Homegrown Star Wars, with big-screen magic intact

New technology is giving online fan films like "Star Wars: Revelations" the ability to rival professional productions.

Tech Culture
Three years ago, graphic artist Shane Felux came home with a digital camera newly purchased on eBay and gave his wife Dawn a deadline: three months to write a 40-minute Star Wars script, and then lights, camera, action.

Now, countless volunteer hours and $20,000 in maxed-out credit cards later, comes the release of "Star Wars: Revelations," one of the most ambitious amateur films based on George Lucas' science fiction universe ever made.

With its audience primed by anticipation for the new Star Wars film slated for release May 19, the film is sweeping the Net as fast as any X-wing.

News.context

What's new:
New technology is giving online fan films like "Star Wars: Revelations" the ability to rival professional productions.

Bottom line:
This community of fan creators is increasingly the subject of study by academics--not to mention marketing departments--seeking clues to tomorrow's trends.

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Clocking in at more than 40 minutes, with high-quality special effects and production that falls just short of professional, "Revelations" is surely destined to be a landmark in "fan films," a genre of amateur filmmaking growing in sophistication with each new generation of digital tools. And if "Revelations" acting isn't quite on a par with Laurence Olivier, well, just remember that Jar-Jar Binks wasn't exactly an Academy Awards nominee, either.

"We always wanted to do this, but there was never a point where we could say there was enough time or money," said Felux, a 33-year-old former professional actor, who studied filmmaking in college. "Eventually we just came to a decision where we said there is never going to be enough time or money for a film. So we did it."

Like many amateur filmmakers, Felux ultimately hopes Hollywood, or even Lucas himself, is watching. But he's part of a broader online culture in which big-screen commercial works are grist for a small-screen creative mill, and the onetime audience is taking over the tools of production.

Indeed, this community of fan creators is increasingly the subject of study by academics--not to mention marketing departments--seeking clues to tomorrow's trends.

Fans have been producing their own versions of works for years. A stroll through Google's Usenet archives or Fanfiction.net quickly turns up tens of thousands of X-Files, Star Wars, and Star Trek stories, ranging in tone from the tenderly respectful to the profoundly obscene.

Lucas' universe has been a favorite for amateur filmmakers and parodists since 1977's "Hardware Wars," with flying toasters and deadly waffle irons. Modern fan productions took off with 1997's "Troops," a spoof of the "Cops" TV show starring storm troopers on patrol.

Lucasfilm has a strong reputation online for quashing any potential moneymaking productions that use the Star Wars name or material over the years, ranging from blocking an experimental theater group in Seattle from performing a live re-dubbing of one of the movies last year, to a flurry of cease-and-desist letters sent over the years to Web sites using Star Wars themes in their domain names.

But as long as a film is noncommercial and not obscene, the company says it is all in favor of fan productions. Lucas himself is even judging a competition, sponsored by Atom Films, for the best Star Wars-themed fan productions, with results to be released Friday at the Celebration III fan conference.

"We are very supportive of Star Wars fan films at Lucasfilm," said Lynn Fox, the company's director of domestic publicity. "We think it's a great way to celebrate the saga."

Distributed filmmaking, online and on location
Most fan productions don't come anywhere near the technical ambition of Felux's work, which aims to explain how Jedi Knights vanished between the as-yet-unreleased third movie and the fourth, original Star Wars film.

Without a budget--and with a full-time job--Felux largely tapped friends and former acting colleagues for his cast. For crew members and equipment, he contacted his local film commission for names, and then cold-called potential volunteers. He bartered Web and graphic design skills in return for time and access to sound equipment, and got virtually everything he needed.

Want more Star Wars fan films? Check out:

"Troops" (1997)

"Anakin Dynamite" (2005)

"Sith Apprentice" (2005)

And the immortal:

"Star Asciimation Wars" (ongoing)

The team filmed on location over the course of two years of weekends. Two of his actors drove four hours each way from New Jersey for every shoot, he said. As he accumulated raw footage, he began taking it to the Net for animation and post-production work.

The most striking thing in watching the film is its technical competence. The computer graphics are easily as good as most TV science fiction programs, with complex spaceship battles and cinematic camera work. The sound is crisp and unmistakably Star Wars. The soundtrack is wholly engrossing.

Most of this work was done by an ever-changing roster of 30 to 40 volunteers online, drawn from around the world, most of whom Felux had never met until the first real-world screening of the movie in Baltimore last week. The soundtrack was written from scratch by a British composer sounding very much like John Williams.

The result is a product of astonishingly high technical quality, which has even been reviewed by major newspapers. This puts it at the high end of a stream of productions that have grown ever more sophisticated with the help of digital video cameras, computer graphics and high-powered home processors.

At the extreme other end of the fan film spectrum, though no less obsessively ambitious, remains "Star Asciimation Wars," an ongoing project aimed at re-creating the entire original Star Wars film using the #, @, and %'s of ASCII animation to illustrate the various characters and scenes. Now nearly eight years into the project, animator Simon Jansen says on his Web site that he's not sure he'll ever finish.

"Don't hold your breath waiting," he advises in an FAQ on his site. "You have to be very bored to do something like this."

Modern folk art
Academics say that this tradition of fan production is as old as filmmaking itself, although it has taken different forms as technology and social conditions have evolved.

Ithaca College film professor Patricia Zimmerman, who has written extensively on amateur film production, likened fan films to folk art. Modern consumers are constantly surrounded by media, and naturally draw from those images and stories for their own production, she said.

"This is part of a long tradition of American cultural practice, about always being in dialog with mass culture."
--Patricia Zimmerman, film professor, Ithaca College

"This is part of a long tradition of American cultural practice, about always being in dialog with mass culture," said Zimmerman, noting that even avant-garde filmmakers have often performed homage to directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, or to B-genres like horror films in their work.

But unlike the products of some underground film communities, fan films (barring plots based on gender and sexual-role switching) are rarely socially or even commercially subversive, she noted. Instead, they serve as homage to characters and creations genuinely loved by the amateur filmmakers.

That's certainly true for Felux, and for most of the spoof filmmakers that Lucas will be judging at Atom Films. "Revelations" is a tribute, not an attack, and Felux said he felt that at no time more than at last week's Baltimore big-screen premiere, attended by more than 900 people from around the world.

"It was a dream come true," Felux said. "I got to see myself and my project up on the big screen, which is what I'd wanted since I was a kid. And it was Star Wars."

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