Van Ling - Star Wars Trilogy DVDs

SW Swamp - Created by SW SwampFor the navigation system of the "Star Wars" Classic Trilogy on DVD, disc producer and menu designer/creator Van Ling and his digital artists used Electric Image to create key elements and animations to bring new perspectives and movement to the multitude of menu environments representing that galaxy far, far away.

Although Ling and lead digital artist Johnathan Banta —veteran EIAS users for many years — used EIAS on the Mac to create DVD menu environments for Episodes I and II of the "Star Wars" saga (and for other notable DVDs such as "The Abyss" Special Edition, "Independence Day", and "Terminator 2"), the Trilogy presented a more daunting task, apart from its tighter schedule. Ling's menu style involves creating menu environments that immerse the viewer in the world and spirit of the film, with re-creations of classic scenes and set pieces; yet even with films whose production design assets might exist in some digital form, the process often requires the creation of entirely new material that happens to look exactly like the original scenes, albeit with additional action, movement and angles not seen in the films themselves.

SW Projected 2 - Created by SW Projected 2Both Ling and Banta used their experience in feature film visual effects —and the horsepower of EIAS and Adobe After Effects— to match the look of Industrial Light and Magic's work on the original films while custom-tailoring the imagery and action for DVD menu use. Compounding the challenge was Ling’s established pattern on the previous "Star Wars" DVDs of having three different and randomized menu sets, based on the three major planetary locations for each film. This meant designing and creating a total of nine menu sets for the three movies in the Trilogy set, with each menu set consisting of two dozen animated menus and a dozen animated transitions that move seamlessly from one to another. An additional menu set based on spaceship locales was also created for the Bonus Disc, involving a dozen more animations. With ten different language versions of the menus needed for the worldwide release, Ling and his team had to generate over a quarter million frames of animation —nearly four solid hours of animated menus at 960x540 resolution, with up to twenty minutes of menu animation on any given disc— in about four to six months.

SW Moves - Created by SW MovesOne of the primary challenges to creating menus for the Trilogy was that originals existed entirely on film rather than on computer; virtually none of the existing material was available in any digital form, with the exception of some older EI spaceship models created by John Knoll and some game-level OBJ models from LucasArts' game division. Moreover, the selected environments in the films themselves existed in quick cuts with fast camera moves that were not suitable for DVD menus which had to hold a composition and play in 20-second loops. In order to achieve the exact look of the scenes in the film, yet with custom camera moves and durations for DVD, Ling and Banta utilized both EIAS's 3D capabilities and its projection mapping features to essentially create new, alternate coverage of the scenes and planetary locations seen in the films, often bringing motion to what were originally static matte paintings.

SW Projected - Created by SW ProjectedLing designed each of the menus for Lucasfilm approval by first selecting key scenes and environments and then working with Banta to create conceptual animations for each screen using video footage of the movies and rough EI moves. Once a concept was approved, high-definition footage and reference photos were obtained from Lucasfilm's archives for use in recreating the scenes. Since most of the menu work had to be created before the new transfers and digital restoration of the films themselves were completed, Ling's team had to do their own custom cleanup and degraining passes on the original high-definition transfer footage supplied for menu use. Once cleaned up and stabilized, the footage formed the basis of all menus, whether as background elements, 3D environments, source maps, or design reference. Elements were isolated, painstakingly rotoscoped and tracked from the available footage and stills to be used both for texture- and projection-mapping in EIAS and for 3D multi-planing in After Effects. The following examples show how EIAS was used to tackle some of the complex menu environments for the DVD.

For a menu placed just outside Yoda's house on Dagobah, Ling and Banta took two existing locked-off shots from "The Empire Strikes Back" —one wide and one medium angle, both involving water, rain and smoke— and created a seamless 3D camera move from one to the other. Using stabilized high-definition transfer footage and reference set photos, Banta built simple (and sometimes not-so-simple) 3D geometries using Form•Z and Amorphium to represent the various elements in the scene: gnarled trees and roots, Yoda's hut, Artoo-Detoo and the various swamp and puddle areas. He then projected the two hero lock-off shots onto the geometry, one from the starting camera position and one from the ending position. Viewing the entire move from one angle to the other revealed which areas would need to be detailed with further projection maps. Heavy rain, splashing puddle water and smoke elements were then either extracted from the live plates or generated digitally for the final composite.

