Special effects in a galaxy far, far away

Alum discusses Lucas' pioneering work in film technology

Friday, October 28, 2005

Michael Rubin ’85 addressed a select audience Thursday afternoon in Salomon 001 as part of a lecture on his new book, “Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution.” The lecture addressed the making of the “Star Wars” series, with a focus on its creator, George Lucas, and went on to discuss the development of digital technology in filmmaking.

Prior to beginning his lecture, Rubin showed a short clip of a long line of couples kissing passionately, which he filmed while on a book tour in New York. He held the audience spellbound from then on.

“There’s something nicely symmetrical about returning to Brown for this talk,” Rubin said a few days before the event. He began the lecture by noting how pleasant it was to “come back into campus buildings and not fall asleep.”

Using slides and excerpts read aloud from his book, Rubin wove a tale of the many visions – technological, creative and aesthetic – that went into creating digital films, and “Star Wars” in particular.

The original “‘Star Wars’ was a really hard film to make,” Rubin said. “I remember the opening shot. That shot had 36 different elements to it, had taken up nine months of work, had cost $1 million, and it still wasn’t working. Lucas was exceptionally unhappy about this.”

Rubin, a former member of the Lucasfilm computer division, provided entertaining accounts of the efforts of the director and members of the “Star Wars” crew to find sounds that could be turned into the language of imaginary characters, showing images of them recording walruses and the sound of a hammer tapping on wire.

“They spent five months looking for the right wire,” Rubin said. He described the arduousness of creating such a futuristic film using plywood sets and old-fashioned optical printers, where images had to be overlapped several times, and when an error was made the process had to be repeated. “‘Star Wars,’ though it’s such an icon, did not move technology forward in any way – it was done using traditional techniques,” Rubin said.

Rubin provided insight into Lucas: “He doesn’t see himself as a writer, or even a director. He is a very good visual storyteller – a craftsman, who likes working on things alone, quietly. And the person who really appreciates the tools of the trade is a craftsman.”

Rubin said Lucas was heavily influenced by the director Francis Ford Coppola, who despised the old Hollywood of “fat, cigar-chomping movie moguls, after whom the studios were named.” Coppola was frustrated that there was no technological innovation in Hollywood, a direct contrast to the “New Wave.” This movement, which was sweeping through Europe at the time, favored the use of handheld cameras and mobile sound recording equipment.

“Coppola wanted to be part of an American New Wave,” Rubin said. “The new technology was incredibly liberating for film.”

Inspired by Coppola’s passion for technology, Lucas set aside $10 million to set up a lab researching computers following the success of his first “Star Wars” film. In this way, “Coppola and Lucas were the architects of the digital revolution,” Rubin said.

Rubin highlighted the contributions of others to this digital revolution. “In the 1960s there was this incredible bunch of people at the University of Utah, who happened to be classmates, and who went on to make Pixar, Adobe and Netscape, among others,” he said. “It was a strange thing, at the time, to wonder whether a computer could draw a picture. There were problems with graphics: it was difficult to render objects, and impossible to create motion blur.”

Rubin showed an early short made by Ed Catmull, president and co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and a graduate of the University of Utah, which depicted a rotating cast of Catmull’s hand. Catmull wrote the algorithm that solved the problem of creating motion blur, as in a flying bee’s wings or a billiard ball moving swiftly across the table. Catmull’s efforts in the fields of computer graphics, video editing and digital audio, coupled with the work of such people as Lucas and Coppola, have led to the creation of digital hardware and software considered standard today.

Rubin answered questions from the audience after his lecture. When asked what he thought of the future of computer-generated imagery, he said, “I think the penchant for photorealistic images will subside. I’m interested in non-photorealist rendering.”

Rubin also said computer graphics are used too much and too often. “That’s the director’s problem: not having the discipline to cut out the big, long, beautiful shots which don’t add to the story. In ‘Star Wars’ the special effects are boom, boom, boom: they’re there, and then they’re gone. The challenge is to make special effects not look like special effects. To use them sparingly, like a touch-up brush.”

Audience reactions to the lecture were positive. “He kept my attention the whole time. I wish he could have gone on longer,” said Rhode Island College student Sara Ozyzewicz.

The lecture was hosted by Vice President for Research Andries van Dam, a professor of computer science known for his work in computer graphics.