Star Wars Uncut creators wow SXSW with crowdsourcing tales

At the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, the team behind the wildly popular effort to re-imagine George Lucas' all-time classic with hundreds of 15-second community-created scenes delighted their audience with examples of how the crowd helped them win an Emmy.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
With Star Wars Uncut, fans of the George Lucas film could contribute their own 15-second clips to an entirely crowdsourced remake. Star Wars Uncut

AUSTIN, Texas--There's no denying that most of us are "Star Wars" fans, but how many of us ever thought our own work could complement George Lucas' immortal screenplay? For thousands of people, the wonderful Star Wars Uncut project has been the key to pretending, even if for just 15 seconds, that we've got a little Lucas in us.

For those unaware of it, Star Wars Uncut is an ongoing project that tasked fans with re-creating 15-second scenes from the original film in any way they can think of. Fans responded by the thousands, and thanks to a savvy system built by its creators, the best takes on each scene are the ones that have made it into the dynamically constructed new version of the movie.

Yesterday, at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference here, the three lead creators of Star Wars Uncut took the stage before an adoring room and explained, often to raucous laughter, just how they turned to the global community of "Star Wars" fans and created what turned out to be an Emmy-winning and outright terrific new version of the classic 1977 movie.

Watching Star Wars Uncut is about as much fun as one can have at the movies. As part of their presentation, the film's creators showed the first 15 minutes, which are a cacophony of fantastic artistic styles, outrageous takes on the famous "Star Wars" scenes, and side-splitting inside jokes. And all done in a way that's entirely faithful to Lucas' original script. Think R2D2 as a Red Bull can, or the Jawas' transport as a Barbie car. Think beautiful animation, 8bit graphics, babies dressed as Stormtroopers, and much, much more.

But before showing the excerpt from the movie, the team behind it revealed a series of clues that could help anyone, at least anyone with the right kind of media project, figure out how to harness the power of the crowd.

As someone whose profession involves studying the Internet and how and why things become popular, Star Wars Uncut co-creator Jamie Wilkinson said he quickly understood why it had struck such a chord with people all over the world: "My first observation [was] that 'Star Wars' is very popular," Wilkinson said, stating the entirely obvious.

One of the things about that popularity, he continued, is that all manner of "Star Wars" related projects have fed off that success, making it possible, for example, to get "a room full of slave Princess Leias," if that's your cup of tea. Similarly, of course, there's a worldwide network of devotees of the Dark Side known as the 501st Legion, members of which can often be found arriving in full Stormtrooper gear at events of all kinds.

At the same time, Wilkinson said, the rapid advent of crowdsourcing has made it possible for those with infectious ideas to rope in people from all over the world to help out with something. For example, he pointed to 2007's White Glove Tracking, an effort in which tens of thousands of people were willing to help out by isolating "Michael Jackson's white glove in all 10,060 frames of his nationally televised landmark performance of 'Billy Jean.'"

"And so, as we got into this project, and it started to balloon," Wilkinson said, "we were just talking about tapping into the creative drive of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. We were just giving them something to do."

Risk versus reward
For Casey Pugh, the original creator of Star Wars Uncut, a primary thing to consider when imagining a potential crowdsource-based project is the risk versus reward balance. For something like Google's Image Labeler, which tasks two users with adding a tag to a photo and then using their tags for similar photos if both people add the same one--the risk is low, as is the reward. For something like the Netflix Prize, which asked people to create a system for better movie recommendations, the risk is high--in other words, the effort was extremely difficult, but the reward was large: a $1 million prize.

And in most cases, Pugh said, there's a linear relationship between risk and reward, and people's passion for something. But with Star Wars Uncut, he argued, the linear element went out the window: the risk wasn't great, the reward was somewhat substantial, but people's passion for being involved went through the roof.

That, of course, would not be an easy dynamic to reproduce, given that there are few things for which people have more passion than "Star Wars." Perhaps, Pugh suggested with a slide early in the presentation, Jesus may be one of the few things on Earth more popular than "Star Wars."

Winning an Emmy
The final member of the creative team behind Star Wars Uncut to speak was Annelise Pruitt. She explained how she'd come on board with the mandate of rebuilding the project's Web site, in the process making something that could both handle the expectations of thousands of participants, and also their content.

One of the first tasks, she said, was building a system that would allow users to search through all of the hundreds of 15-second long scenes from the original film, as well as the users' submissions of their interpretations of those scenes.

As well, they had to create a pop-up viewer that was findable throughout the site. The result was a tool they called Vader. And then they realized they wanted to incorporate one of the hottest social media elements, badges. The solution there was to give participants a badge for every "Star Wars" character they fit into the scenes they submitted.

"I'd never seen anything like it," Pruitt said. "People from all over the world responded and wanted to be a part of it."

These days, one of the selling points for the Star Wars Uncut project is that it won an Emmy award. But Pruitt explained that the team didn't beat out competition from the producers of "Dexter" and "Glee" for the content itself. Rather, she said, the team was rewarded for the innovative dynamic playback system it built and incorporated into the site.

The idea here was that because users were able to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to any submitted clip, Star Wars Uncut should be able to feature the currently highest-rated version of each 15-second clip in the film, thereby ensuring that it's always the best possible version of itself.

The result is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, as it were. As is the official director's cut of the movie, which is what the 15 minutes the audience was shown was from. Cue the familiar John Williams score, and then the first surprise: The Twitter page for @StarWarsUncut, with "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," being typed into the text box.

Then, the oh-so-familiar "Episode IV" rolling text sequence laying out the context of the "Star Wars" story. I was confused: This was straight from the movie itself. Until the text ended, that is, when the next thing we see is "First!" and a whole series of the kind of comments one would find in a blog comment thread. The audience was already losing it.

Lucasfilm support
As much as I love this project, the first question on my mind was how in the world Wilkinson, Pugh, and Pruitt were able to make Star Wars Uncut without incurring the wrath of Lucasfilm. And when the floor opened for questions, it was clear others were wondering the same thing.

Pugh summed it up succinctly: the project is a nonprofit with no ads. In fact, Pugh said, Lucasfilm was "in love" with Star Wars Uncut and even flew him to headquarters in San Francisco to talk it over. But he also explained that Lucasfilm worried about potential branding issues that might arise with obvious logos in the 15-second clips, such as a soda can. "That was their main concern if we actually started distributing it," he said.

Similarly, Pugh explained that Lucasfilm had no interest in the film being a commercial project, even if it got its share of the profits. That's because, he said, the company is wary of being seen to be making money off the fan community's efforts. Still, he said, Lucasfilm has a long history of working with the makers of fan films.

The Star Wars Uncut project is now about 18 months old, and with an Emmy in the creators' back pockets, one might well ask what they can do to top their initial efforts.

That is, of course, until one remembers that there are five other live-action "Star Wars" movies. Cue The Empire Strikes Back Uncut.