Report from WonderCon 2009: Lucasfilm Presentation (Part I: Celebrating 10 Years of Star Wars Renaissance)

Pablo Hidalgo | February 28, 2009

In the Esplanade ballroom at the Moscone Convention Center South, Star Wars fans gathered for the annual Lucasfilm presentation, hosted by Steve Sansweet. What follows is a partial transcript of the event, divided into three parts. See part two here, and part three here.

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The hour-long presentation began with a viewing of something most people have not seen on a big screen in 10 years: the original teaser trailer for The Phantom Menace. That set the stage for a retrospective of the fan resurgence that accompanied the release of Episode I. With the rise of the Internet and the fan community, a worldwide gathering of Star Wars fans was ready to usher in the return of the saga, proving that Star Wars could indeed last forever.

“It’s been ten years since Star Wars and Star Wars fans blasted back into our galaxy,” said Sansweet, “Where were you in ’99? Maybe you were waiting in line for a few days with a bunch of strangers, some of whom have become lifelong friends. Maybe you were one of the original fans and you first saw Star Wars at one of those grand movie palaces. Or perhaps Star Wars: Episode I was the first Star Wars movie — or the first movie of any kind — that you saw on the big screen.”

Sansweet’s questions were more than rhetorical. As he explained, Lucasfilm has embarked on a “Star Wars stories” project this year to gather first-hand accounts of fans recalling the buzz around ’99 — or from any part of their experience in fandom. Lucasfilm video crews had been scouting WonderCon throughout the weekend, capturing these stories, and paper forms are available for those who would rather tell their tales in long-form. Look for these stories to appear in future conventions or online.

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On the subject of Star Wars fans who have undergone incredible journeys inspired by the saga, Sansweet introduced Academy Award-winning visual effects artist John Knoll, who had his own unique story to tell.

“This was actually a year after the film came out,” recalls Knoll. “In May of 1978, I was 15 years old and living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My dad had a business conference in Anaheim, and he brought my brothers and I along. On a lark, I picked up the phone book and I looked up ‘Industrial Light & Magic,’  and I called and got a hold of Grant McCune, who was head of the Model Shop. I had been experimenting with stop motion animation and I built models and was thinking of maybe going into visual effects as a career. I told him I was a modelmaker and was interested in doing this professionally.”

Knoll never told McCune how old he was at the time (15), and talked his way into the early ILM in the Van Nuys facility, before it had moved to Northern California. “I spent the whole day at ILM. They were working on the original Battlestar Galactica TV show at the time. That was an eye-popping and life-changing experience.”

From that day forward, Knoll shaped his education to land a job in the visual effects industry. After graduation from USC film school, Knoll found his way to ILM as a motion control camera assistant. “I got hired, and that was now 23 years ago.”

Knoll’s involvement with Star Wars is a perfect example of Star Wars fans now making contributions to the saga. From the Special Editions in 1997 to the entire prequel trilogy, Knoll has served a key role as visual effects supervisor, learning from the master himself, George Lucas.

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“George is a fanatic about clarity,” Knoll explains. “When we’re doing any sort of action scene, he’s always very conscious of geography and where characters are and what’s going on, and making sure that’s very clearly communicated. We would go through a lot of effort, both through camera work and lighting and how the characters were posed to try and make that clear. I see the value in that, because now I see a lot of action movies where the style is to cover everything with very long lenses, very tightly framed on fast-moving subjects, that are all just motion blur and you can’t tell what’s going on, and there’s no geography shots, and I miss them. Anything I work on, I try to get that clarity — something that was so paramount to George.”

For budding effects artists looking to follow their passion into the VFX industry, Knoll had some advice. “The best thing is to, essentially, do what I did and get your feet wet,” said Knoll. “Start making images. There are software tools available for any platform that let you make images. From the same commercial tools we use, all the way down to tools that are completely free. There’s really no barrier to entry if you’ve got a computer. The skills that you learn just trying to make a good looking image can be transferred to any application. It’s learning the art to making a good-looking picture.”

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