CELEBRATING FORTY GLORIOUS YEARS OF 'THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK' AT STARWARS.COM

OUT OF HYPERSPACE AND ONTO HOME ENTERTAINMENT FROM MARCH 2020

Friday, 25 September 2020

AN 'EMPIRE' AT 40: THE ATTACK BEGINS!


No longer on the far horizon distance (achieved offscreen by animation), the heavy-duty, heavily-armoured AT-AT Imperial Walkers rain down fire on the brave Rebel positions guarding their key power generator, in this great above image from ILM used in publicity for the film. Note that in the shot, energy blasters have been airbrushed on, whilst the two background Walkers are actually unmoving cardboard cutouts.

Early test reference shot with basic construction Walker models.



Phil Tippett and Jon Berg at stop motion work on the approaching Walkers.

One of the two cardboard cut-out Walkers.


Thursday, 24 September 2020

AN 'EMPIRE' AT 40: FILMING THE WALKERS

Phil Tippett hard at work on moving the Walkers at ILM.

Stop motion filming of the intricately pre-plotted/storyboarded/animatic Battle of Hoth sequence involving the Imperial Walkers models would fully commence at ILM by late 1979, with all the key players of the pioneering team bringing their experience, enthusiasm and long working hours to bear in bringing the spectacular sequence to life within what would be one of the most time consuming effects processes ever. 

Unused test footage of a Walker against blue screen.

The motion animators wear masks to protect them from the chemicals of the baking soda used for the Hoth surface. 

Plotting movement reference for the stop motion animation.






Ultimately, with so much of the second unit live action aerial location footage filmed on Norway location for back plate work abandoned due to inconsistent weather conditions for overlay, new young talent Michael Pangrazio's matte paintings are an excellent substitution, bringing an extra layer of vital believability to the action scenes, as does the work of the rest of the model team- having worked on a snow episode of the original Battlestar Galactica weekly TV series (the two-part Gun on Ice Planet Zero), Lorne Petersen and Steve Gawley’s experiences also prove useful, layering the model surfaces with baking powder snow that looks realistic on camera. 

Two shots of Jon Berg at work. 



With long hours, Phil Tippet would always find a way to break the monotony of filming at ILM.


Wednesday, 23 September 2020

AN 'EMPIRE' AT 40: WHEN 'WALKERS' WALKED...

Reference size/height shots of the all-new AT-AT Walker.

Though Phil Tippett and Jon Berg were always on the cards to be handling some form of stop-motion duties for Star Wars II prior to April 1978 (with their work on the chess sequence for the original Star Wars having been an element of the film that proved very popular with the film going public and impressed Lucas, it was not always set in stone that the Tauntaun/Walker scenes would be achieved via stop-motion, and that other processes for achieving the sequences were being considered. The prior rumours of the time that Lucas had sought out effects legend Ray Harryhausen for the stop motion work of the Walkers battle, however, would actually prove true. Phil Tippett recalled to CINEFEX in 1980: “Lucas approached him about doing some work on it. They went out to lunch and discussed it. Because of their schedules (Harryhausen being in Pre-Production for his upcoming Clash of the Titans, and was already behind schedule anyway), they couldn’t get it together.” 


Dennis Muren continues to CINEFEX: “I believe that the meeting happened in the early part of 1978. Thing is, I don think they ever expected Ray to actually take the job. George and Gary really wanted to meet Ray, and that was sort of a way to do it.” It was when the Empire story/script was being further developed, that the immense duties eventually undertaken by Berg/Tippett in the old style effects format, recommended by Muren, would be given serious consideration and then green lighted. Muren’s first contract work on the nature of the Walker and Tauntaun effects would begin in April 1978, with the earliest meetings with Lucas and Kurtz, followed with discussions that would now include Irvin Kershner in May/June 1978 (of which Tippett and Berg would now be properly, officially brought into the process).

A fallen Walker with an at-arms soldier atop it.
 

With their animation/ stop-motion/effects work on the then upcoming film The Primevals now ground to a halt due to financial problems, talented effects men Ken Ralston, Dave Carson and Tom St. Amand are hired by the Empire ILM team-all three providing critical contributions to the realization of the Walker/ Tauntaun sequences. With the problems of script re-writing and the much later location filmed Finse background plates proving unstable and photographically uneven, which will prove to be difficult for overlaying the effects sequences onto, a massive period of design and engineering work begins from the autumn of 1978 until the summer of 1979. Whilst Muren is in charge of working out the practicality and logistics of the effects filming, the rest of the team are at the drawing boards. 

No longer inside a Bantha costume, Mardji the elephant returns to help ILM.