SW Cat Walk - Created by SW Cat WalkFor another "Empire" menu featuring Luke and Vader's light saber duel on a Bespin Cloud City catwalk, two matte paintings from the film were bridged together into a continuous 3D environment using a similar technique to the Dagobah swamp scenes, but the Cloud City reactor vane set piece required both more detail and 3D perspective movement than projection mapping alone could provide. Working from set blueprints and reference photos, Banta was able to recreate the set piece as 3D geometry to match the original set. The biggest challenge was that the final two lock off positions seen in the film —which were the starting and ending compositions for the menu animation— were matte paintings that had not only taken liberties with the original set geometry for the sake of artistic license, but also been done with two disparate lenses; as a result, there was no way to animate the focal length during the move without creating noticeable and unacceptable image distortion to the set pieces. The solution was to distort the actual set piece geometry during the camera move so that the alignment of the 3D geometry matched the matte painting compositions on either end of the shot. Seen from an off-axis camera, the set piece appears to skew significantly during the move, but from the main camera looks completely natural due to the severity of the camera move and focal length shift. The moving character action at the head of the shot was then projected on flat cards in the 3D scene, while the main looping duel action was built and composited in After Effects by Ling, as were the falling sparks and debris during the move.

SW Asteroids - Created by SW AsteroidsFor the Bonus Disc's main menu, which starts with a wide tracking shot in the middle of "Empire’s asteroid field chase and ends in a view from the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, Ling and digital artist Barry Berman created a seamless and dynamic animation by creating both 3D elements and camera moves in EIAS on the PC and bringing them into After Effects on the Mac to build a dense and complex composite. Starting with a rough animatic created by Ling in EIAS, Berman animated the full-resolution Falcon and TIE fighter EIAS models provided by John Knoll along the necessary paths, ending inside the 3D cockpit that had been modeled and projection-mapped with interior detail. The asteroids themselves were 3D geometries built in EI Modeler and Amorphium with AG shaders (programmed by Banta) and a few texture maps using astronomical NASA data. Only four of the asteroids themselves —the ones that collided with the TIE fighters— were part of the 3D animated scene; the rest were rendered out as flat elements —sixteen different rock shapes animated in four different rotational movements each— to be built into the After Effects composite. Once the camera move was locked, the camera animation data was ported via custom scripts written by Berman to After Effects, where Ling was then able to build the rest of the shot —including explosions, interactive lighting and shadows—using a combination of 2D and 3D layers in conjunction with the hero ship elements created by Berman in EIAS.

SW Briefing - Created by SW BriefingThe translation of EIAS camera data to After Effects proved a key collaborative technique that allowed the ability to move the camera freely in a 3D environment while also utilizing rotoscoped film footage for character movements and detail; for example, the Bonus Discs's Documentary menu, set in the "Jedi" Rebel Briefing Room, started from a single set reference photo, in which all of the seated and standing characters were painted out by artist Jason Hill. This "clean" image was then projected onto a 3D set built from scratch in EI Modeler from set reference photos and blueprints, animated and rendered in EIAS, and then populated with rotoscoped characters from the film footage using 3D layers in After Effects that were aligned to the rendered set via the translated EIAS camera data. For other menus, 3D spaceship elements were generated in EIAS as simple turntable rotations, which were then brought into After Effects and composited into 3D camera moves — a technique Ling and Banta first used on the "Attack of the Clones" DVD.

SW Hangar - Created by SW HangarStill other menus involved full 3D build-outs in EI, such as the Yavin Rebel Hangar set, which was composed, animated and rendered by digital artists David Allen and Johnathan Banta and then filled with John Knoll's X-Wing and Y-Wing fighter models. For the Videogames and Still Galleries Menu on the Bonus Disc, Banta used EI to track and animate a pair of textured 3D legs onto a waist-up film shot of Han Solo as he walks into a projection-mapped hold area of the Millennium Falcon.

From the Carbon Freeze Chamber on Bespin and the ice caves on Hoth to the tractor beam chasm aboard the Death Star and the forest battles on Endor, Ling and his team created a seamless blend of 3D and 2D elements, combining the features of The Electric Image Animation System and Adobe After Effects in both dimensions to transport viewers into the "Star Wars" universe.

Article and menu graphics Van Ling Productions. All imagery courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.
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