At this year’s Star Wars Fan Movie Awards presented by Lucasfilm and Atom at San Diego Comic-Con International, Star Wars: Unlimited Power won the George Lucas Selects Award.
Starwars.com chats with Los Angeles-based filmmaker Eliot Sirota about his award-winning film Star Wars: Unlimited Power.
What prompted you to make a Star Wars fan film? How has George Lucas and his films influenced your work?
Star Wars is what started me on my career path. From the moment I saw it at the tender young age of 5, I knew I wanted to tell stories, create special FX and make movies. So I suppose that’s one of many ways that George Lucas has influenced me! If I were to list all of them, I would have to write a book! The short and sweet version is that he made something no one else had imagined possible at the time and pioneered a whole new way of making movies, television and media. He saw that art and technology were two sides of the same coin and could be used together to create something that transcended both of them. Without “Uncle” George leading the way, many other great movies would never have been possible.
As far as what prompted me to a make a Star Wars film, the original trilogy films are still my all time favorite movies, and what Star Wars fan wouldn’t want to play in and expand on that world? I think I always wanted to make a Star Wars fan film, and maybe even someday have a hand in an actual Lucasfilm Star Wars project!
What is the back story regarding your film?
I had several ideas for what I wanted to explore. The background characters, creatures and vehicles in Star Wars are so amazing, and yet, to a character in the Star Wars universe, they’re just everyday things that are taken for granted. The amazing technology would have to be manufactured and advertised so that the intergalactic consumer could know what products were available and decide what to buy. That led me to the idea of doing a commercial. I just thought it would be funny to see how blue milk or evaporators would be advertised. But far more interesting than those items, to me at least, are droids.
I love the droids in Star Wars. They’re meant to be simple tools, but they all have their own personalities, quirks and even heroic qualities. We spend 6 movies getting to know two droids very well, but what about all the other unmentioned metallic masses? Especially the power droid we’ve all come to affectionately known as Gonk? And a commercial for a brand new power droid would have just been to clean and crisp and I found the idea of a used Gonk commercial particularly funny, like a bad used car commercial.
That’s basically where the idea came from. I suppose I was inspired a bit by Robot Chicken as well because they often explore similar “mundane” and yet hysterical ideas in fantastical worlds, especially Star Wars. Having the droid dance was based on the idea that it would be dancing to “The Power” by SNAP! but as the project moved forward I found it best to go another route.
What are some of the technical aspects of your film? What did you shoot and edit with?
Since the film is entirely computer generated, the technical aspects were just as important as every other aspect of the project. I wanted to push the limits of 3D animation in a fan film and see how far I could get. I had to worry about aspect ratios, frame rates, codecs, rendering times, etc. My initial intent was to make the whole film photo-realistic, but time and rendering constraints made that particularly difficult. The final look is sort of a combination of real and Clone Wars and I’m pretty happy with the way it came out.
Who were all the principle people in helping get the film made? Who would you thank if your film won an Academy Award?
I did a good deal of the work myself, such as modeling the character, set, textures, lighting, rigging, etc, but I turned to my friend Inigo McCaig (son of Iain McCaig), who is a great animator, to put the funk into Gonk’s trunk. He did an amazing job of taking direction, and also gave some clever input which helped steer the development of the dance. My friend Dillon Fleury created the music and sound within a very short time frame and did a wonderful job! Last but certainly not least is Zev Esquenazi (father of Princess Leah) who lent his extraordinary voice over talents to round out the finished product. It was like having my own little guerilla fan film dream team!
I have a list of special thanks in my credits and I would definitely say all of their names at the Academy Awards given the chance (which I hope to have one day)! But most of all I would thank my parents, Teddy and David, who have always encouraged me to follow my dreams and always give their love and support to any endeavor I undertake.
What were some of the challenges and surprises that happened to you as you were writing/directing/filming your movie?
There were quite a few! First there was coming up with the name of the used droid dealership. Originally it was “The Crazy Jawa Used Droid Emporium,” but that didn’t quite have the ring to it that I wanted, so after playing around with the wording I came up with the much more ironic and alliterated “Generous Jawa Droid Emporium.”
Probably the biggest challenge though was dealing with the music. The entire idea was based on the droid dancing, as I said earlier, to “The Power” by SNAP!. The entire short was animated in time to that song and the dance moves were choreographed based on specific music cues. I had gotten in touch with the various people I had to deal with to get the rights, but I learned that getting music rights is one of the hardest parts of any production. Fortunately, my friend Dillon Fleury was available to create an original piece of music that was more of a parody of the original song and still fit with the choreography. Ultimately I’m much happier with his music because Dillon and I got to collaborate together and the whole joke of the short isn’t based on music from early ’90s pop culture.
There were other technical issues to overcome as well, especially when it came to rendering the final images. I used a render farm called Render Rocket, who were great to work with, but for some reason, some of my renders weren’t turning out properly. I tried everything to figure out the problem, and just when I was ready to say “Forget it!” the solution hit me and I was able to move forward. Things vary from computer to computer and basically I had to figure out a way to translate my files to them while taking into account those variations.
Why do you think recognizing fan films is important?
I think one of the things that makes the Star Wars community so strong is the fans. A franchise is only as strong as its fans support for it, and Star Wars fans are the most supportive, loyal, die-hard fans I know of. The fan films are just one of many ways that Lucasfilm has invited the fans to participate in the Star Wars mythos. Recognizing the originality, humor and love that the fan films contain continues to encourage fans to participate even more with Star Wars, and shows that the fans are just as integral part of the Star Wars universe as anyone involved in the making of the original films and the EU.
Do you have aspirations to make films as a career? Or is this simply a labor of love?
Both! I’ve always wanted to work in films as a FX artist, which is what I do, and I would love to delve more into directing. And I see making films as a career a true labor of love and the ultimate collaboration between the arts and technology.
If you could meet George Lucas, what would you say?
I actually met George Lucas a couple months ago at an event and somehow managed to keep my cool. However on the inside I was struggling not to completely geek out! Given the opportunity to actually sit and talk with George at length though, I would want to talk about much more than Star Wars. I’d want to discuss the building blocks of any good story or movie, the philosophy and writings of Joseph Campbell, other ideas he would like to pursue, and maybe pitch him on a few ideas of my own. (hint hint!)
Additional comments about your fan film making experience?
All I can say is that it was an amazing experience and I can’t wait to make my next film, be it Star Wars related or not. I want to encourage anyone with an idea for a fan film to follow it and make it the best they can. I would also like to encourage people to read about Zev, his wife Franni and their daughter Leah. The Star Wars community has really rallied to help them out, and it’s amazing to see complete strangers coming to the aid of one in need. They still need help and all is appreciated. You can learn more at The Princess Leah Diaries. Other than that, I just want to thank everyone who watched my short and hope it put a smile on their faces!
Watch all the fan movie winners here:
Atom: Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge