Upcoming "Star Wars" explores new territory

Industrial Light & Magic decides that a computer-generated character should appear in a leading role.

5 min read
Industrial Light & Magic Animation Director Rob Coleman When producer George Lucas sent the digital casting call for his latest epic, "Star Wars: Episode II," Rob Coleman, animation director for Industrial Light & Magic, answered the challenge.

Coleman and his team of 54 animators, which also created more than 60 digital creatures for "Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace," convinced Lucas that a computer-generated (CG) character should do what no CG has yet done: appear as a lead character in a major live-action motion picture release.

Coleman emerged briefly from behind the cloak of supersecrecy that surrounds the "Episode II" production. Coleman and ILM granted CNET Radio Executive Editor Steve Kovsky an interview to promote a rare public appearance Coleman plans to make next week as a benefit for Youth in Arts, a nonprofit organization that promotes visual and performing arts in the area surrounding ILM's headquarters in San Rafael, Calif.

What's the most challenging thing about the new movie? I know you guys play this stuff pretty close to the vest, but tease us a little bit.
Well, to me, I think we're going into a place now where George (Lucas) does believe that our animation team is up to the acting. And I think what you're going to find is that he's going to be relying on some of the CG characters to deliver some very important story points. They are being brought to the forefront. Yeah, we had had a sidekick CG character last time (Jar Jar Binks), and we met a lot of digital characters. But they were there sort of in the wings, and I think what you're going to find is that George is moving them to the forefront.

So it's not just Jar Jar Binks this time; we're going to have some synthetic or CG characters actually playing leading roles?
Yeah. (Laughs.)

You've said in the past that the next big challenge is to make these computer-generated characters "act." How do you do that?
It's a lot of training, a lot of time with my team. I've got a team of very talented animators here, and I'm trying to get it into their heads that they are actors in this movie. You don't get to see them up on the screen, but you get to see a little bit of themselves in the digital character. I spend a lot of time talking about motivation of the character and where's this character been before and what kind of day are they having in the scene to try and bring an extra layer of performance to the characters that the human actors just naturally bring to their acting, to their abilities.

There were years that we were just sort of moving characters around. It was so hard to do that, we weren't able to spend any time (thinking) about what's going on in the character's head. And if you're not thinking about that, then you're not going to be creating a performance that's as believable as what Liam (Neeson)'s bringing to the screen and what Ewan (McGregor)'s bringing to the screen.

Walt Disney did some pioneering work in the two-dimensional animation field by having the animators work directly with the voice talent, with the actors. They've done a wonderful job of bringing those actors out through the characters.
They sure have. Disney was real good at pioneering, actually taking physical tics from the real person, or some of the physicality of the character.

I was just watching the animated version of "Robin Hood" the other day with my son, and Peter Ustinov plays the king. Using Ustinov's voice as the character was brilliant, but also taking some of his mannerisms as well really ties the animated character and the voice that you know together to create a believable performance.

George shoots the voice talents on stage with the live-action characters, and I have access to all that footage so I can see what the character is doing. A specific example is the voice actor who did Watto was a guy named Andy Secombe. What Andy did with his face and what he did with his hands and his body--we really latched onto that and brought that into the performance. I think that's one of the reasons that character works so well.

Taking a look at what goes on behind the scenes at ILM for each new movie, there's usually some new technology that has to be created to surmount some new challenge, and eventually some of that gets handed down to us in the consumer space. What new tools have you been able to add to your toolbox for this new movie?
When we first sat back and looked at "Phantom Menace," and looked at where we can improve, I know that myself and some of the supervisors felt that the clothing we were doing on "Phantom Menace" was good, but it needed to be better. So we've been making a concerted effort to make the clothing better. I'm already incredibly impressed with what the research and development team's been able to come up with in the interim. I think our clothing is way better than it was last time, and I was very happy with it last time. I think there's also a certain amount of effort going in to making the believability of the skin, the photo-realism in the skin--spending a lot more time on that and creating new paint packages that can handle that, new clothing simulation packages, new hair generation packages. All those things are being spiffed up for this next movie.

This talk that you're going to give March 21 is a benefit for kids. There's so much gloom and doom in the market these days, is there really a big future for them in working with computers and combining artistic ability with computers?
I think there's a huge future for kids that are interested in these things...When I was young, I was inspired by artists that had come before me, certain work and certain animators. I'm hoping that presentations like the one I'm going to give are going to spark that enthusiasm in a young person...who may think that computers are only for math geniuses and for real "techno people."

What I'm hoping to focus on is the artistry of it. The computer is just another tool that we use. People say it's just another pencil or another pen, but it truly allows you to create worlds and characters that can either be from galaxies far, far away, or from closer to home.

You can create little films now with fairly reasonably priced software and hardware in your own basement. I hope I can inspire people--as I was inspired to do little Super 8 movies back in the early '70s when I was doing films--to make them now on their computers, and upload them to the Net, and send them to people like me...and maybe do this for a living later on.