To work out the movements of the Walkers and how to bring the sequence to life, Stop Motion Animator Jon Berg recalled an early idea to STAR WARS INSIDER in 2000: “I remember somebody had done a sketch on possibly doing the Walkers through some sort of marionette system. We had to figure out, first, how are we going to make these big machines -- just make them -- and then how are we going to make them move?” Motorized Walkers are also an possibility but this is ruled out early on. Berg continues: "I remember saying, 'This thing looks so much like an elephant, why don't we just go out and shoot some film?' It wound up being this whole expedition that went out -- Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett and I, and a whole camera crew. The elephant we used was a sweet Indian elephant named Mardji (who was at Marineland’s AFRICA USA enclosure in San Francisco), and she had a trainer. We shot quite a bit of footage of her walking back and forth, so we could get an idea of the motions an animal that size and configuration goes through in just walking.” Regardless of the elephant, Joe Johnston always thought the Walkers walked in a very cat-like way, recalling in 1980 to CINEFEX that he thought they moved “stiff legged, head down.” Berg would spend three months working out the design and construction of the Walker and working out its final movements. 

The primary motion of the fearsome beasts was refined further within the story. Dennis Muren recalled on the STAR WARS DEFINITIVE EDITION LASERDISC audio commentary in 1993: “Part of the idea behind their slow movement was that they could be overpowered and they would lose. That was part of George's vision on it. They were big, lumbering, you know, obsolete machines that could be overcome by a clever person in the right spot with the right weapon. I think we might have talked about it being an analogy to Vietnam...” Three primary Walker armatures would be built by Tom St. Amand using Berg’s prototype as a model. Berg recalled some of his intricate work to STAR WARS INSIDER in 2000: “One thing I did when I was designing the Walker was to create little squared off pistons in the upper legs and little doohickeys on the inside. So when you did the leg animation these little mechanisms would actually move along with it, and you'd get secondary animation that you wouldn't have to worry about doing yourself. I thought those little fun things going on with the Walker's movement would make it look like something was actually happening mechanically there.” The Walkers stood eighteen-by-twenty inches when completed by the ILM Model Shop, with St. Amand having to custom build each part from scratch, with meticulous painting by Joe Johnston (with additional help from Nilo Rodis-Jamero) brought to the models which added depth and believability to them. 

Adding further believability to the Walker sequences, having worked on a snow episode of the original Battlestar Galactica (the two-parter Gun on Ice Planet Zero), Lorne Petersen and Steve Gawley’s experiences prove useful in using the baking powder snow that will be later used for the stop motion filming. 

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

AN 'EMPIRE' AT 40: FIRST STEPS, BIG STEPS FOR THE 'WALKERS'!

Early development begins for the Walker, with Jon Berg, Phil Tippett and Joe Johnston at ILM.


Returned to ILM via its new locale in San Francisco in December 1978, stop motion animator Jon Berg, seeing production paintings for Empire in Gary Kurtz's office, wonders how they’ll do the upcoming, hugely ambitious snow battle launching the movie. With an early idea of using a marionette system to depict the walking war machines, Phil Tippett and Tom St. Arnaud spend three weeks developing a way to depict the movement that the still-in-flux design of the Imperial AT-AT's will have (Kurtz thinks of them as looking like dogs trotting along rather than the elephant-style creatures they will eventually become). Since the creatures, developed from a tank to a creature-like assault transport by Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie, are depicted as mechanical, and without very much personality, the pair creates a personality-less walk cycle that can be used over and over again with only a few modifications. Dennis Muren, with his background in stop motion animation, decides that this format is indeed going to be the best way forward for their shooting (photographed against blue screen-the plan being that the footage will then be optically composited onto the Norway footage, though this changes to painted backgrounds). 

A test cardboard mock-up for reference.


Ease Owyeung with the early mock-up.


Joe Johnston films test footage of the Walker mock-up.


Frame development for one of the first models. 


Articulation tests begin on the metal framed and jointed model. 


Another scale reference test of one of the mock-up Walkers.




Recalls Muren from an interview with journalist Ron Magid: "It would have been neat (animating the Walkers using motion-control), but I don't know if they ever would have worked. It would've taken forever just to do it, so I introduced stop-motion back into the movie series with the Walkers. That was something the technical group didn't want to do. But stop-motion was tried-and-true and George thought it was a good idea because it made everything look more mechanical, it helped us get the movie done. The tech guys wanted to do it all blue screen, I thought the technology we'd developed for Star Wars should not be applied to those scenes because blue screen doesn't work well in the day-time. So I managed to wrangle it in the other direction, the idea being that looking through the camera we could see what was wrong with the shot, and once it was shot, it was virtually finished." 



The various model parts needed to create the Walker models.


Lucas, feeling that the Walkers mechanical design, with its animal like movements, will have a very ominous effect on screen, is surprised by this old method being resurrected, but Muren knows that the combination is much faster and more economical. Lucas and ILM even early-on invite the legendary master of the process, Ray Harryhausen, to the effects facility and offer him the sequence to realize, but he ultimately proves too busy with commitments on the eventually made Clash of the Titans

For reference purposes, photographing the movement of animals (including horses) is an idea suggested by Jon Berg and Phil Tippet, with Muren and a crew visiting Marine World Africa USA, San Diego and additionally filming Indian elephant Mardji, previously used as a Bantha in Star Wars additional US-based 1977 photography, and capturing her movements on camera  (at the same time, prototype models are also videotaped in order to study their various movement problems) - the animalistic walking of the Walkers working well in later tests.


The 'small' Walker!


The core ILM team responsible for the Walkers onscreen realisation.

