3-D Story: The Making of Clone Wars

StarWars.com Team | July 25, 2008

Catherine Winder, producer of the Clone Wars movie and TV series began the second of the Star Wars day panels, focusing on the 3-D storytelling techniques of Clone Wars. “When I first took on the role of producer, George said to me I want you to produce something that no one had ever seen before. We have to produce fantastic stories, but they need to be truly cinematic. He talked to Dave [Filoni] and I, and one of the things he said to us was: you need to get rid of storyboards. Dave and I looked at each other, and we thought, ‘what is he thinking?’ It took us a while for us to figure out what to do.” The result was the development of 3-D story.

“What we’re working on is an extension of what George has been working on since the ’70s,” says Director Dave Filoni. “It’s really how do you cinematically tell the story. For George, telling a story starts and ends in editorial.  George has storyboarded in the past, but the thing you’ll notice about them as they cut from shot to shot, they’re very static. They’re beautiful drawing, but they don’t give you a real sense of timing.  That was problematic for George. George likes to edit and cut on motion and action, across head movements and hand movements. The editing of A New Hope is very fast paced. That kept the momentum moving in the story. He wanted to develop a way to get that final editing, which he could only do with live action coverage, really early on in the process.”

Filoni explained how ILM’s Dennis Muren cracked this challenge in using videomatic techniques for the speeder bike chase in Return of the Jedi. Muren used tabletop models and action figures to cut together a rough version of the chase to give Lucas footage he could use in editorial. “So before computers, they actually used these little models, and they got approximate camera angles.  So you see the progress from static images to moving images. The downside was that those trees aren’t where the trees are, the bikes aren’t to scale, and the actors can’t be matted into this footage. So it’s a very rough idea of what’s going to happen.”

With 3-D technology, pre-visualization is now much more exacting, with results that more closely align to the finished shots. “It turns animation more into live action,” explained Filoni. He brought up an example shot of the pre-viz system with a layout shot of a scene set in the Jedi Council.

“See those little black boxes there? Those are all cameras. You’re looking at it from sort of a God’s-eye view. So we’ve got the Jedi Council in their chairs. Anakin and Ahsoka in the middle. Before, I would have gone to storyboard each little action by action. Here, what I can do is plan all the blocking of the whole scene. I can float all these cameras in here and cover the entire sequence as it happens.”

“So I can have a wide shot on the entire action, I can have a medium shot on every character, and a close-up shot on every character on the entire scene. Now people often react strangely when I tell them I work in animation and we’re going to shoot a scene. But that’s actually what we do now. We actually don’t storyboard anymore. We plan it out as directors where people are going to move. Sometimes we give thumbnails, but mostly, we get on the set with these digital actors, and we shoot the scene. I’ll have all those shots and coverage for the entire length of the sequence, so when I go work with my editor, Jason Tucker, we can literally sit down and cut in shots as we would live action footage.”

“I really couldn’t believe what I was hearing, so I kind of freaked out a bit when I heard that we weren’t doing storyboards,” said Steward Lee, episodic director. “In my experience I found the fastest and most efficient way to visualize story was to do it with traditional boards. Of course, I love the project so I was willing to take up the challenge of learning these 3-D tools. And it turns out, after I learned the 3-D tools and previzing my sequences and shots, we found out it actually cut down the story process by a couple of weeks. It made it faster in the long run. So it’s more efficient doing it in 3-D story.”

“It lets the artists explore the sets,” said Vince Toscano, season two CG supervisor. “We can explore different staging of our characters. It’s actually quite nice to be able to sit down in the 3-D world  and look around the sets and find interesting compositions and interesting performances that you might not immediately begin with, and just start shooting. It’s all in the computer, and it’s free. There’s no film costs. So we just shoot lots and lots of coverage. So we hand over all that footage to our editors, and say, hey, can you cut this three or four hours down to four or five minutes? Thanks, bye!”

“It’s like playing with G.I.Joes,” says Justin Mettam. “We’ve got Anakin and Obi, and we put them into positions. I come in on a Monday morning, and I know that I’m going to do a lightsaber sequence, so I liaise with Stew, the director, and he gives me some visuals that he wants to see throughout the sequence. Stew is a big fan of Bruce Lee, so we get a lot of great action in there. Stew gives us an idea of things he wants to see. It’s quite exciting as you start to hone things and throw in new ideas.”

“When I first started, at the time, the department was called layout,” said Ben Price, 3-D story artist. “The way it used to work, we would work off storyboards. The storyboard artist would read the script and talk to the director, and board out an action sequence. We would get those boards, and then we would replicate the shot in 3-D. That’s great, and that was fine, and it wasn’t particularly difficult. Halfway through, they mixed it up on us, and we did 3-D story. They took away the boards and gave us scripts! So now you have to start thinking. It just opened up the door creatively. Your options went through the roof.”

“It was terrifying at first, but you stumble across shots just by moving about the 3-D space,” said Mettam. “You’ll be under the AT-TE and get this amazing composition just by orbiting around the 3-D space, you’ll uncover a shot you’d never imagine.”

“When you’re told to come onto a project named Star Wars, you immediately feel a huge responsibility. When you’re told you’re going to do this project and you’re going to shoot a bunch of footage, and the guy who’s going to look at it is named George Lucas, you get a little stressed out at first,” said Filoni. ”That was definitely true when we started. We shot a bunch of sequences early on, and George would come in and go over them. It’s a really unique experience in filmmaking. Normally you have a board of people at a big network look at them, and you never really met them, and they give you notes. Here, we’ve got the guy who did Star Wars and THX and American Grafitti. George knows filmmaking, and to be able to learn from him has been a real privilege for all of us.”

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