Tuesday 12 July 2011

Creating Yoda Cameo - Old School

           Even when making a film, it can be useful being a historical researcher.  The past has so much to teach.

            When writing our Star Wars spoof, we wanted to have a cameo of Yoda via hologram projection as a Keynote Speaker for this Group Therapy session.   We also knew that we wanted Yoda to be a puppet as he originally was, rather than computer generated animation.   My wife has been a puppeteer and we have a few friends who build puppets.  The tricky part was, as an entry to the Atom Film Star Wars Movie Challenge, anything 'Star Wars'-related appearing in the film had to be officially licensed by Lucasfilm. We did have Han Solo's blaster, a Lucasfilm licensed  toy, originally bright red so that no one is fooled into thinking it's a real laser blaster... my wife painted it to look like the blaster in the film.  Likewise, the lightsaber handles were licensed toys that were modified for sword-fight choreography. Yoda was more of a challenge. We ordered a couple of different licensed Yoda puppets from e-bay. While we were waiting for them to arrive, we picked up a Yoda mask from a local costume store. Did a few camera tests with the mask...  it so didn't work.  Not at all.

            One of the puppets that arrived was ugly but could be workable. The problem was that his 'hair' was moulded rubber, as were his clothes. With the help of Meghan Sullivan, a colleague I had worked with on a few films, we created new 'clothes' for Yoda, added crepe hair and modified it so that the mouth would move. It became a decent working puppet, just much smaller than Frank Oz's original. We hoped the holograph effect would hide any flaws.

            Then came the challenge of how to do the hologram effect. I already had a friend and great visual effects artist, Paul Stodolny, doing the lightsaber effects. He did an amazing job,  taking the edited footage and adding each glowing light beam ... frame by frame. (Think about that for a moment. There are 30 frames per second.)  Everyone involved in the project donated their time for free, so there's only so much I can impose or ask. I went on-line and Googled "Star Wars Hologram projection effect".  I found a link to a 47-page document explaining how to create the illusion in Adobe AfterEffects.  Forty-Seven pages!  It detailed a ridiculously long and  time consuming plan to replicate the hologram illusion. There had to be a better way.  After all they didn't have  AfterEffects... or even computers back in 1976 when they were filming Star Wars. How did they do it then?

            Then I remembered my wife (a huge Star Wars fan) had a book from her childhood that had some 'behind the scenes' info and pictures from the original film. And 'yes' she still had this book. Looking through it I found how the fledgling FX crew that would eventually form Industrial Light & Magic created the holographic effect.

            They filmed Carrie Fisher against a blue screen, then  took that footage and transferred it to video (also a new medium unheard of by many consumers).  They then connected the video player (which in the 70's looked like a reel to reel player) to a TV set and played the footage while filming the TV screen with their movie camera.  As I mentioned above, video plays back at 30fps (frames per second), a film camera shoots at 24fps.  The frame difference causes that horizontal flicker effect that you sometimes see on movies where they didn't sync the playback. Then using optical effects, they super imposed that flickered image of Carrie Fisher into the scene.

            I was using a Panasonic DVX 100 to film my Star Wars spoof and was going to be shooting 24fps, so that it looked less like video. Using the technique from the past we filmed the Yoda puppet on a blue screen and repeated the process as George Lucas' crew did in 1976.  The final result was perfect and took a fraction of the time the Adobe AfterEffects would have taken.  

            A small example of how to learn from history and that some answers can be found in books, not just the internet.

Filming the Yoda puppet for Blasted Behavior.

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