Joe Johnston adding finishing details in the ILM model shop.

Jon Berg and Phil Tippett in a special publicity image with their stop motion marvels.

Even with all the pre-planning, however, it would be the finished models themselves (which varied in size from eighteen inches to four-and-a-half feet tall (the latter of which, when photographed, would look fifty foot tall)) that would eventually determine their style of locomotion. 

Monday, 21 September 2020

AN 'EMPIRE' AT 40: EVOLUTION OF A SNOW BATTLE...

The Imperial Walker design takes shape, in this art from Joe Johnston.

A huge snow battle had always been planned from the outset by Lucas and Kurtz to launch the first Star Wars sequel adventure, and a cost-effective idea was formed, whilst the movie was to be shot on location in Norway, in which they could redress and re-condition existing tanks used by the Norwegian army (with ILM set to build some model tanks for long shot background overlay use). In the end, however, Lucas decides to go for something more original and daring effects-wise when Joe Johnston comes up with an intriguing new visual idea. Johnston recalled to The Annotated Screenplays: “George said the Imperial weapons attacking Hoth should look like walking tanks. The intention with the (AT-AT) Walker was to make it more frightening and anthropomorphic so it would look like a big robot. The idea of having a head and shapes that looked like big eyes and a big jaw was really to make it look more frightening.” According to Lucas on the TESB 2004 DVD release audio commentary, “The Walkers, if anything, were inspired by the original novel of The War of the Worlds where the Martians walked on giant spiders that walked on legs. I was trying to come up with a way of making this battle different and unusual without putting tanks and normal military stuff in there... They're tall because I wanted the speeders to fly under them to make a more dynamic kind of battle out of it. And again I was struggling with the fact that in the first film I had this big space battle at the end of the movie but in this movie there wasn't anything like that.” 

Syd Mead's industrial concept that was an inspiration for the Imperial Walkers.

Ralph McQuarrie would add that the look of the Walkers was inspired from Johnston seeing some work from the artist's friend Syd Mead inside a promotional brochure put out in the sixties for U.S. steel-the brochure containing a whole load of full-colour paintings indicating “what steel will be used for in the future”, of which one of the images showed a four-legged walking truck! Johnston takes the image and re-designs it, militarizing it with guns and a separate head. He also uses several Ralph McQuarrie ideas as an added influence in the early stages (before McQuarrie leaves for England to work on other designs/conceptual art for the film). Lucas continues to bring visual ideas to the table before the final design took shape. Joe Johnston recalled to The Annotated Screenplays: "The intention with the walker was to make it more frightening and anthropomorphic so it would look like a big robot. The idea of having a head and shapes that looked like big eyes and a big jaw was really to make it look more frightening." Johnston would create storyboards of action sequences for the snow battle, many of which had to be re-done or were eliminated when the script was going through its revisions. Additionally, if there were ideas/shots Lucas liked that weren’t in the script they would be incorporated into the battle, be they storyboarded or literally on the stop motion model-filming stage. 

Design details for the Rebel Snowspeeder.

The idea of the Rebels using Snowspeeders in the snow battle first appeared in the Second Draft of the script. In that they are described as “more powerful than the ones Luke used on Tatooine. They can go up to sixty or seventy feet in the air and can make banking turns faster than a skyhopper.” Early concept art by Joe Johnston depicted the vehicles as being heavily modified versions of the starfighters seen in the original Star Wars. One was a slimmed down X-wing fighter without wings and with skis mounted on the underside. Another design was a Y-wing reduced to barely more than a flying cockpit. The design direction was ultimately abandoned and the In-com T-47 Snowspeeder became an entirely original creation. 

Ralph McQuarrie early thumbnail for the approved Walker design.


Joe Johnston storyboard idea.


Detailed look at the Walker cockpit. Art by Joe Johnston.

The spring of ‘78 saw Lucas working more intensely with Johnston on storyboards for the Battle of Hoth, often re-doing shots several times in storyboard form, handy for Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan then working on Second and Third Draft scripts. Originally Luke’s speeder was to have crashed far earlier in the battle sequence, and before the death of Rogue Two (later named Zev), but this would be changed for several reasons later on (including reasons of location weather continuity in Post Production at ILM). The sequence would also be broken down into many more visual shots in post editing. The final script designated three Walkers, each involved in specific plot points during the battle, but in the original storyboards the amounts hadn’t been determined. (Later, in the opening wide shot of the film, at least five Walkers appear on the ice ridge at the beginning of the action sequence.) 

Several Joe Johnston size/scale production drawings.


Movement reference ideas.

Luke’s first attack on the Walker would be later modified to include his remark that their armour is 'too strong for blasters'. Additionally, with regards to the other Rebel pilots, there was no Wedge Antilles in Spring 1978- it was a character called 'RJ' (Rogue Junior) instead- the idea of having Wedge back for Star Wars II came from Lucas himself. It also hadn't been decided at that point as to whether the pilots would wear their orange combat spacesuits from Star Wars (later given extra layering by Costume Designer John Mollo) or something new reflecting the environment. Instead, in these early days, Luke and company were artistically rendered with hoods and goggles.