied in the time after the prequels, and I don’t just mean in Episode VII. Yes, I am once again alluding to independent/fan films, but again I will save that for next time.
Before The Force Awakens came out, Disney implemented an admittedly ham-fisted but extremely effective and honestly genius marketing campaign that essentially revolved around two ideas: 1. “Star Wars is everywhere, get hyped” and 2. “It’s going to be just like the original trilogy, we learned from the prequels. We’re shooting on film and using practical effects and everything!” This second idea proposes something interesting: Why would they go back to the old ways when there’s this new technology? Well the truth is that they didn’t completely return to the old ways but instead implemented an interesting hybrid style between the old and the new. Don’t misunderstand, there are still countless computer generated effects in Episode VII, but the difference is that they used them responsibly. Whereas the prequels had CG characters all over the screen, giving the actors nothing to well… act against, The Force Awakens used costumes and – in the case of BB-8 – an actual robot. The use of props that actually have a presence on set really helped to streamline the process of production. Where an actor may use six takes to nail a reaction to a creature he or she can’t see, that same actor might only use three takes to give the same reaction against an actor or prop actually standing right in front of them. So that answers that question, but why would they go back to shooting on film? It doesn’t provide any benefit to the actors or to the speed of the production, but it does provides some other benefits. Think of the comparison between film and digital video as one akin to vinyl records vs MP3 music files. The film technology may be older, but since digital files have to be able to be erased and written over, the quality in some aspects is lowered as a result. I won’t get too technical with it, but imagine that film is a fountain pen and digital video is a pencil; you can erase the pencil but the fountain pen will always look way better. Plus, you can flaunt the fact that you use a fountain pen to automatically make yourself more pretentious. Same goes for film.
So as you can see, there are benefits to using techniques that originate in the times before digital video and CGI. There are of course benefits to using digital video and CGI as well, so the key is to consider the story you want to tell and base your workflow on that. Using a variety of techniques that work, not only gives you a good style, but also can really increase your efficiency. For those of you who are interested in making films or any kind of media yourself, make sure you check out next month’s set of articles, which will be about the DIY mentality and how all the latest and greatest technological advances have made it even easier for you to do your own thing.