Yes, those Prequels. What fantastic movies! I’m trying not to bring them up TOO often these days, but every now and then there’s something I feel is worth bringing up. Today, that’s the amount of practical effects stuffed between opening crawl and closing credits of each installment in the Prequel trilogy. Not a comprehensive look, mind you, more like a decent overview.
Really, the methods for creating visual effects don’t matter all that much to the end product. Does Mirrormask, a movie made on the cheap that really looks it, suffer for having sub-par VFX? Nah. But it seems that people have an axe to grind with CG work (despite the great stuff it can turn out), so it’s worth mentioning that the Star Wars Prequels actually contain quite a bit of the other stuff, too.
In the classic Star Wars films, the robots were nearly always played by people in mechanical costumes. While the Prequels obviously use computer graphics to render its autonomous cast, a mostly practical approach was reserved for the more performance-based character of C-3P0… even when he was a mere skeleton.
Admittedly, the puppeteer was taken out of the frame in post, but this is still a largely practical effect, relying on engineering and performance taking place on the day while the cameras rolled.
From a stylistic standpoint, it has the nice effect of separating the unlikely, homemade protocol droid from the “robotic” homogeneity of the battle droids. I could write a whole piece on this, but one of the things Lucas is pretty canny about at times is using digital technology to subconsciously play with our perceptions of characters*.
For all the flack that Lucas tends to get for an alleged over-reliance on digital technology, he knows when a good old-fashioned suit will work, too. I mentioned before that 3PO’s plating had to be CG’d in Attack of the Clones, because the original idea was that he would still be bare-boned when Anakin and Padme arrived. Even in that movie, commonly criticized for its digital Yoda and Clones, there are still characters where the practical approach is the most appropriate, and is utilized.
These movies have become infamous for their pervasive use of greenscreen technology. Aside from the obvious truth that this is just how movies are made these days**, it’s important to note that “greenscreen” doesn’t automatically mean “CGI.” A lot of sets, extensions and general worldbuilding in the Star Wars Prequels were rendered through old-fashioned miniatures.
The Phantom Menace predictably has the highest concentration of miniatures, ranging from the very first thing we see (the ambassador ship the Jedi arrive in), to the command ship, the podrace arena and more.
Attack of the Clones is no slouch in the department, either. Plenty of set extensions were completed through miniatures — like the Jedi library, Yoda’s command center, and parts of the droid and clone factories. Incidentally, this film was nominated for that year’s “Best Models and Miniatures” award by the Visual Effects Society.
Revenge of the Sith was nominated for the same award in its year. The biggest miniature element in that movie is the Mustafar landscape, allegedly coming in at over 30 feet long. This would be used for shots like the ones featuring approaching ships at a couple of key points in the movie. Additionally, a highly-detailed tree fortress model created for the Kashyyyk war sequence, and parts of Upatau’s scenery were also realized through the use of miniatures.
Now, I’m not trying to act like Star Wars was a practical effects showcase. Many of the remaining set extensions, matte paintings, and vehicles were realized through extensive digital technology. The only thing I’m trying to point out here is that Lucas was using his entire toolbox all the way through the production of this trilogy. A lot of people seem to talk about the CGI environs in the Prequels as a symptom of laziness or apathy on the part of… Lucas? Somebody. But a) CG is hard as crap and b) it’s clear from the variety of VFX on hand that the intent was far closer to “whatever it takes to get this onscreen.”
Again, it goes without saying that there’s a substantial amount of digital stunt work in the Star Wars Prequels. Whether it’s freeing up a skydiving Anakin or generating an entire land battle between clones and battle droids, the tech is present throughout.
That should not, however, overshadow the absolutely brilliant stunt work done throughout these three films.
The conversation could begin and end with the show-stopping duel between Darth Maul and the two Jedi in The Phantom Menace. Stunt coordinator Nick Gillard brings a laser-sharp lyricism to the duels, making them as much about the balletic display of skill and character as the simple propulsion of plot and death. It’s really something to watch these three guys going at it. Each has his own style, with Qui-Gon’s somewhat reserved approach contrasting against Obi-Wan’s speed and Maul’s intensity several times throughout the duel.
Attack of the Clones brings us a rather brilliant addition to the Star Wars action palette: an “Indiana Jones” -style fistfight. As cool as it was to watch Obi-Wan dueling against a double-bladed Sith in the previous movie, it’s somehow even cooler to watch him rolling around and kicking Jango Fett in the head. Punches, kicks, headbutts, and rain form a nicely visceral addition to a series largely known for its digital spectacle. Not to mention all the diving out of windows and crawling around bucking speeders and stuff. Hayden Christensen had to really kiss Natalie Portman, too.
Revenge of the Sith upped the ante early on with an Inception-style rotating set used during the battle on Grievous’s ship as it struggles to stay in the Coruscant sky. The duel between Dooku, Anakin, and Obi-Wan is good stuff, too, but the real star of the show here is the climactic Mustafar showdown.
Again, Gillard is brilliant at keeping each character’s fight choreography in his own individual “vocabulary.” Anakin’s physicality is driven by rage; his power compensates for his occasional lack of precision. Obi-Wan, the prototypical Jedi Knight, is faster and less intent on killing his dueling partner. The speed of this duel is particularly vicious at the beginning, and quite frankly it’s hard to imagine how much work it must have taken to get to that point. In my opinion, it totally pays off.
And there’s plenty more left unsaid. I haven’t even talked about some of the more creative practical elements in these movies (like the use of falling salt for the waterfalls in The Phantom Menace).
Yes, Lucas got a real kick out of pushing the boundaries of CG. I’m not going to act like certain moments fell a little flat from time to time (in particular, I think the land battle at the end of The Phantom Menace looks pretty dated now). But it’s important to note that everybody pitched in on these movies. Not just for the sake of the artisans who worked behind the scenes (though they certainly deserve all the accolades we can throw their way), but because the mix proves that the series’ Visual Effects are a choice. There was no “easy way out.”
*This also informs his use of CG for the Clone troopers. They are humans created by artificial means, and the CG plays right into that narrative conceit in a visceral, visual way. And sure, there are times where he uses CG to free up performance in a non-human character (like with Yoda) but it’s clear that there’s a specific intent behind most of these decisions.
**And, truth be told, people have been faking sets and environments since long before they got ahold of computers. They got insanely creative with their use of matte paintings in movies like Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind, too. Not that I like the over-reliance on it these days, but there is an argument to be made that it’s just another tool.